Why Does Being Weird And Black Make Me White?

Does the way you dress invalidate your racial identity?

Why should the way I dress invalidate my racial identity?

There’s something incredibly cutting about being told that you’re “acting white.”

I don’t care if it is a joke or not, it’s incredibly hurtful.

This insult–though some might falsely consider it an observation–is usually par the course of being the token black girl in your group of friends, especially if you were a little nerdy. I mean, don’t even think about being black and enjoying sci-fi or anime or anything like that because, for some, that automatically screams I-hate-being-black. But for me, I think that some of my most alienating experiences came from people acting like I’m trying to be white because of the way I dressed.

Let me be clear: My style wasn’t exactly extreme. I wasn’t a goth or emo even though I was known to peruse Hot Topic every now and then. Honestly, my style was always pretty tame, but it included mix-matched prints, a healthy amount of band shirts and brightly colored tights. So basically, pretty much the same thing that I wear now…but probably not as cute. Was it a little more daring than the average teenager? Eh, maybe, but no matter what it was certainly enough to attract looks of confusion.

You might argue that blackness or not being white has nothing to do with getting weird looks when you wear mix-matched clothes or a shirt featuring Kurt Cobain in a dress. Sure, there are going to be people who look at you sideways regardless. But I’ve always had the distinct impression that dressing a little offbeat is way more socially acceptable if you’re white.

Let’s be real: Some white kid with a goth look is going to be seen as a lot less of an anomaly than a black chick or another person of color rocking the same style. The media has injected us with this idea of how all black people act, how all black people dress and how all black people present themselves. Anything that deviates from that script is often seen as trying to be white. I know that other non-white folks have experienced the same thing, and it’s straight up ridiculous.

Willow Smith would have had such a positive impact on me when I was a teen. | Source: Photo Wenn

Willow Smith would have had such a positive impact on me when I was a teen. | Source: Photo Wenn

Nobody should feel as if their identity is being erased just because they dress a little quirky. There have always been black people and other people of color who have dressed in awesomely strange and unique ways. White people don’t have a monopoly on anything and everything vaguely alternative and it was so alienating to grow up with the idea that the way I dressed or the things I was interested in made me something I wasn’t. Last time I checked, there was nothing white about wearing shirts of your favorite music act or liking combat boots or wanting green hair.

It’s for these reasons that I wish that someone like Willow Smith was around when I was a teenager. She’s a black girl who dresses in kooky outfits, dyes her hair however she wants and never seems ashamed of who she is. If she was around when I was younger, I wouldn’t feel like the only black chick who loved offbeat style or liked The Runaways.

Today, I think that there are so many more outlets for young people of color who dress a little differently to feel less alone. With the Internet and social media, it it easy to connect with people all over the world who are just like you in this regard. Also, I think that there is more appreciation than ever before of people of color who dress in really unique, eye-catching ways.

But as much as I love to bond with other black girls who were told that they act white based on shallow, uneducated observations, there’s nothing empowering in thinking, “Oh my God I’m so different than other black girls.” It’s easy to fall into that trap, but it’s really obnoxious and erases the fact that you aren’t alone. You don’t dress differently than other black girls as a whole because there are plenty of black girls who dress just like you. There are preppy black chicks, goth black chicks, trendy black chicks, punky black chicks, hip-hop inspired black chicks and everything in between! The problem isn’t that we don’t dress like other black girls. The problem is that most people haven’t gotten the message that we’re not a monolith.

Hopefully we’ll start to embrace the way we present ourselves without having our look attributed to whiteness. Because I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t get dressed every morning thinking, “I hope I look extra white today!”

Get real.

 

Have you experienced people telling you that you “act white” for shallow reasons like style or interests? How do you deal with that? And how many of you want to join me in fawning over Willow Smith’s awesomeness? Tell us in the comments!

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79 Comments

  1. avatar Michael Delzoppo says:

    I’m mixed, black and Italian and I’m into metal and industrial music. I grew up both in the ghetto and the suburbs. It’s funny because the white wiggers look at me as an anomaly because I don’t conform to what they think I’m supposed to be. I guess I remind them of their own irony. They’re desperately trying to be black and gangsters and I go against that. I get a rise out of messing with their little sheep minds. But I’m not trying to act white. I’m just being myself. I walk around with my Texas Chainsaw Massacre t-shirts and DC skate shoes and my hair slicked back like a 50′s grease ball. Who cares about what the suburbanites that confrorm blindly to pop culture trends think. I respect people who are individualistic. There’s black guys into metal. Mike Smith from Suffocation, the singer from Killswitch Engage. Tony Todd starred in the horror movie Candyman. When people can’t put you in a box, they try to make you feel like an outsider. Be yourself, but don’t force it. Conformity is for the masses who are scared to stand out. I look at those people like cowards.

  2. avatar Markus says:

    Great article!

    I´m a white male living in Sweden. I´ve been watching a youtube channel called “Black Folk Don´t”.
    http://www.youtube.com/user/BlackFolkDont
    It´s like a mini serie about stuff black people don´t do, like they don´t: travel, swim, recycle, go to therapy, do yogo, do winter sports, go fishing, go camping and so on. Black people are interviewed. Very interesting subject and similar to the subject of your article.

    One thing I wonder is if this “acting black” thing is mostly a big issue in the US? Not in the rest of the world? I get that feeling.

  3. avatar Ella Winters says:

    To avoid any conflict, I don’t identify as anything! I completely avoid the conversation about race and ancestry (only with family do I talk about that).

    • avatar londonshaz says:

      Me too. I believe race is a social construct that is used to keep people in ‘their place’. I can’t stand all this acting white, acting black nonsense. I’ve been accused of acting white. Do you know what? I act like myself! How can you judge behaviour and tastes on colour? You might do that with a people group, country & culture, but I can’t see how my behaviour relates to someone in say, Nigeria, when am Caribbean, born & raised in the UK. Irrelevant!

    • avatar Marcus Coore says:

      I am a mixed race man and this means my mother is white, my father is black. I see this as a blessing because I have black family and I have white family. The same with my friends. This has given me a broad exposure to both sides of the race.

      I have to say, there is difference in: styles, attitude, dress sense, conversation but learning about all these differences has allowed me to be ‘black’ at times in my life and ‘white’. Now, I realise that I am not black or I am not white.. I am mixed! I am both, yes sometimes, I act white but other times I ‘act’ black. This is due to my experiences and any body that reminds me I act white or I act black I just admit that I am! With a rye smile, I am both!

      Embrace who you are, embrace how you look and disregard anybody who can’t look past the colour of your skin before judging your personality!

  4. avatar Sam says:

    People used to tell me the same thing because I had a White sounding voice. Honestly, it’s not that big of a deal. I graduated top of my class, was a major nerd, but I was cute and not awkward so I had a ton of friends. I went to a predominately Black high school and it was never a deterrent in my social life. I never felt like my Blackness was being questioned and I appreciated the ignorance of the comments and kept it moving.

    I really think that Black people who make such a deal about these ignorant comments sound like a broken record. And it is irritating as hell this idea that anti-intellectualism is a Black thing when it is a clear undercurrent throughout American culture/history.

    I never dumbed my self down, or used ebonics to fit in, I was just true to myself. Just get over it honestly.

    • avatar Abigail says:

      Wow, your comment is really condescending to be frank.

      Just because you manage to “get over it” and not let it affect you doesn’t mean you have the authority to tell other black people how to feel when they face the same situation. Everyone’s emotional response is different and her feelings are legitimate and show how ignorant white people can be in believe in these stereotypes about people of color. We should speak out, “complain” and bring light that just because we’re interested in things outside the stereotypical things black people are supposed to like, that doesn’t erase our racial identity or make us hate ourselves. It also doesn’t illustrate that we’re “smarter” than other people of color who enjoy these things.

  5. avatar Marc says:

    The moment I decided to speak properly and focus on my school work rather than the riff-raff was the moment my racial identity received inquiries (that was 1992). I felt like I missed a few key opportunities in my past by trying to conform to the “blackness”: playing for the volleyball team was one of them. I was afraid people would think that I was “even more of a white guy” by playing the sport that I love so much. Even now when I play Xbox, most people call me some white racial slur when they get pissed off about losing to me, lol. Only difference now is that I was trying to conform to my environment and hated being called white….now, I embrace all that has helped me succeed in life and no longer care about racial identity; I decided to stay grown up and leave “those types” behind.

