photo: iStock, Marissa Pina, Vivala

Before Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, there were some who accused the soon-to-be leader of acting and talking white. Even though he is of mixed heritage – his mother was white and his father was a Kenyan immigrant – some chose to call his “Blackness” into account because of the way presented himself. In his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the then Senator said, “Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”

It’s a term that most of us have had experienced with – “acting white” – if not because we ourselves were accused of it, then because one of our peers was reminded of the ways he or she was stepping out of their race. Even shows like Black’ish, which features an upper middle class African-American family that wonders if their affluence has made them forget their roots, perpetuate this idea that success comes with distancing yourself from your heritage, intentionally or not. And there are some in our midst who will be quick to check you when you’re getting too uppity for their liking.

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The phrase first came into popularity after a 1986 research paper, titled “Black students school success: Coping with the ‘burden of acting white’” published by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu, concluded that Black teens have developed a fear of being seen as white by their peers. Because of the slave history endured by the African-American community, anything with ties to Caucasian culture, such as proper school, speech, and dress, is to be devalued and seen as reminders of masters lording over their slaves. And because of the cultural ties between African-American and Latino communities, Hispanic children have also come to view intellectual success as something to downplay.

So what does it mean to be “acting white?” Typically it refers to members of minority communities who are high achievers in school or in their careers, like to use the English language properly, and dress or look a certain way. The major effects on the bullied include a tendency to dumb down their intelligence when in front of their peers so that they don’t get teased, which can then lead to poorer grades just to fit in with the cooler crowd. Self-esteem issues can sometimes arise because who wants to be shunned by their own culture? 

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Mia A., who is of Black, Cherokee, Blackfoot, and Mexican descent, said her upbringing affected how included she felt in school. “My mother believed in teaching us the standard King's English so I acted and spoke properly, and still can't speak much Spanish,” she said. “It was interesting growing up in Atlanta because I was considered to be too white for the Black folks and not Anglo enough in appearance to fit in with the Puerto Rican and Mexican girls who wore their hair in sleek, long ponytails. I couldn't listen to enough mariachi, attend my friend's quince, or mumble broken Spanglish enough for them to not act so surprised when I sat at their lunch table.”

Her taste in music – punk and rock – and inability to dance well or enjoy enchiladas were points her peers used to call her inner ethnicity into question, as if our preferences were any indication of how much we value our heritage.

Negative nicknames like “Oreo” are quick ways to remind someone that their behavior is contradicting certain stereotypes, something that is all too familiar to Chery F.

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“I spoke grammatically correct English and never knew the meanings of slang words - there was no Urban Dictionary back then,” she said to explain why other kids would compare her to the popular chocolate cookie sandwich filled with white creme. On the flipside, white students who showed an interest in Black culture were called “inside out Oreo.” Even though she attended a gifted school that encouraged scholastic achievement among all its students, Chery was still teased for supposedly pretending to be something she wasn’t.

“As a Hispanic girl of color, African-American girls said that I denied being Black because of the way I spoke,” she added. “I wasn't in denial of being Black. I was just not African-American, but they insisted I was because I was one of two dark-skinned Hispanics in my school.”

But it’s also interesting to note the disparity between the types of environments that cultivate this mentality. In a 2006 research paper titled “Acting White,” Harvard University economics professor Roland G. Fryer discovered that this mentality happens more often in racially integrated environments and less often in segregated institutions where there is no “us versus them” mentality. In a subsequent paper published in 2009, Fryer and another Harvard professor also reported that the effects of being told you’re “acting white” intensified for those with grade point averages of 3.5 and above and “is concentrated in low-income minority schools.”

This idea that seeking higher intellectual pursuits means you’re turning your back on your culture needs to stop. How else will we improve our communities if we clip the wings of those who wish to fly? If we were so proud to finally have a Black president in office, then why would we tease those who are hoping to one day fill his shoes? Comments that insinuate that someone is “selling out” or forgetting where they come from are a few of the ways that we’re ensuring the bar remains low. Is it better then to ignore grammar and only listen to reggaeton? If this is your personal style then great, but this shouldn’t be used to judge those who have different preferences. There’s no right way to be Latina just as there’s no right way to be any other race on the planet.