When Black People Are Bullied For Acting ‘Too White’
As a black woman living in the South with a white husband, I’ve had my share of racially fraught experiences. I’ve gone to a country club with my spouse and been stared down by everyone there. I’ve dealt with weird questions from strangers in the grocery store implying we shouldn’t be together.
But, as uneasy as I feel about these encounters with suspicious white folks, they don’t make me as uncomfortable as whenever I meet eyes with a person of color. In passing, I may be greeted with silence and a smile or nod. But everything changes when I start speaking. Then, those phrases I’ve heard since middle school bubble back up from my memory: “You are the whitest black girl I’ve ever met.” “You’re a sellout.” “You act like you want to be white. You’re not black.”
I had one main bully in grade school who used this kind of rhetoric, and my black classmates — kids who considered me a friend — contributed to the problem by never standing up for me. I’m not sure if they even realized what was happening.
The pressure to be “black enough” is hardly limited to my own experiences; it’s a persistent force in our culture. Recently, at the White House Correspondents dinner, for instance, President Obama joked about this dynamic when he said, “I did have lunch with the Queen . . . played several rounds of golf and hit the links with David Cameron. In case anyone is still debating whether I’m black enough, I think that settles the debate.”
Intraracial bullying is, of course, tied directly to the racism experienced by black people historically — and because it is so fraught, it can be difficult to talk about. But ultimately, it needs to be discussed, complications and all.
To that end, I spoke with two people who have experienced intraracial bullying and spoken out about it. Their perspectives are shared here as a way to prompt a much-needed dialogue.
Why Are You Acting White?
Matthew Clark III, a 26‐year‐old Austin, Texas musician, created the song “Acting White,” based on his experience with intraracial bullying he endured as a child. We chatted over the phone about growing up.
Clark was a suburban kid who dug polos and Linkin Park. To him, this didn’t make him any less black. But his bullies disagreed. “You think you’re better than us?” they would ask when they caught him reading. “What the fuck is this? Put that book down.”
With frustration tinged with bemusement, he recalled one of those books being the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.
“(My mom) raised me to have a firm grasp on my roots and my ancestry, but if I try to emulate that, I’m considered as white.” Clark said he was taught to look up to black scholars and was confused by the hate from other blacks.
For a time during his adolescence, Clark gave in, and started acting the way he thought his tormentors expected. “I felt like I couldn’t be myself,” he said. He moved away from his love for education and involved himself with a different crowd. He began using drugs and getting into trouble with the law.
Now, the musician has matured and been through a period of self‐discovery to overcome the bullying he endured. He created an album “that was diverse in nature” but still has mainstream appeal. He’s a college graduate and has a young son, whom he’s been gradually introducing to matters of race. He recently took him to a #BlackLivesMatter protest after a naked, unarmed 17‐year‐old was killed in Austin.
“I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a judge,” Clark said. “I do my best to educate people on the law. I’m a musician. That’s where I can make the strongest impact.”
He hopes to end the stereotypes that causes strife within communities of people of color, including Asian-Americans or people of Hispanic ethnicity.
This kind of conflict “holds us back physically and spiritually,” he said. Clark hopes his single and upcoming album will help to “uplift the black community, instead of tear it down.”
You’re Too Dark
Kids who “act white” aren’t the only targets of intraracial bullying. Author and high school educator Carolyn Strong spoke with me over the phone about her experience being bullied for having dark skin and natural hair. Strong is dedicated to changing the way black girls treat each other and ending intraracial bullying.
Strong said that black women encounter racism coming and going: from outside the community, and from inside. “You get the systematic, typical racial discrimination, racial bias, racial prejudice,” she said. “Then as a dark‐skinned, natural‐haired woman I’m getting the intraracial bullying where you’ve already decided what it is that I am, who it is that I am, or what is it that I’m about based on my skin tone and the fact that I used to wear my hair natural.”
“And then you find out that I have a Northwestern University degree and I’m working on a doctorate. Immediately you flip the script and I’m acting white. So which one is it? Am I too black or am I too white? You’ve got to pick one. Pick a box please.”
As the dean of students for a Chicago high school, Strong understands the dynamic relationships and issues of today’s youth. Her book Black Girl Blues and website BulliesStink.com talks about the varying factors that play into bullying. She hopes parents and teachers of middle and high schoolers can use the book to bring attention to the issue and stop it.
Her book sheds light on what it means to be a black woman, featuring 12 activities that focus on appreciating one’s self and letting go of the negativity from bullying.
“The reason why I wrote the book in the first place is because we’ve got to start somewhere,” Strong said. “And the activities in the book are designed to promote a sense of self that says ‘To hell with what mainstream America says.’”
While causes like For Harriet and Black Girls Rock are helping adult black women to empower each other, Strong says she’s chosen to focus on younger girls. It’s important, she said, to help girls understand each other and themselves, before “they internalize this stuff and then turn around and do the same thing to their children.”
“I was fortunate and resilient enough to withstand that and not come out on the other side and allow it to dictate what I do,” she said. “I know some people were not fortunate enough to say ‘Hey, I’m not going to let this define me.’ Have I had my issues? Absolutely. Did I suffer with issues with self esteem? Of course I did. But the question is: How do you deal with that? And the way I dealt with it was to write a book and travel the country telling other people how to stop this from being perpetuated in the girls under their care.”
Intraracial bullying may be rooted in the racism we’ve experienced and internalized, but that’s no excuse to berate each other into falling in line with stereotypes. There is no one “type” of black person, and no one deserves to be put in simple, blunt boxes.