‘Stop Acting White’: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?

By: Lee Williams

Guest Commentary

Former NBA great Charles Barkley is generating waves of controversy for his latest tirade. Barkley called out “unintelligent” black people for their criticism of successful black people, who label them as “acting white” and that they aren’t black enough.

Barkley made his comments during his interview with “Afternoons with Anthony Gargano and Rob Ellis,” where he was asked about rumors that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been criticized by his black teammates that he’s not acting “black enough.”

Barkley’s rant targeted blacks that believe, “If you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough.”

“Unfortunately, as I tell my white friends, we as black people, we’re never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you’re black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people. It’s a dirty, dark secret; I’m glad it’s coming out.”

Barkley may have been on his soapbox, but he does have a point. There is a culture of praised mediocrity and criticism within the African-American community that few wish to speak on. I’ve lived it.

As a young man growing up in Georgia, I spent my childhood reading, listening to alternative music, and studying to make good grades. My parents raised me with pride and purpose. They taught me the value of work hard and that, as a black man, I’d have to elevate myself to an elite level in order to be successful in this country. Outside of the home, I found that the purpose-driven values I was taught were not embraced by some of my African-American peers. I was constantly teased for wearing glasses, being smart, and doing anything outside the sphere of the African-American experience.

“You’re not black. You’re an Oreo—black on the outside, white on the inside.”

“Listen to him, talking like a white boy.”

“Man, you’re lame. You listen to that music? Stop acting white.”

These are just a few of the comments that I heard when growing up, but the punishment didn’t stop there. My kindness and well-spoken demeanor triggered physical violence and constant bullying on a few occasions, all because I was open-minded and “different.” During high school, I shed the glasses and played sports—which negated some of the animosity—but I faced new social pressure to adopt the stereotypical “thug” image that was so embraced by other adolescent African-American young men, and negatively reinforced by rap music and the media.

According to my peers, if you weren’t a skirt-chasing, highly-masculine black guy with an edgy personality, then you weren’t considered a “true” black man.

You weren’t “black” enough.

Of course, African-American culture as a whole is not reflective of this regressive, backwards perspective. I champion other African-Americans that defy public criticism for how they should act, dress, and express themselves. The excellent indie-film “Dear White People” addresses the dilemma of defining oneself against how society perceives you to be. In the past, too often, I found myself striving to assert my blackness to my African-American peers. This proved to be exhausting.

Similarly, African-American women are not immune from the intense judgment of “our” people. Recently, child-star and actress Raven-Symoné received harsh criticism from African-Americans for her comments during an interview with Oprah, where she said she was tired of being “labeled” as gay or African-American and that she was “a human who loves humans” and “an American.”

A differing perspective in a world of infinite perspectives simply isn’t acceptable for many African-Americans, especially when it comes from one of our own. Like Barkley, I agree that this crab-in-the-bucket mentality is a toxic social norm within the African-American community that needs to end.

Where did this culture of praised mediocrity originate? In my opinion, the destruction of the nuclear family is the primary cause of many social problems facing African-Americans. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 30% of African-American families are single-parent households with only the mother present, and 51% of those families live below the poverty line. These disproportionate statistics are shocking. For any race, unclear family models, a lack of discipline and guidance, the effects of poverty, and psychological trauma suffered from those experiences can create a culture of fear and ignorance that is toxic in nature.

These days, thug culture, criminality, and rap music are the primary models for at-risk African-American youth. These popular forms of expression are encouraged and embraced by our society and pop culture. If they were to have met, Booker T. Washington would have never vilified Martin Luther King, Jr. on whether or not he was a “real n***a,” and George Washington Carver’s dress style would not have been made fun of because he didn’t sag. These men were too busy being pathfinders for those who would follow them. Their sacrifices and advances were made to create a better future for the disadvantaged and disproportioned within the African-American community.

Influential sociologists, author, and civil-rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote that the African-American race will be saved by its “exceptional men.” He used the term “the talented tenth” in describing the possibility that one in every ten black men would become leaders through pursuing and completing higher education, writing progressive literature, community involvement and inciting social change—effectively leading the disenfranchised African-Americans by example. In his Talented Tenth essay, he wrote:

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.”

Du Bois would be shaken to find that aspects of African-American society have become so toxic. I am happy that Barkley was bold enough to publicly address what many of us already know—that many of the negative, prevailing notions we have regarding our black identity are wrong, need to be challenged, and ultimately destroyed.

It’s wrong to idealize thug culture, dysfunctional relationships, and a flashy, extravagant lifestyle of vice. Having sex with as many women as possible and leaving your child fatherless does not make you a man, it makes you a coward who is condemning his family to a harsh life of poverty. Why do so many of us try so hard to be a thug when it is hazardous to your health? You’re only becoming a target for trigger-happy police, racial profilers, racists, and EACH OTHER to villainize and attack. This is not real manhood, but an extreme, over exaggeration for what many lack on the inside, which is self-esteem, confidence, and ambition.

It’s saddening that so many African-American children are raised in single-parent homes, that so few of us complete higher education, and that this vicious cycle only continues without discussion from our own. It’s saddening that much of our music praises the “bad b***h” and “h*” mentality portrayed in twerking and booty clapping videos, the violent fight videos are shared regularly via WorldStarHipHop and YouTube, and the fact that a promiscuous woman is considered a desirable one. It’s saddening that our young men still sag their pants so much that their boxers show. Who sold us on the lies that this is the way to carry ourselves in the world?

Lastly, it’s saddening that I have to admit that Barkley is right. The cultural of self-hated and antagonism between regressive and progressive African-Americans has been present since slavery and Jim Crow, where we’d admonish blacks for being “uncle Toms,” and “house slaves” when they would be too closely associated with whites, and mulatto women were treated harshly by darker-skinned African-American women since they had white lineage in their blood. Now “uncle Tom” has been replaced with “Oreo” and  “not black enough,” but the intent of the message is still the same: To some, you aren’t a true black person if you do not share the same backward views as they do.

To the regressive black people that will inevitably attack Sir Charles and myself for our views, I’ll say this: Grow up. For too long we have let others dictate who we are. African-Americans are not monolithic; they come in all shapes, forms, and from a variety of perspectives. Why should one narrow view shape who we are? Why do so many of us think inferiority is cool? Why are so many of us raised in single-parent homes? Why do so many of us allow government programs like welfare to be our safety net for way too long? To go a step further, why do so many of us vote overwhelmingly Democrat, no questions asked? Many of the things I’ve mentioned have helped to maintain this destructive culture of mediocrity.

I challenge you to consider outside perspectives. I challenge you to think bigger.

Championing a chipped shoulder of entitlement and backwardness WILL NOT solve the problems within the black community. This dysfunctional perspective is a cultural hindrance and a psychological brick wall in the consciousness of some African-Americans, and has allowed some of us to hold each other back for generations. This will only end when all of us refuse to accept mediocrity as a cultural standard. Then, and only then, will we be truly able to move forward as a race.


Lee Williams is a full-time writer, activist, and devout Christian residing in Florida. He is the creator of the Communication Activist blog, and is a passionate advocate for reasonable communication in the media and society. Follow him on his Facebook page, Twitter, or the Communication Activist Facebook page.

UrbanCusp.com is a cutting-edge online life.style magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. The site offers a platform for young adult perspectives, profiles inspirational visionaries and artists, and serves as an online community for change agents who are like-minded. Founded in 2011 by Rahiel Tesfamariam, Urban Cusp highlights voices, ideas and images not commonly found within mainstream media.