Arriving in the UK as an African girl with my luggage in tow and a massive grin on my face, bursting with expectations, I was halted in my steps by a discovery. I found that in the western world, it wasn’t enough to be born black, it is possible to act black, dress black, talk black.
I realised that just as there is a box often made for each and every one of us, which only the daring and non-conformists manage to escape, there is a box made for black people in the western world to fit into, in the UK and even more so in the USA.
I was often told by black people who grew up in the UK (Black British) that I act white. When they see that my playlist isn’t filled with songs that refers to women as bitches and men as niggas, when they see artistes like Darius Rucker, Bryan Adams and Bill Withers as opposed to Wiz Khalifa or 50 cent, when I refuse to speak slang or use words that are considered part of the lexicon of what is often referred to as Back English or Ebonics. In fact, I was surprised that I used better grammar as an African than some Black British.
Whilst my intention isn’t to claim that there is something wrong with rap or speaking slang, I am very much concerned with the concept that everything paramount to respectability and career advancement in a civilised society is termed White and the opposite, Black. For instance, “acting black” means you are ghetto, uneducated, not well spoken, dressed like a tramp, loud, while “acting white” connotes good manners, eloquence, educated, cultured, reserved, successful.
It is the reason why my 14 year old cousin came back from school gobsmacked to have seen a White schoolboy sagging. In her words; “No, it doesn’t suit white people, it’s for black boys.” Need I remind you that sagging is very likely to get you stopped and searched by the police and very unlikely to help you make a good impression at a job interview.
Teenagers are often more susceptible to this form of ingrained stereotypes for fear of ostracism. As a teen the first thing on your to do list is to fit in. A black teenager will more readily play the role of a stereotypical black kid and in fact take it on as an identity than fight against it, to avoid being called a Bounty or Oreo (like the chocolate and cookie, black outside and white inside).
After all studies find that “during the teenage years, young people are influenced by a huge array of factors, which can increase vulnerability and risk. These can include; puberty and hormonal changes, wanting increased autonomy from family, peer pressure, body image and self esteem issues, the influence of the media, an increased capacity for cognitive reasoning etc” (Kelly, L. 1988).
Since these formative years are the foundation on which a person’s life is built on, a sparse vocabulary, bad grammar and other attributes synonymous with “acting black” could very well jeopardize the chance of a solid higher education or career prospect. I am yet to see a professional that says “innit”.
I’d say as an outsider who grew up in a country were I wasn’t constantly reminded of my race, and amongst an educated family who encouraged me to receive the highest accolades possible and press for success, it was easy to spot these stereotypes and recognize them as a totally false depiction of me.
I came out of my mom’s womb black and that is as far as that colour determines my person. I was born black and therefore do not have to “act black” “dress black” “talk black” to earn a place in the black community. These phrases have no meaning to me and it is a pity that some have accepted these attributes as black culture. It doesn’t matter if I take up golf, love the Beatles, or speak eloquently, I am very much BLACK.
Black and Intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive and I refuse to be deceived into accepting a set of pre-instilled stereotypes as my culture or be considered a sell out for “acting white”.
PS: Did you know Will smith had to hide his books in pizza boxes so people in his neighbourhood don’t see that he studies?
Kelly, L. (1988) Surviving Sexual Violence, Blackwell Publishing/Polity Press.