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.
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!”
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!