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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.

He writes:

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.

Perhaps.

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.

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  • MimiLuvs

    Fortunately for me, as a little girl, I held a heavy sense of positive self-esteem. So, when it came to that “talking like a white girl” accusation, I wasn’t making any attempts to hear that sh*t. When a fellow classmate/playground mate would say this statement to me, I would’ve said either a witty comeback or I would’ve used that moment to show them their follies.

  • Ugghh! I can so relate to this article. I had serious flashbacks of middle and high school. I grew up in the most diverse town in the state. My best friend was black, but I had many close friends who were from all races. My second best friend was white. I got called the Oreo, certain black girls didn’t like me because of it. I still get mocked for talking ‘white’ to this day (but it’s funny because around white people I think I talk too ‘black’ lol).
    I remember asking one of my black friends why she didn’t take an honors course with me as we planned to and she said there was no black people in those classes. I was in disbelief because this girl was so bright. In another honors class, a black girl dropped out and went a level below to a standard class of the same subject just so she can be with her friends. Again, disbeleif.
    My first semester of high school I was placed in standard courses. A few white people asked why I wasn’t in honors courses. Like they knew I didn’t belong where I was. I fought with my counselor to place me in honors courses the next semester. Luckily, my best friend and I were both studious, ambitious and took multiple honors and high honor courses where yes, we and one or two others were the only black ones. Our little black studious click was pretty strong. We were black, dressed fly as all hell, but were smart. I couldn’t imagine if I didn’t have that support.

    Being from suburbia, you would think more black kids were beyond the ignorance beliefs as stated in this article, but they are not. Many black kids still think it’s unblack to talk with proper diction (which I preach constantly to my little cousins) and would rather be with friends than take advanced courses.
    Black parents: WHY AREN’T YOUR KIDS TAKING HIGHER LEVEL COURSES? Just one or two courses a year. Push them. I read an article stating that despite economic background, black children still perform at the same levels and take the same course levels. This needs to change.

  • Ang28

    Oprah said it best,”We associate Blackness with the lowest common demominator.If being well read and speaking proper English makes you white what are you really saying about what it means to be Black?”

  • kiki jones

    hmmm…I’m of two minds. While I grew up being mildly teased for ‘talking proper’ I still see a difference between speaking English properly and taking on the whiny, high-pitched sound and colloquialisms of white people (e.g. “like, o-m-g”). I kinda hate when those who use ebonics AND those who have that whiny suburban vocal tone equate ‘just speaking proper English’ with sounding *exactly* like a white person.

    Oprah and Pres. Obama are two very eloquent people who do not have that “banana-in-the-tailpipe” vocal quality.

  • Mary Burrell

    @Ang28: That is a great quote by Oprah Winfrey. It sums up what this whole post is about. We in the black community need to “elevate” not settle for the lowest common denominator.