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 from Black and white folks alike. It can sound like, “I can tell you had a good upbringing” or “You’re so articulate.”
But the people accused of “acting white” have never concerned me, perhaps because I’ve been on the sticky side of that label. Instead, I store my concern for people who “react white.” If “acting white” is a way of being, then “reacting white” is a way of responding to human beings. One is a way of existing; the other is a way of resisting. People can have all the Black-approved characteristics possible and still “react white.”
What is “reacting white”? For one, it’s adhering to respectability politics that blames and shames people without critiquing the underlying structures and systems that have contributed to their circumstances. For another, it’s passing judgments based on colorism, in-group empathy gaps, and unconscious biases that prefer white Americans.
In her 2019 book Thick: And Other Essays, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom writes that “whiteness is a response to Blackness.” With every advancement in society by people marginalized by racism, a racist reaction follows. Throughout history, whiteness has been clutching its handbag, exacting force, and taking flight.
Even in the present, whiteness has been passing legislation and interpreting the Constitution in its favor. Whiteness has been rolling back and gutting protections and rigging elections — all as reactions against people outside its politicized racial group. In policies, politics, and inside interpersonal relationships, white reactions can undo progress, create delays, and cause direct and indirect harms.
Using the phrase “acting white” to describe the way someone carries themselves is a phony and petty charge, and we should distinguish the two as starkly as we can. “Acting white” is a theory; “white reactions” are tangible.
Black America encompasses every possible way of being. Blackness is complex, evolving, expansive, relative, and subjective. Its progression has several objectives. One of them is to end white supremacy. With that aim, when people attack someone they think “acts white,” their attacks are unnecessary friendly fire.
The people accused of “acting white” aren’t always the enemy; it’s those “reacting white” who pose a real danger.
Wait before you throw the book. Take a closer look.