“You Act White,” and Other Microaggressions: Words I Grew Up On I Hope My Kids Never Hear

I hope you guys aren’t burnt out of race-related content yet, because right now, it’s all my heart is telling me to create. God has given me this platform for a reason, and while I’m no million-dollar blogger, I just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t use this space to spread knowledge on racism and race-relations in this country. This period of civil unrest in America has me in deep reflection on my life as a Black person and the lives that my sons will experience as they grow. And there is so, so much to consider.

  1. a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.

For as long as I remember, I’ve been called “White.” For the way I spoke, the way I dressed, the things I liked. It’s hard for me to remember a time where my Blackness wasn’t under attack. I grew up in a predominately Black community, in Decatur, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. I always went to predominately Black schools. I had friends, but I was always different, and people never hesitated to let me know. I have a distinct memory of being the only person in my class that liked the Spice Girls and Hanson. Honestly, I can’t trace exactly why or how my personality developed the way it did. My parents exposed to me to lots of things in terms of culture and entertainment, and encouraged me to speak using conventional grammar, but so did lots of Black parents. It helped shaped me, certainly, but has never completely explained why I always stood apart from my classmates, and often felt like an anomaly. To this day, people ask me quizzically where I’m from, trying to place my accent and speech patterns. I’ve never tried to change or be someone I’m not, simply because I never really knew how –  the idea of putting on a front always seemed so daunting and uncomfortable. But there was a constant sense of not completely belonging, because there was always someone willing to point out that, hey, just in case I didn’t know, I acted like a white girl. People always wanted to know. “Why do you talk like that?” “Why do you act like that?” And I never had an answer. I still don’t. I just did. This is how just how I turned out. I still can’t explain it.

It wasn’t limited to any particular race or ethnicity, either. I got the comments from Black classmates, sure. Then, in high school, I interacted with White peers for the first time when I went to a fine arts camp in the summer where Black students were in the minority. Here was a whole new group of people marveling at the fact that this Black girl wore emo band t-shirts from Hot Topic and listened to Taking Back Sunday (Yes, I was a Black emo, let’s not talk about it right now though). Again, I was made to feel like I was in the throes of some sort of racial identity crisis. The Black girl who thinks she’s White. Uppity. Weird.

College only magnified these experiences. I went from being among the majority, in a Black community, to being a very distinct minority, at predominantly White institutions, and participating in sports and activities where people that looked like me were few and far between. I joined my school’s cheerleading squad, and became fast friends with the (Black) team captain. My roommate convinced me to go through sorority recruitment with her, and though I was apprehensive at first, I did it for the food and t-shirt. My cheerleading friend was in one of the sororities – in fact, she was the first Black member in the chapter – and everyone seemed nice, so I joined it too. It was an experience – though I had fun and made some lifelong friends, there were many moments that made me immensely uncomfortable. I was only active for two years, but when I transferred schools a couple years later to a larger university, I joined the cheerleading team there, where I was one of three Black cheerleaders.

I’ve heard it all. All of those phrases that the “token Black friend” is so used to hearing.

When my (Black) friend and I went to the Vans Warped Tour, and someone in the crowd stared at us until we became noticeably uncomfortable, and then asked us who we came to see.

When I got invited back to every sorority during recruitment, and the White girl sitting next to me had only been invited back to one: “Right, it’s because you’re Black though.”

After a White friend came back from a beach vacation: “I’m almost as dark as you!”

When my White friends discussed hair care: “Do you really only wash it once a week? Oh my God!”

When a Black male friend came to hang out with us in the dorms, from a White roommate: “Is he with you? Oh, thank God. I thought we were being robbed!”

During sorority recruitment my sophomore year, when I commented that I liked a Black girl who had visited our house because we had a lot in common: “You’re Black?” (Everyone laughed. I was mortified.)

When I went to a Kacey Musgraves concert, and was treated like a circus act, with people in the crowd gawking and trying to high five me, culminating in a woman drunkenly and loudly gushing that she just loved that I knew all the words. She didn’t say that to my White friend that I was there with.

And always, always, always, from everyone: “You are the Whitest Black girl.” And what does that even mean? Am I more palatable, more tolerable because I’m a “White Black girl?” Am I superior? Inferior? Am I “one of the good ones?” If you’ve ever said these words – have you ever considered the implications?

On. And on. And on.

Now, I’m 32. I haven’t changed. I speak the same way, and like the same things. I’m just old enough now to not give a damn anymore what anyone thinks of it. I have Black friends. I have White friends. And people I love dearly still make little comments every now and again that makes me look at them sideways. The difference is that it doesn’t make me question my entire being like it did when I was young. But now that I’m a mother, my entire perspective has shifted, and I’m starting to sweat it all over again.

Alexander and Nathan’s speech patterns are rapidly developing, and their accents are becoming apparent. They talk like their father and I, as most children do. James has had similar experiences as me, being the “token Black” person, one reason why we hit it off so well and started dating – we could relate. On top of that, we both still like music by White artists and play it for the boys, and so they sing along and dance to it, because that’s what kids do – like the things their parents expose them to. And so I have few doubts, that somewhere along the line, in their road to adulthood, someone – a classmate, a teammate, a friend, an enemy, or even a stranger – will tell them that they talk, act, like things inappropriate for a Black person. And I worry about that day. I worry about the day that another person comes along and tells my child that their identity is somehow wrong, or that they are confused or self-hating. I fear that someday, they will feel uncomfortable in a situation where they should feel fine – reduced to a token, or alienated for things that they cannot, and should not control.

As much as I wish I could, I can’t control the way other people talk to my kids. I can’t go to school with them and threaten every kid who makes a cruel comment. What I can do is fortify them young. I try to remind them as much as I can that they are special, unique, amazing, wonderful, strong, kind. That they are made exactly as they are meant to be. I hope to instill in them a confidence that I didn’t have, so that they attain the “don’t-give-a-damn” I have in my thirties at a much younger age than I ever did.

I’ve been posting a lot on my social media about the need to raise anti-racist children. To not just raise the kid who’s nice to everyone, but to raise the kid who stands up and fights against racism when he sees it in his peers. Here’s a further plea.

Can you raise the kid who won’t tell my kid he acts White?

Can you raise the kid who knows that the things you like, the way you speak, the way you act should not be defined by your skin color?

Can you raise the kid who understands that everyone is different and that it’s okay?

Can you raise the kid that’s sensitive to other cultures, and who takes the time to listen and understand, instead of criticize?

Can you raise the kid who understands that even if you care about someone, there are still certain things that you just shouldn’t say – things that can break a person down, reduce them to tears, make them question their entire identity – and you have no idea, because you don’t think you said anything wrong?

Please, raise that kid, so my kids don’t have to lie in bed at night like I did, crying, wondering why they turned out the way they did, and what life would be like if they were different.