My students tell me there’s nothing they hate more than blacks and latinos who try to ‘act white.’ I’m surprised and not surprised by this. Surprised because I had hoped, in some painfully-naive wrinkle of my brain, that this was over. Finished. And I’m not surprised because of course I know this foolish ugliness is still everywhere to be found.
I ask what they mean when they say ‘act white,’ and they try to explain. They do dramatic renderings of admittedly white people, morphing into Reese Whitherspoon in Legally Blonde, Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex in the City … and then they move on to some not white white people, all of them enthusiastically supporting one student’s choice of Stacey Dash in Clueless. Before I can point out that Ms. Dash is an actress, that she was playing a role, they land where I’ve known we would from the start: “Listen to how she talks, Miss.”
Yes. Listen to how she talks. Listen to how I talk. On the first night of class (this is a night Pre-GED class for what everyone calls “out of school youth”) half the class made fun of the way I talk, saying I sounded like a white woman. I remind them of this.
“No, Miss. You’re not acting white, you don’t talk white. You talk proper.”
Well, certainly I am relieved to know it, but I’m troubled all the same.
Why does this attitude persist? Yes, it’s true that I don’t talk like my students. I don’t talk like a lot of people. And my whole life I’ve been hearing the questions, the ignorant and insulting pats on the back: “Oh, you speak so well.” “Oh, you’re so articulate.” “Oh, where are you from?” “Oh, are you from England? I mean that as a compliment!” Right. As if I can’t be African American and talk like this? Please. I even had one man ask me if I was talking ‘like that’ because I was talking to him, a white guy. “Don’t you switch back and forth? Like, couldn’t you just start speaking Black English if you wanted to? Right now?” Right. Now.
Of course, those people are coming from some place different from my students. Those people are all white and have a whole other set of rules they are applying to me and my speech. My students — all between 16 and 21, all black and latino — are making similar assumptions about how I should talk, but where they are is so far removed from the “Oh, you’re so articulate!” crowd.
So I asked what it meant that I “talked proper,” and got some very unformed, confusing answers at first. It means I talk … well … “like you talk, Miss.” And then one student explained in a way that satisfied everyone: “You talk like the book, Miss,” and I guess that’s true enough … depending on what book you’re reading.
Where are my students coming from? I can’t claim to have a complete picture, but some things I know. They have grown up in neighborhoods where violence and poverty, drugs and death are more common than not. They have seen more blood and pain in their very short lives than I hope to see in the whole of mine. And it doesn’t strike them, isn’t out of the ordinary. It just is. It just is. Itjustis. Injustice …
And none of that has to mean they hear my voice and think of white people — because God knows there are plenty of white people who don’t talk the way I do, who don’t talk like the book. But of course where they’re from and how they’ve lived is all a part of what they hear in my voice. They are curious and amused by the fact that I use absolutely no slang, that I never slip up and use the (dreaded) N-word. I am a strange, mostly unknown quantity to them, and that’s working for us right now. They tease me about the prim way I say some of their names — the emphases jumping to the wrong syllables in my not-at-all-from-the-street pronunciations — but the teasing is gentle. Two nights ago, one asked how long I thought he’d have to work before he could talk the way I do. I’m not exactly sure that should be his goal, but I’ll admit that it’s encouraging to know he thought about it, to know he’s maybe starting to see a new possibility when he hears me talk.