My twelve-year-old self sat in the children’s section of the public library, leisurely reading a book. There were four or so comfy chairs in this far right corner of the room. Several feet in front of me were a few computer stations with the awesome chairs you could spin around in, and far off to my left was the desk for the children’s librarian.
As I read, I noticed the jagged squeak of rain-soaked shoes and the swish of students in raincoats approaching. By the sounds of their rough, giggly, hushed voices, the familiar fruity fragrance of hair oil and the toxic, sassy scent of hair spray, I could tell it was two black girls — girls I knew. One of them was Jasmine, a chunky girl with coarse, short French braids whose family attended the same church as mine. The other girl was Jada, a twiggy girl with a weave down to her butt whose older sister used to be friends with mine.
They loudly seated themselves at the computer stations, thumping their textbooks down on the tables, dropping their backpacks to the floor, and scraping the chairs against the computer towers as they pulled them out. They remained engaged in whatever conversation they were having.
One of my classmates, Stephanie, joined me, turning off her iPod and pulling the earbuds from her ears. “Hey!” she greeted me as she plopped down in the chair next to mine.
“Just procrastinating on doing all of the English homework we gotta do, and waiting for my mom.”
“What do you think of the substitute teacher for Mrs. V?” Mrs. V was our math teacher, currently on maternity leave.
“She’s alright. Not much of a teacher, though. I mean, I guess everybody likes her
because she gives the assignment and just allows people to spend class time however they want.”
“I know,” Stephanie said, and went on and on.
Jasmine and Jada turned their chairs and joined in the conversation, discussing homework and gossiping about our teachers and classmates. I withdrew. I was tired and just wanted to go home and take a nap. It was four o’clock, and it would be another hour before my dad arrived to pick me up.
Stephanie’s cell vibrated. “Oh, I gotta go, you guys. See ya.”
“Bye,” Jasmine and Jada said, one after the other.
“Later,” I said.
The moment Stephanie was out of earshot, they pounced. “Why you talk like that?” Jada asked me.
“Why I talk like what?”
“All proper to her,” Jasmine said.
“What’s wrong wit’ dat?”
“You talk like a white girl,” Jada stated flatly. “An’ you wear yo’ hair like one. You be listenin’ to dat white music, too.”
“An’ you be ackin’ white in class,” Jasmine added.
“Ackin’ white? What the hell is ‘at?”
But I already knew what they meant. I raised my hand before speaking; I didn’t simply blurt out responses. Rather than using “Black English,” I spoke “properly” to the teacher or in front of the class. I used free time during class to study and get work done, instead of socializing and goofing off. I didn’t wait till the due date to turn in assignments or turn them in only partially-completed, as many of my classmates did. I handed in assignments ahead of time. I always volunteered to read aloud.
Those behaviors constituted “acting white.” It was showing off. It was choosing school over mingling with my black friends. It was portraying myself as “better” and “more intelligent” than them. It was a sign of arrogance. And the fact that I liked rock music more than hip-hop and rap, and preferred to wear my hair straight, rather than braided or in a fro, didn’t help my case. It said I wanted to be "them” – that I thought white people were better than we were.
I didn’t need to justify myself to these girls. They wouldn’t understand. They weren’t raised the way I’d been raised. They hadn’t gone through the drastic change of switching from an all-black community in Detroit to a multi-racial community in the suburbs. They didn’t have to face the difficulty of trying to fit in with both the white kids and the black kids. They didn’t have to struggle to figure out a way to impress their white friends’ parents without offending their black friends’ parents.
When we first moved to Mount Clemens, where my siblings and I interacted with more white people than ever before, my mother told us not to “talk like that” in front of white people. She explained it to us in the car on the way home from Macomb Mall when I was ten. “You just another nigga to them white folks. When y’all be talkin’ like that, it make them think you just another ignant nigga. Y’all need to talk like them so they don’t be thinkin’ bad ‘bouchou and lookin’ down atchou.”
That stuck with me. “You just another nigga to them.”
I heard it from teachers and school counselors who “complimented” me, saying, “You’re so articulate,” or “You speak so well.” But I knew they were really saying, “You speak well, for a black girl.” I knew that when they looked at me, they expected some “bastardized” English to come out of my mouth. But when I spoke and it was something different - something that mimicked the way they spoke – they couldn’t help but give me their praise, colored with racial superiority.
