A deeper look into cultural divisions

Abbey Swank

One professor investigates opinions on ‘acting white’

Stereotypes not only occur between races but can also occur within a race. One such stereotype some black students face is the accusation of “acting white.”

Associate psychology professor Angela Neal-Barnett has been researching such accusations.

“Some people believe that if your definition of what it means to be black is different than theirs, then you must be acting white,” Neal-Barnett said. “Black adolescents who dress differently, listen to music other than hip-hop or rap or who speak proper English instead of slang, may be accused of acting white. The types of extracurricular activities they choose and how well they do in school may also be a factor.”

Neal-Barnett said she looks at the psychological impact of that accusation, adding some adolescents react to the accusation with anger and frustration, while for others, it affects their self-esteem and can lead to anxiety and depression.

When younger adolescents receive this accusation, it is a judgment against everything they are, she said.

“The first time I was accused of acting white was in middle school,” said Africa Turner, senior community health education major. “I was one of the only African-American students to be chosen for a gifted program. The other students didn’t like that I was able to leave class early, so they said I was acting white.”

Turner said although she didn’t quit trying hard in school, the accusation affected her enough that she dropped out of the gifted program because she didn’t want to stand out.

“The accusation dumbs down African-Americans,” said James Bradley, junior communication studies major . “It kind of says that if I’m smart, I’m acting white. White shouldn’t mean right. It keeps us down, We could be doing so much better.”

Neal-Barnett said there is an acting white “trap.” She said this happens when black adolescents receive the accusation, and then begin to explore what it means to be black by changing their behavior, such as to stop trying to do well in school.

“Spending some time in the trap is not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “Some adolescents emerge with a true understanding of who they are.”

Neal-Barnett said the problem starts when one person lets another determine his or her racial identity.

“I don’t think anyone should have to act a certain way,” senior marketing major Laura Joy said. “Everyone should be able to act how they want, no matter what their race is.”

As adolescents, people determine your racial identity, not by asking, but by judging certain characteristics, Neal-Barnett said.

“Because I talk and dress a certain way, I was told that I act white,” senior communications major Brandi Davis said. “I am secure enough with myself that it didn’t affect me too much. I just saw it as their jealousy and their ignorance.”

Some see the accusation as one that perpetuates racial lines.

“You have to judge a person by who they are, not by their race,” freshman biology major Taryn George said. “Unfortunately, there are still stereotypes of color. There is still that dividing line.”

Pat Reedy, freshman manufacturing technology major, said he thinks black students may be more inclined to change their behavior because of the fear of alienation from their peers. He said accusing a white person of acting black is not the same because white people acting black is becoming more socially acceptable.

“I think the accusation encourages racism and segregation,” Reedy said. “It doesn’t make sense you have to act a certain way because of a skin color. It is racism in and of itself.”

Other students don’t feel the accusation causes a problem.

“I know a lot of people who act white, and it’s not a problem to me,” said Ray Jay Batiste, freshman physical education and health major. “People should just take it at face value. Everyone is going to make fun of you for something at some point. I don’t think this is any different.”

He said he could see how it could have a negative effect on someone if they didn’t have enough confidence in themselves to ignore it.

Sehrish Khan, freshman integrated life sciences major, said she doesn’t understand why the accusation is taken so seriously.

“No one should rely on what other people say about them to determine how they act,” she said. “They should act however they want, and ignore everyone else.”

Neal-Barnett said even though some students don’t see it as a problem, she is happy they recognize the accusation does exist and that they don’t consider it a myth.

She began researching the accusation of acting white in 2000 and appeared on CNN this past February to discuss the topic.

She said being on CNN allowed her to have a healthy discussion about the accusation of acting white on a broader basis.

“Acting white has nothing to do with wanting to be white,” Neal-Barnett said. “But it has everything to do with being black.”

Contact College of Arts and Sciences reporter Abbey Swank at [email protected].