I grew up in Silver Spring, MD, a suburb of Washington, D.C. While my neighborhood was relatively diverse, I spent my childhood in the gifted and talented classes and so I was usually one of a handful of Black children in a sea of white kids. At 8 years old, I didn’t think anything of it. Everything outside of school: church, Girl Scouts, dance classes, was done in Washington, D.C., with other Black children. School was school, but when I was with Black folks, I felt like that was my real life.
Sometime in middle school, I had my first real boy crush and we were on the phone (remember how you could spend hours on the phone with someone? But I digress) and he said, “why do you sound like a white girl?” He lived in D.C. and this is when Chocolate City was still Chocolate City. We came from two different worlds. And I was apparently living in one where I didn’t even know I sounded like a white girl. I didn’t even know what that meant. I just talked how I talked. “I don’t know,” I responded. Then for the next few months I had this weird fear and paranoia about sounding like a white girl and what that meant to other people.
Now, thankfully I was never teased about “acting white” in the sense that my intelligence and the fact that I did my homework and got good grades meant that I was trying to be white. Maybe it’s because I rolled with a crew of smart Black girls and we all supported one another and I’m just going to say it plainly: we weren’t squares. I do remember in middle school, the only Black boy in the magnet program being teased for “being white” and feeling ostracized and depressed. These are personal anecdotes, but they are not rare. This idea that Black people are teased for sounding and acting white has been purported and perpetuated for several years.
At Slate, Jamelle Bouie explores in his article, “Talking white: Black people’s disdain for ‘proper English’ and academic achievement is a myth” whether Black folks really, “stigmatize academic achievement and code it as white,” as the popular narrative suggests.
In the last 10 years, however, new research has challenged the “acting white” theory. In a 2005 paper, sociologists Karolyn Tyson, William Darity Jr., and Domini Castellino found “that black adolescents are generally achievement oriented and that racialized peer pressure against high academic achievement is not prevalent in all schools.”
According to their research—drawn from interviews with students across eight North Carolina schools—racialized stigma against high achievement exists. But it requires specific circumstances, namely, predominantly white schools where few blacks attend advanced classes. There, black and white students hold racialized perceptions of educational achievement, and black students are often isolated by stigma from both groups. As one school counselor notes:
They did not like being in honors courses because often they were the only ones. … Also, some of the kids felt that if they were in these honors classes, that there appears, the black kids look at them as if they were acting white, not recognizing that you could be smart and black. A lot of white kids look at them, basically, “You’re not supposed to be smart and black, so why are you here?”
Bouie is clear that he doesn’t want to make it seem like racialized ridiculing doesn’t happen. He admits to experiencing it, but he emphasizes that it isn’t a feature of Black culture. “Rather, it arises from a mix of factors, from social status to the composition of the school itself. As the sociologists note in their conclusion, stigmatization for whites and blacks seemed to come from the “perception that the low-status student was attempting to assume the characteristic of the ‘other,’ especially an air of superiority or arrogance.”
At the crux of Bouie’s article is his challenge of this video uploaded to the website LiveLeak last Friday where a young Black woman says, “There is no such thing as ‘talking white,’ … it’s actually called ‘speaking fluently,’ speaking your language correctly. I don’t know why we’ve gotten to a place where as a culture—as a race—if you sound as though you have more than a fifth-grade education, it’s a bad thing.” Bouie suggests that maybe this woman has been mocked not because she speaks proper English, but because she’s unable to code switch and use informal language in an informal situation.
Anyone who has had to endure criticism for “talking white”, “sounding white”, “acting white” has their own personal experience and everyone’s is different and as research suggests there are varying factors: race, class, neighborhood, environment, that come into play and the reasons behind these taunts. But you don’t know that when you’re going through it. When you’re picked on or called out, what is the most true out of all the research suggested is that you feel like the other. It’s a difficult and uncomfortable situation, especially for children and adolescents, when you are trying to fit it and trying to find your place. And don’t be that Black person who talks white and also does “white people things”, you might not make it of high school in one sane piece.
Years later and I’m a grown woman who still gets told from time to time that I “sound like a white girl.” It comes in handy for phone interviews and making calls to the cable company, but it can be a pain to still have to press against this idea, this notion of how Black folks are supposed to act and sound. Oftentimes these same Black people who say I sound white are surprised when they learn that I am down with this or that aspect of “Blackness”. It’s a funny exchange, a lesson not to assume. I try to defy stereotypes everyday, even the ones that come from people who look like me.
Diana Veiga is a Spelman woman, a DC resident, and a freelance writer. Of course, she’s also on Twitter.