02 Jun “OMG, YOU ACT SO WHITE!” AND OTHER COMMENTS NOT TO MAKE AROUND POC
The spaces in which BIPOC can truly be themselves and feel comfortable in this world are limited. Racism and discrimination still run rampant, not only in the form of overt and aggressive actions and words, but also in back-handed comments and stereotypical “compliments”.
These subtle and unconscious expressions are called microaggressions. Microaggressions are frequent put-downs and actions that are derived from unconscious biases. They communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial insults to the target person or group. BIPOC experience these insults in their day-to-day interactions, by people within and outside of their race.
More often than not, BIPOC are told that if they act a certain way that strays from the stereotypical beliefs surrounding their ethnicity/culture, they are “white-washed”. The impacts of this casually thrown around microaggression are detrimental as they diminish self esteem and perpetuate white supremacy and harmful stereotypes. How are racialized children meant to have freedom of self-expression if they are constantly put into a box with a fixed label and demeaned if they dare to step out?
Having grown up the only Black girl in my grade in a predominantly white school for 8 years, it was inevitable that all my friends would be white. Your classmates and peers are some of the most influential figures in your childhood and I adopted many of their mannerisms and ways of speaking (and vice versa). When I would be with my family, they picked up on these mannerisms and did not hesitate to comment on how “white” I was.
Eventually, when my peers learned about Black stereotypes, they realized that I was not “Black enough” either. I was now not “Black enough” because I liked Justin Bieber instead of hip-hop, and I was now “white” because I would act like my friends at school. If I spoke eloquently and didn’t use slang with my non-Black friends, I was now “so white” to them. What did speaking well have to do with race?
In my home life and my school life, I was stuck between the barriers of not being Black enough. Everyone assumed I had abandoned my culture to assimilate into Western society, which was not the case.
When I got to high school and there were other Black girls around, I was asked why I didn’t act like the other Black girls. I remember thinking that that was the stupidest question I had ever heard. I wanted to yell that it was wrong to generalize all Black girls as if they only acted one way and didn’t each have unique personalities, interests and goals. Black people are not a monolith!
I no longer knew how to express myself. If my interests were too white and my ways of self-expression were not Black enough, how was I supposed to act? My interests broke the preconceived guidelines for Black girls, allowing everyone to pass false judgements on who I was as a person.
When people claim that a person of colour “acts white”, it can deter them from feeling comfortable participating in their own culture or even being comfortable in Western society. Oftentimes, they get stuck between both identities but feel accepted in neither.
Thinking about this issue reminded me of conversations I have had with other POC. We all come from different backgrounds but still experience this barrier in similar ways.
For this article, I had the pleasure of speaking to two individuals who immigrated from Nigeria and India, and were willing to share their experiences surrounding being called “white-washed”.
For the sake of anonymity, I will be calling them D and H (both age 19).
M: “Thank you both so much for speaking with me. Firstly, when did you both immigrate to Canada and from where?”
D: “I immigrated to Canada from Nigeria in 2011 at 10 years old.”
H: “I immigrated to Canada from Dubai in April 2009, so I was 7.”
M: “Have you ever been called white-washed or been told that you “act white”? By whom?”
D: “Random people, my brother and even some friends have said that I ‘sound white’.”
H: “Yes, I have. It would usually come from my friends or family from India which definitely strained my relationship with them.”
M: “How did those accusations make you feel? It must have been hard, especially hearing those words come from family members.”
D: It made me feel less Black and less accepted by my Black peers. It also makes you question if you’re putting on an act — that’s where the imposter syndrome* kicks in. It was also scary to put myself in situations when dating Black guys because I didn’t fit a typical ‘Black girl’ persona.”
The Black girl persona/stereotype consists of them being “angry, ill-tempered, loud” etc.
H: “It made me feel like I was never going to fit into my culture. I ended up actively avoiding putting myself in situations where people’s “Indian-ness” could be assessed, if that makes sense? Like, if I was in a group of brown people and they were talking about engagement or wedding ceremonies that I didn’t really know anything about, I would be quiet or try to change the conversation if I couldn’t leave. I would basically shut down in those scenarios.”
M: “How did you overcome the box that being called “white-washed” put you in?”
D: “I generally overcome it by acknowledging that Black culture is not the same as African culture. I’m confident in being African and I know I act in accordance with that, so that’s where I know I have an identity, if that makes sense. I’ll always be Black, but I might not fit into the stereotype of what it entails. I don’t think it’s ever stopped me from enjoying my interests. I still listen to Nigerian music, country music, rap music, and pop music and enjoy them all equally.”
H: “I don’t think I’ve necessarily overcome it, I just am not around many brown people because of [my university]. I still don’t like the thought of joining Brown focused clubs and stuff because I worry they wouldn’t like me. However, I have been trying to step out of my comfort zone and understand Indian culture. I think engaging in pop culture, like watching movies, is a great way to learn about values and customs initially, and is a good stepping stone to go deeper into the culture.”
After speaking with these individuals, it is evident that the impact carries on into their adult lives. The voice of people saying that they are “white-washed” seems to constantly linger despite entering new situations and experiencing diverse people.
By racializing mannerisms, interests, tones of voice, clothes, and even music, you isolate BIPOC from finding joy in things that are meant to be experienced by everyone.
By branding BIPOC as white-washed or teasing them for being too white, we unknowingly inhibit them from experiencing their culture and cut off their ability to find pleasure in their own interests. It is important to recognize that no race has a single face. People are dynamic, and race is a singular piece of what makes up their identity. There is value in celebrating how people express themselves, and we bear a great loss by restricting BIPOC’s potential.
*Imposter syndrome: a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters‘ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.