I grew up a black kid in a predominately white city in southern Washington state. While I thought nothing of this during elementary school, it started becoming an issue throughout middle school and high school, and still carries over to a small degree today. The issue was that my peers believed I was “white-washed”, a term often used to describe a person of color who “acts white”. Because it was clearly used as a derogatory term against me, it instilled insecurity that wouldn’t go away until I became an adult and understood just how ridiculous and wrong the term was to begin with. It led me at first to try really hard to fit the black stereotype, then midway through high school it caused me to completely denounce just about anything I felt associated with the black stereotype. I behaved like someone who was confused about who they were. I adopted a new clothing style every year and explored new music genres. It interfered with who I believed to be my friends and it inhibited my performance in both sports and academia. My desire to simultaneously fit and avoid my stereotype left me with a scattered sense of self. Although I greatly despised some of my peers, I don’t necessarily blame them for causing my distress. I think they were simply conditioned by society in the same way I was, and I didn’t at the time possess the presence of mind to see through it. Now my opinions have matured and I can finally articulate what exactly I intuitively felt was wrong with the term “white-washed” in the first place.
We see it every day in American popular culture. Mainstream media portrays black people the same way in just about every entertainment platform. In movies, the black guy is usually the loud-mouth with the hilarious one-liners. They are usually athletes, rappers, or gangsters with very little room for variance. They die first in horror movies. Radio stations typically promote music that follows the same formula. Black people are typically rappers or R&B signers who talk about the same things in their music: materialism and sex. I’m not saying that what black artists and actors are doing in popular culture are bad things, and there are definitely exceptions to these more shallow standards. If anything it makes me happy to see my race attaining fame and fortune in Western society. The problem that I see however is the lack of variety mainstream media offers when it comes to who a black man can be. I think the reason why my middle and high school peers believed I was white-washed was because their preconceptions about black people were force-fed to them through mainstream media. So when one of the only black people they’ve ever had close interaction with in their lives appears in front of them as a well-spoken black boy who spent his childhood playing video games and running around in the forest in his backyard, it’s a shock to them. I didn’t fit into the little box that mainstream media places black people in so they didn’t understand me. Their only option seemed to be to shame me.
Too black for the white kids; too white for the blacks.
In the years during middle school when I tried hard to “act black”, my showcase came off very awkward and unauthentic. I would try to rap and dance like they did in MTV videos but it was obvious that my heart wasn’t in it. Sports were the worst. The minute I picked up basketball in 7th grade my peers believed that by nature I’d be a dominant player, despite the fact that a lot of my friends had been playing since they were 6 years old. When I didn’t meet their expectations sports-wise I was again shamed. By the end of high school it made me sick to think about sports. Seeing anything about basketball or football still gives me flashes of anxiety today. Again, it’s my own fault for not being mentally resilient enough to see that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I did not betray my race for not fitting a stereotype.
These days I have taken a more critical approach to the idea of being white-washed. The term is a valid one but only when describing the deliberate attempt at erasing the essence of a culture; by warping it into something more Eurocentric. This is seen frequently in modern times, like with the casting of all-white actors in the movie adaptation of the popular anime franchise Ghost In The Shell. But when the term is applied to a person of color raised in a suburban neighborhood with low crime rates and a great educational system, how can you blame them for not pretending to tout a lifestyle representative of struggle? I was privileged because my mom worked her way out of poverty to give her kids a good chance at life. I never had to worry about surviving or getting a good education because that was all provided for me. Contrarily, someone growing up in a poverty-stricken, inner-city apartment might not receive the same quality education and safety that I did. For instance, instead of having a state-of-the-art kids club near their school where they can hone skills, they have the option of joining a local gang for the purpose of protecting themselves, if anything.
To me, “white-washed” is a term that suggests white superiority. To label me as white-washed because my interests weren’t stereotypical was to suggest that white people owned all other interests outside of rap, hip-hop, and sports. What I came to accept as I matured was that my inherent interests simply didn’t align with popular culture’s black stereotype. As I lost interest in sports I gravitated towards my true interests which were video games, reading, science, sci-fi and fantasy. I’m also a huge fan of anime which is Japan’s gift to America and has nothing to do with being white. Likewise, my music taste became incredibly eclectic. While I’ve held on to my rap/hip-hop roots, I began exploring various sub-genres of Rock and Electronic, and today I am a huge fan of all sorts of music types. About a year ago I saw one of my favorite bands The Birthday Massacre live and unsurprisingly I was the only black person there. It used to be the case that I would be the only black person at an EDM (Electronic Dance Music) show but that has changed over the past few years. But I soon began asking myself: what do any of my interests have to do with being white anyway? When you look at white people in general they come in all sorts of flavors. You have goths, punks, nerds, athletes, and even whites who are all about black culture, or all about Japanese culture. So why is it so rare to see blacks express interest in these sub-cultures? It’s because black people are constrained to a tiny, stereotypical box, and any deviance from that box is shameful. This box is oppressive. It inhibits black people from growing into other sectors of Western culture, thus stymieing diversity as a whole. It’s part of the reason diversity within certain industries is so low. Black people in America are not typically nurtured to pursue paths other than sports or entertainment, and that’s if they haven’t already been imprisoned or gang-affiliated.
What does it even mean to “act black”? Being black is not dependent on interests alone and is more dependent on principles of nature vs. nurture. In other words, your genetics (which describe ancestry and appearance) and your environment (which sculpts your interests and the context of your experience). Your appearance also dictates how others react to you, and other people are an element of one’s environment. That is why personality is really a combination of nature and nurture. At one point I figured that perhaps studying African-American history would teach me how to be black. What I found was that studying the history of your ancestors doesn’t necessarily teach you how to be more like them as much as it teaches you where you stand in society today. What I realized is that the context of the struggle is what shaped the black stereotype. For example, before rap it was jazz, and before jazz it was hymns and poems about freedom. Each of those musical eras were shaped by oppression in some form. I realized that if the struggle is what defined blacks in history and in modern times, then what does that say about me as an individual today. As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a healthy environment with little struggle as far as socioeconomic backgrounds go. This in no way takes away from my blackness genetically or historically, but it did direct my personal experience in directions that I may not have known in another context (i.e. another time in history, or a bad neighborhood). So to be black in the 21st century is really to embrace my history while understanding that my appearance is going to affect the way people approach me. Being black has nothing to do with what I gravitate to as a person.
What I’m hoping anyone takes away from this is the sense that all people, no matter their race, are equally as likely to become anything anyone else would. I’m not saying that stereotypes don’t exist in various forms. Stereotypes are merely based on common behavior among groups of people who identify the same. This can be seen in religion, politics, ethnicity, etc. What I am saying is that someone of color should not be shamed for not fitting their stereotype, and that an individual should be free to explore any interest or niche if it speaks to them. Nurturing freedom of expression will create a more diverse society. Furthermore, solving the problems of crime and poverty will boost the freedom of choice for children of color and will eradicate certain detrimental stigma. And finally, I urge any person of color to research their history in America in order to better understand their place in society today.