Behaving White in Black America: ‘To be or not to be?’ Is that really the question?

The other day, I listened to a professor's class discussion about the phenomenon of African Americans acting or talking “White.” "Moving topic,” I thought. To her credit, the professor deftly engaged the students, ensuring that each cultural perspective represented had its say.

I listened intently as students relayed their experiences regarding this issue. A series of African American students began by telling their stories. Many described the stigma associated with being “Black” and talking or acting “White.” Some gave detailed accounts of how they would often “dumb down” their language, so as not to appear “White.” Others shared how they downplayed their accomplishments.
My discomfort in hearing these exchanges was followed by curiosity as students recently migrating from Africa struggled to appreciate the phenomenon. Some said they didn’t understand the concept. To them speaking standard English was neither a “Black” nor “White” construct.

First, I noted the concept stimulated looks of bewilderment from some of the African students. Next, I conveyed that the issue seemed to raise questions of identity with many of the African American students. I found this fact quite troubling. As a professor of communication, I understand how difficult it is to move forward if you fail to understand who you are. One of the many ways we build healthy self-images is through what we tell ourselves or label ourselves — whether consciously or unconsciously.

Contrarily, when we know who we are, we can see communication as a tool: “Communication is the transfer of meaning.” So the goal of communication should be toward effectively conveying meaning. If we accept that all language has utility, and that we can segment language based on standard and non-standard dialects; then, we can easily see the utility each dialect has in its proper setting. Nowhere are distinctions made suggesting all “Whites” speak the standard dialect and all “Non-Whites” speak non-standard dialects.

Successful communicators speak many dialects and transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries with relative ease. We accept that in all cultures standard dialects are spoken in business and academia. The languages we use informally are often termed slang. Regardless of what we call our dialects, they each have merit in context. Using the wrong language in the wrong context increases opportunities for failure.

Communication is a tool demanding self-awareness, cultural understanding, and specific linguistic and behavioral proficiency. We should not seek to be defined by language, but to use language as a tool to construct the wholeness of our world. We don’t describe a sculptor by the tools he employs to craft his art. Instead, we look at how well he uses his tools to create the art he intends. The more tools at his avail, the greater flexibility he has to extend the range of his craft.

The same holds true for human communication. Why fall victim to the limitations of describing language or behavior as Black or White? It’s nothing more than a tool that fails to raise the question: To be or not to be?

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Behaving White in Black America:   'To be or not to be?'  Is that really the question?


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