  6. avatar DiosaNegra67 says:

    Love, love, LOVE this article! And, my dear, you are NOT ALONE! I am an older (GenX, aged 46) Black “weirdo”…..who had her “Black Card” revoked when she discovered the likes of KISS/New York Dolls/The Runaways/Blondie/Sex Pistols/The Ramones in the late 70s and early 80s…not to mention being a kid and watching Don Kirchner’s “Midnight Special” and “Rock Concert” on TV every Friday night….LOL

    Don’t let the “sheeple” get to ya! Take heart…..most of the true visionaries in history/pop culture have been “outcasts”….who were later celebrated BECAUSE of their uniqueness….and, a lot of them have been/are Black as well….(hellooooo, Prince) ;)

    XOXOX

  7. avatar Nicole says:

    Dear god THANK YOU for writing this.
    I just finished high school this summer and I was co-president of our school’s Science Fiction and Fantasy club AND the Anime/Manga/Drawing/Gaming club. Yeah. I used to do track…but then kept catching shit from the black track coach about getting my priorities straight when I had to miss ONE PRACTICE a month to go to an officers meeting for these clubs. I got in trouble with my mother for deciding NOT to do track the last year….and instead help run the clubs and be in a play. There would have been no problems if I had run track, but because I was the only black girl in this play, it became an issue.
    I have taken Japanese all through high school and am currently pursing a minor in it in college. I want to live in Japan. I want to go to art school to be a game designer. I LOVE anime conventions and all things nerdy.
    To put it simply….I AM NERDY AS HELL.
    What gets me is I have white friends who call me an “oreo” not understanding the TERRIBLE stigma that has in the black community, and a mother that makes no effort to understand who I am and what I like. My mother was raised in small town southern Florida and her views haven’t changed since she left.
    So it makes me feel far better to read things like this and to hear other people that understand the struggle of having music on your ipod that isn’t Hiphop and therefore not black. Or deciding to learn Japanese. Or deciding to do something artsy that “most black people” really don’t do.

    So yeah. I just wanted to say thank you….for putting this out there for all the other geeky black girls to read and feel better about. Thank you. :)

  8. avatar Ring says:

    I’m a teen well kind of I’m 18 and I’m getting ready for college. But yes I have been told all of this for a long time as well as my mother. A lot of my family, like relatives, majority grew up in Watts and Compton, while my mother and her brothers and sisters have not. They have been told especially my mother that she sounds white. In school starting with elementary I was always told by my friends(who all were Black) that I sounded or acted like a white girl… why because I listen to rock, electronica, techno, or bands like Purity Ring? I do also listen to rap especially now, but it’s usually by the really good intelligent rappers like Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar. But it’s like because I’m Black I HAVE to listen to rap or R&B, like huh? Also don’t get me started on how I dress. I do tend to dress like a “hipster” or whatever(I hate being called that) I’ve been told that’s how I dress, but I don’t agree. Black people some of us can be so ignorant. So basically talking ignorant( For example: Nah nigga I din’t do no homewurk today, yas sur) is being black? Like do they not understand what they are doing or what they are saying? But you know what if talking intelligent is talking white(which does not make ANY sense at all and is insulting to all Black people) than I will take it and my wide range of jobs. What some of us don’t understand is that no one, even some Black people, do not want to hire uneducated people.. period. Being uneducated and unintelligent limits offers with jobs. So yes I would rather be intelligent and educated and enjoy a wide range of jobs/careers.

  9. avatar Paradise says:

    i definitly feel u here. ppl often told me i “act white” cuz i dress weird and all that … and i kind of internalized it as a teen and felt less “authentic” which was traumatic… but now i feel like white ppl dont have ownership of every style and its becoming more and more clear that they stole or appropriated so many things from poc anyway so rly there is no such thing as “acting white” anyway.

  10. avatar J says:

    At times people have asked if there are parallels between punk and hip-hop. Answering that question I have found a few things. One relating to this.
    Go look at pictures of Melle Mel and The Furious Five and other hip-hoppers back in the early years. Crazy sartorial expression isn’t a white thing.

