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Performing race, whether it be “acting black” or “being Mexican,” rests on the belief that certain actions are commonly or logically attributed to whiteness and a white racial identification. To act white, in the popular imagination, is equated with acts of affluence, decorum, success, and other forms of “goodness.” When juxtaposed to “acting black,” for example, the assumption is that there is a distinct and binary divide between the way black people behave and the way white people behave. Furthermore, value is ascribed to each racialized behavioral set, white acts being more positively connoted than black acts, and the subject’s “authentic” racial identity is thrown into question when the subject’s behavior is not in accordance with his or her racial identity. Consequently, racial behavior and racial identity are inextricably linked, racialized behaviors revealing the positive or negative connotations associated with the corresponding racial group.
Black subjects or other subjects of color who act white are often cast as archetypes of common tropes or caricatures—for example, “Oreo,” someone who is black on the outside but white on the inside, and “Uncle Tom,” one who is overwhelmingly deferential to white people and despises what blackness is said to be. Depending on the context, these identities either serve to cast aspersions on one’s blackness or function as ways to gain credibility in white spaces by distancing the black subject from pathological blackness.
Working Racial Identity
But in the context of U.S. racial history and the legacy of white supremacy and normativity, black subjects find themselves overwhelmingly in white spaces and thus subject to white norms. According to Devon Carbado, there is a central conflict that black individuals face, which is the double bind of having to be “black enough” from the perspective of those in the black community but “white enough” from the perspective of the dominant white society. This double bind, from Carbado’s perspective, results in having to “work” one’s racial identity.
Working identity is constituted by a broad range of racially connoted ways of being and behaving, which include sartorial choices, speech and language patterns, and hairstyles; one’s professional and social affiliations; one’s social and romantic relationship choices; one’s politics and views about race; where one lives; and so on. The working of one’s racial identity acts as a criterion for racial authentication, used to ascertain not only whether someone is black on the basis of appearance but also the extent of the person’s blackness on the basis of how she or he behaves or is perceived to behave. In this sense, working identity refers both to the perceived choices people make about their self-presentation (the racially associated ways of being listed above) and to the perceived identity that emerges from those choices (how black we determine a person to be).
In the context of professional environments, then, institutions, largely dominated by white norms and people, implicitly (or explicitly) seek black individuals who have more palatable working identities—that is to say, black employees who are not “too black.” With the emphasis mostly on physically salient racial differences in an era concerned with arguably shallow diversity initiatives, institutions often simply look for employees who are racially salient as black or of color. These people, Carbado asserts, can be described as “but for” African Americans: but for their skin color, they are virtually indistinguishable from their white colleagues.
When Acting Becomes Being
There is significance in the word acting as it relates to “being” because of the often overlooked performativity of racial (and gendered) identities. Led by the philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler, identities are performative insofar as the way subjects behave and the norms they reiterate and “cite” get consolidated into an identity. Butler focuses on gender primarily, but the notion of the performativity of identity can also apply to race, as the scholar Nadine Ehlers avers.
We not only “are” a particular race but also “do” that particular race. Ehlers asserts in her book Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles Against Subjection that race is not merely a static, entirely “known” identity, unmediated and extricated from actions, but a performative identity that always carries with it a set of behavioral practices that are cited and reiterated. One is a particular race because, at least in part, one does the “race-ness” of it. Hence, “acting” white is an attempt to “be” white, whatever the criteria for that existence as white may be. As a black subject, to act white is often characterized by many as seeking a white racial identification, with which comes the aforementioned forms of “goodness.”
Ultimately, then, acting white has profound implications for one’s understanding of one’s own ontological racial state. Indeed, all this occurs, in the U.S. context, in the midst of white hegemony, imposed and perceived black inferiority, police brutality, black criminalization, race-based economic and social disadvantages, respectability politics, racialized-gendered assumptions/biases, and other factors that dictate how people are perceived and behave as racial subjects. The desire or compulsion to act white is, in large part, an effect of historical and contemporary white supremacy, which ascribes to whiteness all that is good while blackness is cast as the antithesis of that whiteness/ goodness.
Obama And Race
Perhaps the most readily applicable black individual for whom the notion of “acting white” has been important on a national scale is President Barack Obama. For many white Americans, Obama was a “but for” black subject—he was palatable, went to an Ivy League institution, spoke articulately (itself a racially charged descriptor), and hinted at no racially specific concerns. In short, Obama acted sufficiently “white.” Or put another way, Obama was not “too black.”
It is arguable that Obama in many ways acted white to access the spaces he need to; indeed, one could argue that it was necessary that he act sufficiently white or he would never have been named the president of the Harvard Law Review or become the president of the United States. Obama donned the behavioral tenets of whiteness and thus was able to enter spaces that someone who is “too black” would not have been granted access to.
While scholars have noted that Obama was much more implicitly “black” than was readily apparent—his enactment of the African American linguistic tradition of subverting the meaning of words, using what Toni Morrison has called “race specific, race free language,” and his habit of making sly references to people like Malcolm X in the face of accusations of his ersatz Muslim affiliation—it is still true that he had to distance himself from what was deemed too black and thus too indecorous for predominantly white spaces. The most salient example is perhaps his distancing from his longtime religious mentor Reverend Jeremiah Wright. After Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon went viral, in which he condemned the United States for its racially coded war on drugs, prison–industrial complex, and law enforcement practices, Obama deemphasized his relationship with Wright and distanced himself from the “blackness” of Wright’s words. Obama’s behavior of whiteness in this moment took the form of saying that he wasn’t that (kind of) black.
The notion of performing race carries with it profound implications for how U.S. culture values white racial identity and all behaviors associated with it, to the detriment of any (colored) deviation from it. Though race relations have indeed improved over the history of the United States, thus making the black/white distinction less blatant, there still exists an insidious white supremacist U.S. ethos, ascribing value to whiteness while simultaneously devaluing blackness and other racial minority groups.
- Austen-Smith, The Economics of “Acting White.” Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003.
- Buck, Stuart. Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Carbado, Devon W. Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Christie, Ron. Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
- Ehlers, Nadine. Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles Against Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.
- Tyson, Karolyn. Integration Interrupted: Tracking, Black Students, and Acting White After New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.