Language Arts: When White Coworkers Try To "Act Black"

We all know that language is one of those powerful, yet almost inexplicable traits of human interaction. Matters such as physical actions and tone can completely alter the meaning and intentions of statements. This is why terms like "acting white" and "acting black" convey, as much as some academics try to eradicate them, such profound definitions for many. These statements imply that racial identity is subject to certain cultural behaviors. Let's be real: most of us believe in at least one stereotype that we feel truly defines a group of people.

Within my professional life, I've had the experience of working solely under female supervisors. Although, I am fortunate to say that overall my professional relationship with all these women have been great,  I have recently realized that the way my white supervisors have interacted with me has differed from how my black ones have acted towards me (FYI: I have only had white and black supervisors). There have been times when sharing laughs with my white supervisors, that they have slipped into "acting black." They'd start rolling their necks and eyes, dropping the "-ing" endings on their words, and finishing every statement with a drawn out "giiirrrlll!" I've always been fascinated with the underlying meanings of such deportment.

There is an old belief amongst the black community that all black people are "bilingual." We know when to let our tongues loose - using the colloquialisms popular in our geographical areas; and when to use formal speech. Having to do so and knowing when to do so plays into the "acting black -- acting white" memes. It is, sadly, a societal norm for one to believe that using familiar speech is "acting black" and not acceptable for professional use, whereas utilizing formal speech is considered "acting white" and superior to all other forms of conversing. Such a condition forces black people, as well as other groups of color, to take on traits that are considered white and superior to be rewarded within society (ie gaining access to resources, getting well paid jobs, etc.) So when white supervisors or friends choose to "act black," it is like being thrown a curveball.

I found it very offensive to have been on the receiving end of such conduct from my white supervisors. Not only does it play on well known stereotypes of black women in the mainstream, it reeks of condescension. From day to day interaction, it was quite evident that my supervisors did not normally not speak nor act like "homegirl" caricatures. As previously stated, in the societal hierarchy formal speech is associated with whiteness and superiority. To have my bosses take on such traits meant that they "lowered" themselves to what they believed my station and mental capacity was to make a point. In doing so, they underestimated my intelligence level and made incorrect assumptions about my personality.

I know that I am one of the hundreds and maybe thousands of black women and men who have witnessed these actions. Overall, it is a sad reminder as to what too many in the mainstream believe blackness is, and how far we still have to go with breaking down stereotypes and presenting different images of what it means to be Black in today's world.

Valerie Jean-Charles is a 22 year old community servant and writer from Brooklyn, NY. Follow at @Empressval to join her never-ending conversations about everything and then some.

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