How does someone act Black?
The first time I asked myself that question, I had just been told that I was “acting white” because I read comic books and listened to Jazz rather than playing football and listening to rap like the rest of my Black peers.
The idea of “acting white” has plenty of colloquial synonyms, “Oreo” being one of them. White on the inside, Black on the outside. I spent a lot of my childhood wondering: If I was acting white, what did it mean to “act Black?” Skin color does not inherently influence how someone acts. It is a physical characteristic like any other. What does it mean, for example, to act tall?
Yet, many African-American youth do assign meaning to Blackness. Some only want to receive social approval from their peers while others desire to be a valid and confirmed “Black person.” These perceptions are confirmed by a study conducted in 2004 by Sonja Peterson-Lewis and Lisa M. Bratton.
The study, which was a reaction to the “acting white” slur, examined how Black youth view the phrase “acting Black.” In almost every case, the study uncovered negative actions associated with “acting Black.” In terms of academics, Black youth associated “acting Black” with actions like skipping class, not completing school assignments, and being “street smart” rather than “school smart.” Acting white, conversely, meant getting good grades.
A 2013 study by researchers from Howard University found that Black middle school students considered striving to get good grades to be “acting white.” That study also found that students believed being intelligent or acting like a “nerd and/or geek” was “acting white” while living in a bad neighborhood or having a “ghetto mentality” were traits associated with “acting Black.”
While there are many factors at play that may be causing a disparity, the negative attitudes about education appear to be reflected in schooling data. Black students have lower average GPAs than white students. Black students are also more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to go to college than white students — both of which are decisions that can dramatically affect their future earning potential.
In terms of behavior, which may explain the academic distinctions, most of the respondents of Peterson-Lewis and Bratton’s study associated “acting Black” behaviorally to speaking broken English, like ebonics or general slang. These perceptions were directly associated with Black youth possessing a lower view of themselves and their intellectual capabilities.
Acting Black, based on this study’s findings, is nothing more than a race towards mediocrity. There is an expectation among Black youth that these bad behaviors are the only way to be fully Black. President Barack Obama even said there was an “element of truth” to this mindset. In 2014, he reflected on the culture of “acting white,” saying, “If boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly?”
We need a cultural shift in how Black youth see themselves, and that can only happen when they embrace their individualities. As Obama said in 2014, “Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a Black youth with a book is acting white.”
Black people are not a monolith, contrary to woke sensibilities. Yes, there are Black athletes and rappers, but there are also Black poets and politicians and physicians.
So no, I will not act Black. I will not partake in the racist lie that skin color denotes particular actions. I will not demean and disrespect myself by holding myself to a low standard. And I will not sacrifice my quality of life to fit in. Instead of “acting Black,” Black youth ought to take advice from Booker T. Washington, the epitome of Black excellence: “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”
We must reject the notion that any behavior is a behavior exclusive to a racial group. We must do more to lift the stories of Black people of all backgrounds to show younger students that there is no way to “act Black” or to “act white.” There are only personal decisions each of them must make to live the most fulfilling life they can — no matter if they love rap or jazz.
As Walt Whitman mentioned in “Song of Myself,” we all contain multitudes. And those multitudes are much greater than what “acting Black” can account for. The prerequisite for fulfillment is self-respect, and that action is impossible when weighed against “acting Black.” We must reject the idea that destructive habits, like slacking off at school, are part of “acting Black.” They are not. This mindset is harmful and we must condemn it forcefully.
By rejecting the idea of “acting Black,” African-American youth can begin to take responsibility for their own lives. There is simply no other pathway for success.
Christian Watson is a spokesman for Color Us United, and the host of Pensive Politics with Christian Watson. Follow him on Twitter at @officialcwatson.