I often hear this term ‘acting white’ being thrown about amongst people of a black or minority ethnic background (I will use people of colour or PoC from now on). Or the term ‘bounty’ or ‘coconut’ is used to describe PoC who in their words ‘act white’. These terms are pretty self-explanatory with a little imagination or if you are a PoC and have been called one. But for those who are unaware of the word or meaning I will explain now. ‘Bounty’ is the name of the chocolate bar many of you are aware of, the chocolate representing the colours; therefore in street terms ‘Black/or Brown on the outside and white from the inside’. Same applies to the coconut. I’m being British centric here in the use of the term but of course I recognise that this may also apply elsewhere, such as ‘Oreo’ in the U.S.
But what does ‘acting white’ really imply? ‘Acting white’ presumably means acting in a certain way, dressing in a certain way and most importantly and soul crushingly speaking in a certain manner. The implications of using this term is however self-deprecating as it legitimises internal racism. It assumes that ‘acting white’ is acting right, and therefore minorities have to ‘act white’ because they are not fit or ready to live in a civilised Britain. Again, colonial discourse is being reproduced in a so called post-imperial and post-racial Western world. It implies that ‘dressing white’ (whatever that may be) is the right way to dress and dressing in a non-white manner is the wrong way. Same goes for accents. This ideal is also presented in the ‘successful black guy meme’ on facebook. A nasty and bigoted message is given about black people, that every Black person is inherently a ‘ghetto mobster’. It is derogatory assuming that Black people cannot hold jobs in the same league as white people.
One only has to look through the lens as a historian and see how Black people were at the bottom of the racial hierarchy during the empire period and prior. Language is extremely important, by using the term ‘acting white’; we are reproducing and legitimising those very racist view and discourses of the occidentals, bigots, racists and xenophobes. On the flip side, Sharon Osborne in a recent interview slammed Justin Bieber for his bad behaviour and said, “I think he doesn’t realise he is white and not Black”. Hang on there, so being bad is something only Black kids do? Hello racism, and the criminalisation of Black men – AGAIN. Justin Bieber peeing in a kitchen bucket, spitting on people and fighting with paparazzi is apparently something only Black kids do, and not because like many child stars they are not living normal lives. Middle class white boys are always good boys right? Wrong.
Lets look at what it means to ‘act white’ though. Everyone has to act differently in different environment and PoC are no strangers to having to ‘act differently’. In fact PoC, especially those with migrant parents, live double lives, they are ‘top ethnic/black children’ at home, that being religious or cultural protégés of their parent(s), and then less so elsewhere in their daily lives. But there needs to be a change in the words we use to describe the action of this performance of ‘acting differently’. PoC have to act differently for a reason, the reason is that there is still widespread institutional and structural racism. PoC therefore are not ‘acting white’, they are adjusting how they come across to a white person/peer. Britain is racist by the same token as the US, in fact I would argue institutional racism is worse than outright racism because it goes on undetected and hence unchallenged.
Today’s young people are already stereotyped and scapegoated constantly as hooded thugs; a poor old lady may be frightened and will cross over to the other side of the street or road, but she will be more frightened if this is a person of colour. Is she a racist? A little yes, but she feels threatened because of the constant depiction of black man as the violent ‘other’. I say men here because hyper masculinity is almost always associated with men of colour. Women of colour are in contrast screened out of public discourse altogether by being often depicted as oppressed (I have written about this here) or dismissed as being hypersexual. So by calling someone a ‘bounty’ or saying they are ‘acting white’ he/she is also playing a role in reproducing colonial racial and racist discourse.
When it comes to employment tattoos, piercings and customised grills (silver/ gold teeth) are absolutely a no no. For the person of colour, they might as well hop on to the dole line as soon as they walk out the shop. Black people and British Pakistani men have a higher rate of unemployment than their white counterparts. The TUC’s report (PDF) shows 50% of British Black 16-24 are unemployed.
Even ‘equal opportunities’ employers give identical CVs with ‘white’ names more replies than ones with ‘black’ names ‘ Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination
Even when in employment, people of colour find is harder to get promotions, they are still considered ‘lazy’ amongst other dogmatic colonial judgments – Just look at the comments made by now resigned Tory MP John Cherry regarding the schooling of British Black and British Pakistani children. He argued that British Pakistani children would ‘fail to rise to the top’ and certain nationalities didn’t know what ‘hard work was about’. People of colour have to constantly dodge their popular tags of troublesome ‘others’ and have to work harder prove themselves as worthy equals in the workplace. I know many PoC who feel upset seeing their less experienced but white colleagues receive promotions over them. They have to constantly fret about how to come across as ‘proper’ in public life. This is not ‘acting white’ it is only a crude way of apologising for the extra melanin in their skin. This is the reality of institutional racism and this is probably the success of its survival – the very fact that it goes unchallenged and undetected. There is not means to no way to prove to the courts and judges a racial bias, not when judges are also overwhelmingly white. In the workplace there is no way to prove that they didn’t get that promotion because of the colour of their skin. Positive discrimination schemes, equality, race laws and other so called racial equality measures are ineffective in dealing with institutional racism. This is because there is already an institutionalised thought process that regards black and minorities as an ‘other’, as someone who is dangerous and is criminal.
There is always an appraisal of the ‘British character’ and the British nationhood during every national pride day (Jubilees, Sports etc.), but it seems Black and minority ethnics have little representation in those national events. There is little mention of Black people during the Victorian times in our history lessons. Our history curriculum is too busy trying to show our children how we saved Europe from Nazi Germany, despite the fact that we also had blood on our hands with our colonial escapades. Britain cannot use allowing non-white immigration as an apology to the Empire. Second, third and fourth generation non-white Britons didn’t choose to be born here, so they shouldn’t just be ‘tolerated’, they are as much British as any other white person and should be treated as equals on paper and in person.
White is not proper, no colour is proper; we’re all an accident of evolution after all.
Originally published on Media Diversity UK