Acting White

“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.” — State Senator Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address

Joseph Phillips’ Voice

Joseph C. Phillips is a good man and a friend who is a Hollywood actor and entrepreneur. He’s long suffered prejudice in that community. Not so much from the fact that he’s black per se, but that he doesn’t sound “authentically” black. In other words, he doesn’t sound like a street thug, which is what those in Hollywood (white and black) expect of him. This experience became a book: He Talk Like a White Boy. Worth reading; it is a collection of many thoughtful essays on being black in America, and many other topics besides. He continues his writing, his entrepreneurial career, and his thoughtful expositi0ns on his website.


In the book Please Stop Helping Us, author Jason Riley laments the current welfare state and its support of the rise of black street culture as the exclusive representation of black youth. Reminiscent of Joseph, he tells a story of his young nieces, who hadn’t seen him in a while: “Why you sound white? You trying to sound smart?” they accused. He has much to say about education, and that culture, and how to use one to get out of the other. It requires removing the stigma associated with not using black street talk and “being real” in the “cool pose.”

That stigma, going by the general name of “acting white” (instead of, say, acting mainstream American), has been written about at length. The Washington Post had an article about it several years ago, for which they were attacked of course:

[E]very couple of years, it seems, we ask ourselves: Is hip-hop poisonous? Is it misogynistic, violent and nihilistic? What kind of message is it sending? But what critics consistently fail to emphasize in these sporadic storms of opprobrium, as most did during the Imus affair, is that the stakes transcend hip-hop: Black culture itself is in trouble.

Born in the projects of the South Bronx, tweaked to its gangsta form in the ‘hoods of South Central Los Angeles and dumbed down unconscionably in the ghettos of the “Dirty South” (the original Confederate states, minus Missouri and Kentucky), there are no two ways about it — hip-hop culture is not black culture, it’s black street culture. Despite 40 years of progress since the civil rights movement, in the hip-hop era — from the late 1970s onward — black America, uniquely, began receiving its values, aesthetic sensibility and self-image almost entirely from the street up.

This is a major departure for blacks, who traditionally saw cultivation as a key to equality. Think of the days when W.E.B. Du Bois “[sat] with Shakespeare” and moved “arm in arm with Balzac”; or when Ralph Ellison waxed universal and spoke of the need “to extend one’s humanity and one’s knowledge of human life.”

It goes on, describing the peculiar and unfortunate effect called “longing for the mud” and discussing some research on the topic.

Some Research on the Costs of Acting White

One of those bits of research is available as a free PDF file here:

In this paper, we focus on a highly controversial and well-publicized aspect of black peer interaction — the existence of a peer externality commonly referred to as ‘acting white.’2 ‘Acting white’ describes a set of social interactions in which some minorities incur costs for investing in behaviors characteristic of whites (e.g., raising their hand in class, making good grades, or having an interest in ballet).3 A primary obstacle to the study of ‘acting white’ has been the lack of quantitative measures of the phenomenon. We focus on racial differences in the relationship between social status and academic achievement: our (albeit, narrow) definition of ‘acting white’.

It is interesting and immensely sad; peers exact a penalty for exhibiting a potential for traditional success, in a way that does not translate to any other group. And this is supported by the federal government, a point not addressed to any extent in that paper.

Black Media Forum

I am reminded of the Black Media Forum’s four-hour presentation on C-SPAN in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While the ostensible purpose was to complain about newspaper accounts of blacks looting in New Orleans (with one photo caption from a French agency under particular fire), their real message was different. In essence, it boiled down to this quote from the proceedings:

If you are successful, you’ve sold out to the White Man. If you’re not, you’re for sale.

Over and over, using many approaches, these well-dressed black speakers told their audience how bad it is to be successful in White America. I wrote about this, and the somewhat infamous conclusion, late in the meeting, that blacks must rise up and “exterminate the white man from the planet.” I did a follow up here, as the mainstream media, finally forced to report on this, tried to downplay it — and lied.

I still have the original four-hour C-SPAN recording on my system.

Being Successful is Still Bad

This drumbeat of “being successful is bad” is not a new thing; it was a key message of Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright, and it was part of speeches by boxer Mohammad Ali since he joined the Nation of Islam and cast off his “slave name” Cassius Marcellus Clay in the late 1960s. By 1971, Ali was vowing never to take another white man’s dollar. Later, he modified this stand, while declaring all whites his enemy: “The only thing white about money is the paper.”

This was a difficult time for blacks in America — but 2005 is not the same as the 1960s, and the “don’t be successful” mantra coupled with white-guilt-driven welfare has congealed into a culture that has re-enslaved American blacks — to everyone’s shame.

==============/ Keith DeHavelle