My ten-year-old self understood what my mother meant, and I believed that, with all her worldly experience, she knew what she was talking about and wouldn’t be telling us if it wasn’t important. And the day she said it, I changed the way I spoke to or around white people. But I hadn’t expected it to come back to bite me in the ass. Sure, maybe white people didn’t think as badly of me because I talked “white” to them. But now my black friends were down my throat about it.
“You a white girl,” Jada told me.
“Yeah, you a white girl, fo’ sho’,” Jasmine confirmed.
I hated it. I hated them for saying it, and I hated myself for thinking I had to change the way I talked and acted according to my company’s race. I hated that my default around blacks and whites together was the “white” me. I hated my mother for making me feel like I couldn’t be my true self around white people. If she hadn’t said those words - “You just another nigga” - I wouldn’t be dealing with this adversity from my black friends.
From across the library, I heard the snapping of my father’s fingers. I jumped up and gathered my things to leave, heading for the door—away from them and their harsh words. Buttheir words would haunt me.
“You a white girl.”
I heard those words when I was fourteen, from the mouth of my first boyfriend, a black guy from Atlanta who often told me to stop “talkin’ white” and would sometimes make racial comments while stroking my straightened, silky-smooth hair. I heard them from a later high school boyfriend, a blind white guy from Grand Rapids who admitted he hadn’t believed I was black at first because of the way I spoke. I heard those words as I walked down the hallway of my second high school, listening to two black girls behind me talk about how they heard I was a bitch, not because of anything I did, but because I talked “all uppity like a white girl.” I heard their words as I traveled across my college’s campus with my white friends while a group of loud, rowdy black students moved down the street several feet behind us.
Without thinking about it, I distanced myself from the black community. I was sick of being judged for acting white, and I was afraid they wouldn’t accept me, so I refused to give them the chance to reject me. Though I felt guilty for not having black friends, I’d decided not to form personal relationships with other black people. I didn’t think it would make a difference if I tried.
To other black people, I was white. And according to my mother and a few racists I’ve encountered, I was “just another nigga” to white people. It seemed like I couldn’t win.
After spending my youth in a predominantly white area, graduating from a predominantly white high school, attending and graduating from a predominantly white Catholic college, working at places grossly lacking in diversity, and moving out on my own into a predominantly white area, family gatherings constitute most of my encounters with black people. I used to attend a black church but never bonded closely with any members, and, having deconverted to atheism, I’ve essentially severed my link to the black community outside of my family.
I now have a single black acquaintance, a coworker in my department. And while I no longer feel guilty for having mostly white friends after realizing that the path I’ve taken maintains the distance between me and my community, I do miss interacting with black people regularly. Some might ask why it’s a big deal. Why does it matter to me that I only regularly interact with one black person outside my family?
Because interacting with black people is different. Typically, it’s more jokey-ha-ha, more rambunctious, more passionate, more layered. There’s not the one-at-a-time way of speaking. With other black people, it’s okay to talk over people laughing, talk under them, or just talk at the same time. We get loud without somebody feeling like they’re being yelled at, integrate humor as a part of speech, and don’t have to worry about prettying up our sentences with standard pronunciation before we spit them out. It’s a more freeing, entertaining, and interactive way to speak.
I’ve relaxed around some of my close white friends and choose to speak Black English around them sometimes. When I’m drunk, it just comes out. But it will never be my default the way it was when I first moved out of Detroit. While I admire the people who speak Black English freely without caring how others will judge them, I still believe that if I spoke that way around all of my colleagues, some people would look down on me. I’d like to believe they wouldn’t, but the seed that was planted fourteen years ago has strong roots. I still think that, for white people to consider me equal to them, it’s important to speak like they do, until I have a reputation and rapport established.
My outlook might seem outdated, and, admittedly, it was passed down from parents who grew up in the ‘60s. But so often, I hear others making fun of, criticizing, and harshly judging people for speaking differently or “improperly,” and this reinforces my choice to “talk white.” It’s a shame that I think the truly ignorant people are the ones I should cater to, but they propagate the standard. And I’m still not sure there’s a way to win.