Charles Barkley has never been one to shy away from confrontation both on and off the basketball court. The retired NBA star stepped back in the limelight earlier this week when he spoke on a Philadelphia radio station to address comments that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson wasn’t respected by some of his teammates in the locker room, as Wilson allegedly wasn’t “black enough.” Put another way, Wilson was “acting white” as he wasn’t sufficiently down with the struggle since he speaks intelligently and doesn’t have a prison record to provide him with sufficient street cred.
Barkley goes further by noting that blacks are likened to a bucket of crabs who are willing to pull down those who are successful and intelligent. I wish that Barkley’s commentary on certain elements of the black community rang false; several years of research on the subject proves that the “acting white” accusation is sadly alive and well in America.
In 2010, I published Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books), in response to then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s speech before the 2004 National Convention. In his remarks, Obama noted: “Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children have to achieve unless we raise their expectations and…eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”
Obama’s words struck me, as I have been accused of “acting white” for my entire life and I wanted to know where the destructive slur had its origins. I trace it back to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was, of course, a momentous book, in our memory and in its own time. President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862 and exclaimed to her, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
But Stowe did something else with Uncle Tom’s Cabin: I believe the author unwittingly initiated a discussion about what it meant to be acting white while one was black—a destructive conversation we’re still having more than 150 years later. How? Because all of the protagonists in Uncle Tom’s Cabin—with the notable exception of Uncle Tom himself—could read, write, speak intelligently, and most importantly, pass as white in public.
Look closely and blacks who spoke well and could read during this period in American history were deemed to have been acting white – Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia were amongst several Southern states that imposed fines, flogging, and imprisonment on those who taught African Americans how to read and write during this dark era in American history. Fast forward through that history and think of some of the most important figures in African American culture: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X have all accused or been accused by others of acting white.
As I was preparing my book for publication in 2009, I happened to have breakfast with former President George W. Bush where I asked him for his thoughts on the subject. He spoke with great compassion about his time as governor of Texas and President of the United States, when he fought hard against the soft bigotry of low expectations that people of color were unable to read, write, or participate in American society to the same extent as other ethnic groups.
President Obama also spoke out against this destructive slur earlier this summer when he participated in remarks to launch his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative where he observed:
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.
Enough is enough. I applaud the likes of Charles Barkley and President Obama, who have been unafraid to wade into a slur that far too many people in America hurl at blacks who read, write, and speak intelligently. The notion that one who is “acting white” is not authentically black speaks to a decline in cultural and societal norms that must be eradicated.
The legacy of the civil rights movement to unlock the school house doors so that all children could be educated equally in America demands better of those who seek to achieve success through the bedrock foundation of a solid education.