    • avatar DiosaNegra67 says:

      Preach it, J! I think their look kinda grew out of the Black answer to the whole “Glam” movement of the 70s….parallels between punk and hip-hop? Uh, yes! I know you’ve heard of Don Letts….right? ;) (if not, Google is a helluva drug…..LOL) :D

  11. avatar generatrix says:

    My family used to tell me I was “acting white” because I liked to read so much, which saddened me terribly even as a kid because of what it said about how they viewed the norms of Blackness. I was so incredibly excited when, in high school, I learned there was such a thing as a Black intellectual (i actually asked one of my white teachers after I read The Second Sex in 9th grade, if any Black people ever wrote books like that, and she told me to check out bell hooks). For me, there actually were not very many afropunks besides myself, and unfortunately when I did find them some of them were pretty hostile to me, like some crazy Highlander “there can be only one” scene!

    I have dealt with essentialist Black folk calling me an Oreo from family on to strangers on the street. It does hurt, and I am.glad to see that there areore places and spaces where we can be ourselves without wording about essentialist agendas. I do, however, feel that our WHOLE community could stand some old school Black Power political education.

  12. avatar Jen says:

    now I have a serious question – PoC who LOVE the culture of bougie white people…. they only have white friends; they purposely communicate in a white way to minimize their blackness, they are clearly being impacted by internalized oppression. is it wrong to use ‘white acting’ in those cases? help me understand – i really want to.

  13. avatar Robert Monroe, Jr. says:

    I’m a Black guy who’s probably a bit older than some of the folks reading this or posting comments. I’m 52 years old and graduated high school in 1979. I’ve ALWAYS been considered weird and told that I was acting white. I used to never cut my hair, barely combed it and would dress in a style that would, I guess, be called grunge today…band t-shirts, flannel shirts, jeans with holes in them and sneakers. I read comic books, sci-fi and fantasy. I was one of the first kids in my high school to start listening to punk music. I was also, though, very interested in Black history and probably knew more about African and African-American history than most, if not all, of the kids calling me an Oreo.

    To any of the kids reading this who are struggling with the expectations of the folks who sheepishly go along with the program…stay strong and be who you are. There are a lot of out there and we’ll embrace you. There are so many outlets for you now that didn’t exist when I was youngert. Check out sites like AfroPunk and make connections. If you’re into steampunk check out Chronicles of Harriet . Check out podcasts like Black Tribbles or Geek Soul Brother . But, whatever you do, do not let other people define you based on their limitations. Go forth and have a wonderful life!

    • avatar Rolph says:

      Whoa Robert I’m so glad I read this, I think I might just be your younger self!

      I’m in my twenties now but growing up I used to hang out with skaters around my neighborhood that got me into punk rock and metal, videogames, anime, sci fi movies and stuff like that. I grew up as some sort of punk skater nerdy black guy and it blew people’s mind away! How can you enjoy punk more than black music? They said, and it hurt a lot but I never stopped dressing like I did or enjoying the things I did because I felt awesome!

      I had black friends, but I was always asked about taste choices. Later I started listening to a lot more rap because of Artists like Andre 3000 and his crazy style. I then discovered Mos Def who enjoys punk and proudly wears Bad Brains tshirts and even has hardcore songs in the middle of his hip hop albums!

      Through hip hop I also learned the value of my race, my color and my roots, and I embraced more who I was! I learned more about the African history and our ancestors. Can you believe how confusing it is for a white person to understand how a black guy can enjoy The Wu Tang Clan and Bad Religion? I mean, if a white person does it they are seen as edgy and unique haha “whoa he so open minded!” but when we do it is because we’re acting white? Seriously?

      Social media has also shown me more black artists, super heroes, writers and talented unique black people and is one of the best things in the world, knowing you’re not alone.

      Wish I had met you when you were young man! And thanks for the podcast names.

