I’ve been reading the excellent How to Be Black by Barantunde Thurston, a witty and insightful breakdown of the black experience and navigating childhood and adolescence in suburban Washington, D.C. Essays satirizing befriending African-Americans and realizing when one understood that being black came as a result of a negative experience underscore the mythical essence of blackness.
I grew up black (medical advances help me to cope) in suburban Chicago. I was typically the only black kid in my classes, and I did not encounter many other kids of my race beyond family gatherings. This changed around fifth grade, as kids from Chicago slowly migrated to the suburb of Woodridge. They and I quickly learned that I was not considered one of them, and that was as soon as I opened my mouth.
From then on, I was ostracized for how I talked, accused of wanting to be white because I didn’t use slang or communicate my thoughts in a way that blended in with theirs. I felt ashamed for the longest time as a result, uncomfortable around the company of those migrating from Chicago or suburban kids playing up their so-called blackness. Their ignorance pushed me away, further creating the chasm between the “black kid wanting to be white” because they could not accept me for who I was. I felt a stronger connection with the black students that grew up in the suburbs as a result, as they had experiences similar to mine. But we all struggled.
There is an amendment of blackness that states that a true black person speaks in a way that is unique to the race. This includes using African American Vernacular English (once known by the colorfully racist term “ebonics”), tied to dialects from southern upbringing (i.e. slavery) that have their own pronunciations, verb tenses and vocabulary.
Going against the grain of this is a big no-no in not only the black community, and it is a pox cast upon these rogues by other races as well. This poxening, called “talking white,” is usually done via verbal dressing-down with terms such as Uncle Tom, House Nigger, sellout, bougie, Oreo or whatever other derogatory term used to degrade a black person. No matter the ethnicity of the critic, these culture warriors are using their limited worldviews to suppress the individuality of others to conform to their idea of what a black person should be.
My mom told me a DELIGHTFUL anecdote about my childhood, where my grandmother commented to her about me and my brother “talking white.” My grandmother, a strong woman born and raised in Arkansas, found our speech patterns odd. Her observation was off-putting when listening to it second-hand, and I’m sure that it was awkward when my mom was on the receiving end of it. There was no reason for my grandma to say this, and I assume that she did as a way to comment on her and my father’s parenting. (She wanted us to live in the city at one point.)
Chicago Sun-Times writer John Fountain had a more pointed experience when an old friend called out his diction and use of English on a voicemail as sounding “like a white boy” and that he had “changed.” The friend (obviously a charming individual) wanted to shame the writer, who he saw as less than black because he no longer spoke in the way that was of comfort to that limited viewpoint, that was considered black.
There is a common thread between this example and the others I have experienced and heard about over the years. These types of judgments come about when one is threatened by something that is not familiar. And perhaps using such criticism is a way of intimidation against what they do not understand. Fountain delivered an excellent editorial on the subject of African-Americans and its handling of intelligence in the culture, and there are many parallels to the use of intimidation in the presence of the unknown. Everything from homophobia to good-old fashioned misogyny stems from a lack of comprehension of and limited experience involving people unlike the observer. Smart kids are bullied by less-than-intelligent bullies. Men and women have homophobic epithets yelled at them by knuckle-dragging assholes that may be wrestling with their own sexuality. They’re more related than dissimilar.
If it is not already clear, I am not excusing these people for their ignorance; in fact, I am condemning them for it. I’ll keep it hundred: if you make fun of someone for being smart, your lack of intelligence reflects poorly on you; if you call someone “fag” or consider something “gay,” your lack of insight into your use of words is more damning than your limited brain functions. And saying that someone “talks white” is your own racism, ignorance and fears of your own inferiority as a person, your narrow cultural view trapping you in a hate-filled, self-loathing life.
Whether you say it in jest to a friend or family member, you’re revealing yourself as an ineffectual human being, unable to accept people with experiences unique to your own. And really, you should look at yourself in the mirror: does raining down your judgement on someone else make you feel better about yourself? If it does, you’re a waste of human life; if it doesn’t, you’re still a waste of human life. And yes, you can change, gain more life experiences and improve your life view for the better, and that’s great and everything. But when it comes after you make someone feel inferior because of your words, shaming them into being lesser than you because they don’t conform to your limiting compartmentalization of them, making them less a human and more a caricature of a person, you should fuck off. Or least apologize.
Blackness is an evolving state of being, and like every other aspect of life, progress comes from an enlightened viewpoint. Life is awful enough without having those close to you (in your community, among your friends or family) being taken down a peg because you can’t comprehend someone that doesn’t walk, talk and act exactly like you. Get off your high horse and get out among other people before you spout off uninformed life lessons. Get your head out of your ass, adapt to the variety in the world, and stop degrading your fellow human beings, for fuck’s sake.