Wednesday, September 7, 2016

"Acting White"

Former NBA player, Charles Barkley said what many Black Americans have experienced for years. I was teased for "acting" white a couple of times by people who didn't even know me. Even at an HBCU, I had one girl tease me for "talking" white. Is acting white speaking grammatically correct? Is it getting good grades? Is it preferring country music to hip-hop? Regardless of the answers,  it's time to stop the foolishness.

As a child, an uncle had me correct my speech on an index card whenever necessary when I spent time with him and my aunt. He's another one of those Alabama boys. Education, whether college or trade, is highly valued in my family. Older people encouraged college. They forced you to do Easter, Christmas, and Mother's Day speeches to improve speaking skills. They asked to see report cards. They wanted to hear about your educational achievements. You were encouraged to act as youth president and secretary of the Sunday School. Every person had a hand in your development. Formal education was still seen as guaranteed success.

I don't know if young people today have the faith to jump through the hoops we did. They see the social inequities and it seems useless. College graduates can't even find employment. Maybe, all those years ago, the voices crying "you're acting white" were crying out against a system trying to marginalize them. Could it be they were the ones seeing the real intent of the system?

Now looking back, I think about the repercussions of being in a tracking system. I've mentioned before, once you were tracked on a certain academic level for middle school, it essentially lasted until graduation. My sixth-grade teacher actually did not sign me up for any advanced classes. My mom overrode her recommendations. I was not a straight-A student, but my mom felt I could handle the work. In elementary school, I was never seen as acting white. My classes had a large Black presence. Kids loved to make the honor roll, participate in Spelling Bees, and other activities. I was not the exception with academic achievement.

Maybe other parents chose to take the sixth-grade teacher's recommendations for seventh-grade courses. Maybe they thought she knew best. I think there were one or two other Black students who moved into advanced classes. But, once I was separated from my classmates, I was never able to fully reconnect. A decision made in sixth grade labeled me the exception, along with several other Black students who were in the same classes as well.

The academic tracking created a class system inside of the school. It  separated low, middle, and upper-class students.  Obviously, there were those who stepped outside these parameters, but it put an invisible barrier in place that made us seem privileged. I'm not sure it's so easy to say it's the crab mentality. At its core, it's an adversarial system. I didn't spend each day tormented and bullied. None of my childhood friends wished me harm or failure. They were not jealous. It's more as if I became invisible to people I'd spent a childhood with.

There's an entire world of experiences out there, if we can ever move beyond our and others limitations. Our children have the right to explore their interests without being made to feel less than. Whether it's the black teen playing rugby or deciding to sing opera who are we to diminish another person and force them into a box. Or if you want to play basketball or football, that's okay  too. We're forever hearing think outside the box, but why can't we just throw the box away. Years  ago, you might have been a  black student told not to major in Music or Art. At least in my little circle. I remember my astonishment when a slightly older person from a rural southern town told me her parents encouraged her Drama major in college. Although, based on an September 4, 2016 article in the Washinton Post liberal art major aren't encouraged by parents in general. Now, I have a cousin who graduated with a Fashion and Textile degree. I met another young lady who travelled to Spain on some sort of internship to perform opera. A young man from my church plays rugby. We're expanding ourselves. But, we must stretch ourselves so much more. Think of the things people have avoided from fear of being seen as white.

We have so many labels and perceptions about other people based on race, gender, religion, and hundreds of other things. How do we overcome our biases to extend respect and love to all people? Many brown and black people worry about physical safety, whether from those in the community or in power. Immigrants worrying about deportation and the building of a wall. Refugees seeking asylum. Law enforcement officers feeling vilified. Others worrying about diminishing power in a growing world of color. At the end of the day, we're looking for a place of acceptance and respect, some times in the wrong ways. We're always speaking about creating a better future; what about creating a better today. We need a different present. The future is built upon the many choices we make today. Today is the beginning of change. How will you contribute to building a positive present?