There’s a Difference Between ‘Acting White’ and Reacting White
We should be clear about which is an issue
When I was a kid, I couldn’t outrun the accusations that I “act white” from my relatives and other students. My nanny-nanny-boo-boo comebacks didn’t deter them, and neither did anything I said about rubber and glue. My parents tried to tell me everything about me was okay, and not to worry what the other kids said.
But my classmates, and even some of my relatives, had other words for me — Uncle Tom, Oreo, and Carlton Banks. Thankfully, Black-ish and Uncle Ruckus weren’t around; otherwise, they would’ve been on the list of ways to pick on the Sam that I am.
The charges filed against me in the Court of Juvenile Life were a way of saying, “you don’t talk like us, you don’t walk like us, and there’s nothing about you that’s like us, besides your skin, hair, and clothes.”
I’m healed now, but it hurt then. I couldn’t change the way I acted. I was a child of my environment. As the scholar and psychologist Beverly Tatum writes in her book about racial identity development, “We all speak the language of the streets we live on.”
The judgment that someone “acts white” is a verdict against a person’s mannerisms, their voice, and their personal interests that blend, bend, and break the rules of race. In her book Eloquent Rage, Brittney Cooper, a scholar and a Black Feminist, writes that her Black classmates said she acted white.
Those accusations aren’t limited to school children. Magical thinking by adults can lead them to imagine and pretend they’ve outgrown those childish phases and those churlish phrases. However, not every grown person has had a growth spurt on this subject.
Even as adults, those thoughts and phrases still pop up in politics, in the workplace, and within interpersonal relationships. If a person doesn’t want to say explicitly that someone acts white, then they have coded and roundabout ways to land their point on a target. And sometimes a statement about someone acting white masquerades as a compliment.
People who supposedly act white have never concerned me; perhaps because I’ve been on the sticky side of that label. Instead, I store and pour my concern for people who react white.
There can be a difference between acting white and reacting white. If acting white is a way of being, then reacting white is a way of responding to beings. One is temperament; the other is temperamental. One is mood; the other is moody. One is a way of existing; the other is a way of resisting.
People can have all the approved credentials and access passes to their color group — as people who don’t act white — and they can still react white.
The politics of respectability that blames and shames people without critiquing the structures and systems in society — can be a white reaction.
Colorism, in-group empathy gaps, and unconscious biases that prefer Euro-Americans — can be white reactions.
When we spot anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist, transphobic, or xenophobic views and expressions in marginalized people — they can be white reactions. As bell hooks shows in one of her essays about anti-Semitism in the Black community, people replicate the culture of the dominator.
Much more than a way of acting, whiteness is a way of reacting.
Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote in an essay that “whiteness is a response to Blackness.”
As a political identity, whiteness is a controlling and reactionary disposition of superiority. The historian Carol Anderson makes that case in her book White Rage. With every advancement in society by people marginalized by racism, a racist reaction follows.
Throughout history, and up to the present, whiteness has been clutching its handbag; whiteness has been exacting force; whiteness has been taking flight; whiteness has been passing legislation; whiteness has been interpreting the constitution in its favor; whiteness has been rolling back and gutting protections, and whiteness has been rigging elections — all as reactions against people outside its politicized color group.
In policies, politics, and inside interpersonal relationships, white reactions can undo progress, create delays, and cause direct and indirect harms.
In contrast, the phrase “acting white” to describe the way someone carries themselves, can be a phony and petty charge while white reactions rage. We should consistently distinguish the two when we can separate them. White reactions are tangible, but acting white can be a theory.
I don’t have an issue saying there’s a recognizable way of being Black in America. I have an issue when people don’t recognize that every way of being is in Black America. Blackness as a social construction is under construction. Blackness is complex, evolving, expansive, relative, subjective.
As a political identity, Blackness has several objectives. One of them is to end white supremacy. With that aim, when people attack someone they think “acts white,” their attacks can misfire and turn into friendly fire.
The people accused by others of “acting white,” aren’t always the enemy. It’s reacting white that causes enmity.