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Obama goes there on ‘acting white’

In the panoply of insults African Americans hurl at each other, there are two that are meant to stunt the viewpoints and ambitions of their victims. One is being called an “Uncle Tom.” We covered this ground back in May when I urged folks to stop smacking Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with the epithet. The other is being accused of “acting white.” And I was thrilled to see President Obama brazenly broach it yesterday at the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) town hall yesterday.

Obama got into it via a question from a Native American young man who wanted to know what the federal government was doing to help his people “revitalize their language and culture.” The president responded, “The Bible says without vision a people will perish. And what happens when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don’t have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations is you start feeling adrift. And if you’re living in a society that devalues that, then you start maybe devaluing yourself and internalizing some of those doubts.” He talked about how America was great at taking people from different cultures and making one unifying culture out of it. But he also said, “There’s no contradiction between knowing your culture, the traditional cultures out of which your families come, but also being part of the larger culture.” It was here that Obama willingly waded into “acting white.”

And I think that one of the things — this is true not just for Native Americans, but it’s also true for African Americans. Sometimes African Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of “acting white” — which sometimes is overstated, but there’s an element of truth to it, where, okay, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go. Because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African American men to be authentic.
If you look at Michelle, she grew up South Side. And her mom still lives in a neighborhood where gunshots go off, and it can be rough where Michelle grew up. But she’ll talk proper when she needs to. Now, you also don’t want to get on her wrong side, because she can translate that into a different vernacular.
But my point is, is that you don’t have to act a certain way to be authentic. . . .

“Acting white” and its ugly cousin “not black enough” are noxious putdowns meant to foment a sense of betrayal. Those who employ it believe their targets are so ashamed of being black that they value things considered the provenance of white people to be superior to all others.  President Obama, football player Robert Griffin III (RGIII) and just about every African American you know or are acquainted with has been insulted in this manner. I had one well-meaning acquaintance say to me, “You’re the whitest black man I know.” As if the act of learning, speaking proper English, properly wearing pants or not having a clue about rap or basketball (just to name a few) makes one less black or not black at all. As if the pursuit of excellence and success is not within the African American spirit.

I was moved to add something on “acting white” as I sat on a stage at Howard University awaiting my turn to speak at the graduation of the National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School last month. Looking out at the predominantly African American students and knowing a bit about the struggles they endured to earn that cap and gown I felt a moral obligation to set their minds right on “acting white” or “wanna-be white” before they headed off to college.

The insult is as short-sighted as it is ignorant. I told them to be unabashedly black and follow the examples of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, Sarah Vaughan and Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and President Obama. And I implored them to be bold, black, beautiful and, most important, American. Too many folks forget that part. They spend so much time fighting for respect as a [fill-in-the-blank] American that they miss the American part altogether. They are part of the larger story of this country, and their success or failure is of great importance to it.

My MSNBC colleague Touré wrote a book two years ago whose overarching theme was “to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing blackness.” There isn’t — and there never was.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj