In 2007, race profiteer “Reverend” Jesse Jackson criticized presidential hopeful Senator Obama for “acting like he’s white”.
One of those rare times when I applaud President Obama’s statement. From last Monday, speaking at a town hall event at Howard University on his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative (apparently does not involve any new federal spending), Jonathan Capehart of WaPo writes:
In the panoply of insults African Americans hurl at each other, there are two that are meant to stunt the viewpoints and ambitions of their victims. One is being called an “Uncle Tom.” We covered this ground back in May when I urged folks to stop smacking Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with the epithet. The other is being accused of “acting white.” And I was thrilled to see President Obama brazenly broach it yesterday at the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) town hall yesterday.
Obama got into it via a question from a Native American young man who wanted to know what the federal government was doing to help his people “revitalize their language and culture.” The president responded, “The Bible says without vision a people will perish. And what happens when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don’t have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations is you start feeling adrift. And if you’re living in a society that devalues that, then you start maybe devaluing yourself and internalizing some of those doubts.” He talked about how America was great at taking people from different cultures and making one unifying culture out of it. But he also said, “There’s no contradiction between knowing your culture, the traditional cultures out of which your families come, but also being part of the larger culture.” It was here that Obama willingly waded into “acting white.”
And I think that one of the things — this is true not just for Native Americans, but it’s also true for African Americans. Sometimes African Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of “acting white” — which sometimes is overstated, but there’s an element of truth to it, where, okay, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go. Because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African American men to be authentic.
“Acting white” and its ugly cousin “not black enough” are noxious putdowns meant to foment a sense of betrayal. Those who employ it believe their targets are so ashamed of being black that they value things considered the provenance of white people to be superior to all others. President Obama, football player Robert Griffin III (RGIII) and just about every African American you know or are acquainted with has been insulted in this manner. I had one well-meaning acquaintance say to me, “You’re the whitest black man I know.” As if the act of learning, speaking proper English, properly wearing pants or not having a clue about rap or basketball (just to name a few) makes one less black or not black at all. As if the pursuit of excellence and success is not within the African American spirit.
Conservative writer Crystal Wright on CNN:
Obama said that it is important for Americans to know their roots and where they come from, but not be held hostage by our cultures from advancing in life.
Then, Obama got real. He talked about how black Americans use this “group think” psychology to bully other blacks, keep them from expressing themselves as individuals and stop them from assimilating into the broader culture of America.
“Sometimes African-Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of ‘acting white’ — which sometimes is overstated,” he told the group. “But there’s an element of truth to it, where, OK, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go. There are many different ways for African-American men to be authentic.”
He went on to use his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, as an example.
“If you look at Michelle, she grew up South Side. And her mom still lives in a neighborhood where gunshots go off, and it can be rough where Michelle grew up. But she’ll talk proper when she needs to. Now, you also don’t want to get on her wrong side, because she can translate that into a different vernacular. But my point is, is that you don’t have to act a certain way to be authentic.”
I rolled my eyes in disgust, remembering all the times in my life that phrase has been hurled at me from other blacks.
Growing up, I wasn’t raised in a home where we “talked or acted black” — speaking broken English, neck jerking and behaving like the black stereotypes we see in some of the Tyler Perry movies. So, I was shocked to encounter such nonsense when I attended Georgetown University as an undergraduate.
Most of the black students — who generally all hung out in the same pack, eating, studying and socializing exclusively together — informed me I was an “Uncle Tom,” not really black because I chose to have an integrated experience at Georgetown.
One of the biggest sins I committed was refusing to eat at the all-black cafeteria tables in the various dorms. I would wonder, if you only want to socialize with black students, then why not just attend a predominantly black college?
My freshman year, I went to a dance with a white guy from my class. When he came by my dorm room to pick me up, two black girls from across the hall stared and snickered, uttering something along the lines that I wanted to be white so bad.
The next day the same girls heckled me again about my date. Tired of dealing with their stupidity, I walked over and told them I would continue to do whatever I wanted. Instead of being so concerned with my life and who I was dating, they should be concerned with their own.
I have never been counseled on how to act black. And I never will.
From a blogpost I had written concerning my own background:
Multiculturalists would tell the four year-old boy in the photo that he was being white-washed. They would tell the 40 year old blogger hammering this post out on his keyboard, that he is a twinkie: White on the inside, yellow on the out. If I were black, maybe I’d be an Uncle Tom and a sellout. I spent 6 years of my college time living with two of my teammates, who were brothers. They also happened to be middle-class black, from Alburqurque. One day, a student asked Greg, the younger brother, if he had been to any ASU meetings, lately. He replied that, “Yeah, we’ve been out there; we compete there sometimes.” (My roommates and I were on the gymnastics team- the older brother, Chainey, eventually making the ’96 U.S. Olympic Team). The guy who asked Greg the question just shook his head and thought my roommate was so out of touch because Greg thought he meant had he been to Arizona State University; but what he really was asking is, had Greg attended any African Student Union group meetings.
UCLA is heralded as diverse and multicultural. That might be. But rather than a melting pot, half of what I saw were self-segregationists. On my way to class, down Bruin Walk, I could see the Chinese Student Union members mingling at the steps of Kerkhoff Hall; on the other side, ASU members hung out together. I attended one Pilipino student group meeting, and found myself turned off by the rhetoric of activism, which had an “Us vs. Them” mentality of persecution. I, as a non-Filipino, felt alienated because I didn’t identify myself through my skin-color. They didn’t know this, and probably thought I fit right in, due to my shared Malay heritage.
Thank you President Obama for speaking to this point; thank you in this instance for being the American president and not the African-American president.