    • avatar Byron says:

      Amen, sir! I applaud your wisdom and the courage with which you lived by that wisdom. I would just like to share my own sentiment, that being my belief that your example can, and should, be followed by people of all races, creeds, cultures, religions, etc. I am a white man who identifies with many facets of African American culture. I have always chosen to dress in a style that is associated with black culture. Even before I was aware of the association. Someone had to point out to me that white people were laughing at me. It stung briefly, but I realized their small mindedness and went on my way. I once inadvertently started a fashion trend with the black men in my school. Again, it had to be pointed out to me. I was just being me. Not “trying to act black” or start any trends with any race. Just expressing myself. Unfortunately, I am not immune to all societal judgement. As a musician, I have always loved the music of African American origin. Especially blues, jazz, funk and hip hop. I, however, have had a hard time feeling comfortable pursuing these genres on a professional level. I was primarily a rock musician until my late twenties, when I finally decided it was okay for me to play in a hip hop band and sing some Bill Withers at an open mic night without feeling like I was “trying to be black”. I still remind myself of B.B. King’s words, though. The blues is not a color, it’s a feeling. So feel how you wanna feel, dress how you wanna dress and sing what you wanna sing.

    • avatar Erick says:

      Thank you so much for your post. I especially related to “I was also, though, very interested in Black history and probably knew more about African and African-American history than most, if not all, of the kids calling me an Oreo.”

      In the early 80s, I was somewhat covert about my love of music from the 80′s British Invasion. When I discovered black artists were creating the kind of music I love, for a time it gave me the courage to embrace my varied interests with no apologies. But when I reached my 20′s, I retreated into a world I’d never really been before, ashamed of my life experiences, the way I sounded and my style of dress. In the last few years, I’ve had to remind myself that I can only be me. As a friend says, “I please some in my coming, others in my going.”

  14. avatar Devan says:

    Not only did I dress a bit goth, but I was also openly queer, into classic rock, and a huge literature nerd. Needless to say, zi was bullied constantly for “acting white.”

    • avatar Dariann says:

      Oh, so i talk “white” I’m sorry, I didn’t know sounding educated had racial boundaries. Why cant I sound like and Educated black person instead of white? When i start talking Like my parents didn’t teach me better, as well as saying “Nigga” in every sentence, I’ll let you know. Is always my response, I grew up in Arizona however I was born in California, so most of my family is there and they always make fun of the way I talk by calling my “becky, or white girl” it’s degrading And insulting, but I’ll take talking educated over slang any day.

  15. avatar Jay says:

    I was told I was white because I ate fried mushrooms and listened to “white” music. It sucks to be around closed-minded people. I can relate to this article.

  16. avatar Erika says:

    I wanted to say that racial identity is so individual. As a mixed race person I was always told that I was dressed wrong. Too white or too black, not trendy enough or too racy. It is always something. You are YOU. Do not let anyone tell you how to rock your style! What your interests are make you unique. I like Jay Z and the roots, as well as Bon Jovi and the Ting Tings. I love meeting people from other countries and taking influences from their style. We are a tossed salad, not a homogeneous mix, and our society should reflect that more! So rock on and be you:)

  17. avatar najee says:

    I’ve learned to just ignore this kind of thing. If life has taught me anything, it’s that no one cares if the minority is offended, especially in the eyes of the ignorant masses. It’s not worth wasting a second thought over. If you’re a black person living in a predominately African American neighborhood, attending a school with more than 75% African American students and you’re not ” black ” as the rest, you’re gonna be judged.

    And the author was right about it being easy to fall into that trap, thinking that you’re alone in this, reason being that these kind of things hurt when you’re the only one in your neck of the woods who thinks the way you do. I’m pretty sure this kind of thing wouldn’t sting so bad if you have black friends who are just as ” white and weird ” as you are. This isn’t always the case and ignorant people tend single out and alienate the odd one, hence that lonely feeling.

    The thing is, it’s gonna hurt but once you learn who you truly are and accept it, you’re learn to laugh it off * not to be confused with that ” I’m so different from other black people ” mindset ” *. As you grow older and get started on life, you’ll learn that being normal is very overrated. You’ll learn that human beings are still impressionable beyond the infant stage and are visual creatures. You’ll learn that people fear what they don’t understand and hate what they fear. You’ll learn that the more you understand the kind of person you are deep within * flaws, qualities and all *, you’ll start to see people who they truly are. Not by looking but by listening to their words and observing their body language.

    And once you get to the point where being called ” white and weird ” doesn’t bother you anymore, you’ll begin to see than not everyone is quick to write you off for being you.

  18. avatar Jay Rich says:

    We totally talked about this same subject on our radio show. Here’s the podcast of it.
    http://blacktribbles.podomatic.com/entry/2012-05-20T17_55_48-07_00

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