When I was a kid, I couldn’t outrun the accusations that I “acted white.” My denials didn’t deter my relatives and classmates, and neither did anything I said about rubber and glue. Meanwhile, my parents tried to tell me everything about me was okay and not to worry about what anyone said.
But my school-aged peers and some of my relatives had harsher words for me. Uncle Tom. Oreo. Carlton Banks. Thankfully, Black-ish and Uncle Ruckus weren’t around back then; otherwise, I’m sure 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 as a Black Kid felt like their 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 beyond your skin, hair, and clothes.”
It didn’t help my case that I was a WWJD Christian, that I played a greaser in the high school musical Grease, and that I actually had a black-and-white cocker spaniel I named Oreo. And then there was the school cafeteria, the litmus test that became the last nail in my coffin. I didn’t always sit at the Black table because I often sat with the students in my classes. My peers heckled my Blackness like I was bombing at the Apollo. I’m healed now, but it hurt then. Looking back, I couldn’t change the way I acted because I was a child of my environment. (I wasn’t alone; in her book Eloquent Rage, scholar and Black feminist Brittney Cooper writes that even her Black classmates said she “acted white.”)
Blackness is complex, evolving, expansive, relative, and subjective.
The judgment that someone “acts white” is a verdict against a person—deeming their mannerisms, voice, or interests break the preconceived rules of race. But these insults aren’t limited to schoolchildren and unspoken rules of the cafeteria. Even as adults, accusations of “acting white” still pop up in politics, the workplace, and relationships. If a person doesn’t want to say that someone “acts white,” they have coded and roundabout ways to land a point on their target. And sometimes the dig masquerades as a compliment…