The Whitest Black Person I Know

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I recently led an audience consisting primarily of Caucasian folks through an exercise where we identified common racial micro-aggressions. We discussed what behaviors, language cues, social skills etc. hobbies etc. constitute receiving the label of an ethnicity as an adjective.  Upon finishing the session I was greeted by an attendee who gushed; “I just love how you break down tough, controversial current topics on race relations. I was really challenged by your words, and was surprised by how comfortable I felt around you. You are like the Whitest Black person I know!

I won’t spend time delving into the personhood and personality traits of the person behind these specific comments, because this is not a singular incident. I hear this sort of sentiment quite frequently, and after having conversations with others, I know that I am not alone. It is worth noting that the great majority of folks who have made statements like this are the type of “good white people” Brit Bennett describes in her article. I shall also frame this blog post around the truism which is that we all emit unconscious stereotypes via microagressive comments, and the great majority of us are certainly not seeking to offend others.

However, even when microagressions don’t consciously seek to offend, they still hold weight and have far reaching implications for those on the receiving end. The various ways I’ve been tagged as the Whitest Black Person has left an impression on me. For example, during my high school years, the comments actually prompted feelings of pride and relative success – I felt it to be a compliment to fit in with my predominantly Caucasian peers. During early college, comments alluding to my “articulate nature” encouraged a feeling of positivity around perceived academic success. Within the work force being told that I made my clients feel “surprisingly at ease” resulted in feelings of self-adulation as I took it to mean that my work ethic and professionalism was noted. A black friend with whom I’ve recently conversed about this very topic concurred in stating that some micro-aggressions made him feel a similar sense of haughtiness, even conceit as well.

I generally give people the benefit of the doubt and offer an understanding affirmation of their well-intended comments, rather than to address the qualms in suggesting a betrayal of my own culture. During times where I have felt clear headed and rational enough to push back (thus effectively speaking out against the effects of marginalization), I’ve found that there is no inverse. That when folks state that I am the Whitest Black person they know, that this does not also mean that they have interacted with someone and deemed them the “Blackest White person” ever. This discrepancy (and others) leave me wildly curious. I wonder which aspects, in addition to the obvious implicit racial biases, are at play during these moments.

My incessantly curious brain can’t help but to wonder about the antithesis of these statements. If I’m “surprisingly safe” and “put people at ease” then what wouldn’t be surprising?  If others are shocked that they are able to have difficult conversations about race, this automatically implies that other black, young adult, female, transracial adoptees have shut them down in the past? Similarly if acting more professional equals acting White, wouldn’t that suggest that Whites are the status quo and the basis for which we measure white-collar jobs (no pun intended)? It seems that this could explain the sense of pride and conceit that I sometimes feel after receiving a comment like this. It makes sense to me that any compliment favoring the status quo may be initially perceived as a positive trait.

Inserting other ethnicities as adjectives have also helped me to put the pejorative sentence in to perspective. I’ve asked myself if a comment such as; “You’re the Asianist Latino I Know!” would be met with a rational understanding, or a sense of positive self regard? It’s unlikely. Most would feel a knee-jerk reaction to the overtly racist and offensive nature of the comment. Why then wouldn’t being the “Whitest Black Person” around come with the automatic visceral reaction of disgust?

Can I posit the idea that no one is born the stereotyped adjective that currently personifies their race? People are born with a certain amount of the melanin chemical that colors our skin, but we have learned how to act like our specific race within the social confines of the region in which we live. Herein lies the racial training that must occur for Whites raising Blacks, and vice versa. For transracial adoptees, learning with which adjective that we will align is a lifelong and formative process.

To some, I may be the Whitest Black person they know, but I know that having Black skin cannot equate to that specific person’s definition of what it means to act Black or White.

13 thoughts on “The Whitest Black Person I Know

  1. My experience is that this is not uncommon. Acting white, Oreo…these are similar statement s , although not meant to be compliments. What you experienced is white people saying the same things, but meaning it in a positive way. I have heard comments like, you’re more Asian than I am! Or you make a better Mexican than I do! Comments that have a similarity as well, but of course, without the unique animosity of the American black- white history that percolates under so many’s skin, they don’t feel negative , just complimentary in a surface, warm kind of way.

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  2. We get a lot of, “Where is he from?” regarding our son. I seriously doubt they would ask that if our son was white. This is then usually followed by a comment commending my husband and I, which is its own sort of cringe-worthy. I fret over the question, as I know he will need to answer it for himself as he gets older and what that question (and preceding comment) actually implies is: “You don’t fit in. How did you end up here? You’re so lucky your parents saved you!” I hate that for him.

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  3. Glad you are discussing this. I use to get “you don’t sound black.” What exactly does “black” sound like? I assumed it meant that I was “articulate” and could actually string together complete and grammatically correct sentences without an “accent.”

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  4. Maybe you sound like a black person from another country? Lots of black Americans have a distinctive way of speaking that is definitely NOT in actuality a reflection of the amount of pigment in their skin. One only has a travel a bit to see that black people from say, S. Africa or Scotland in no way sound ‘black’ to Americans of all races and ethnicities ears.
    However, in the US, it is so prevalent for black people to speak with certain intonation, word choices and style it would be silly to pretend that American blacks who don’t speak that way don’t sound different. It is the same when you meet someone born and bred in MIssissipi that doesn’t have a southern accent. Happens but isn’t the norm and people will comment on it.

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  5. Yep. As a Blacktina I get the comments that make you shake your head. I would have a nice chunk of change if I were paid every time someone said “articulate” in their praise of me. The “White” comment tagline as a denotation of approval is something I have to let go if I am educating or speaking to groups. The other weird one is thinking that I have to be from outside the US because there is no way this came from an urban area. That one makes me ponder the most about what expectations we have for our larger communities.

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  6. Hi Angela. As always, you have my mind spinning. Lucky for you that I lost the first response to this post – it was long and rambling. I will try to boil down my thoughts into a small bite. White people live insular lives and pretend they don’t. Most white people that I know have never shared a meal in the home of a black family. The white people that I know think that because they have a black friend and occasionally enjoy R & B music they are enlightened and worldly and anything but racist or ignorant. There are people in the “black neighborhoods” of my city that I have difficulty understanding…hell, I have difficulty understanding my father in law who lives in Scotland. Why, because we don’t regularly speak to one another! White people – no, middle class white people think they have the corner on the market with their own brand of civility. I can tell you from recent experience that civility is as much a part of a community of people as their food and their religious practice. I do not get to tell a black woman how to behave in line when she feels she is being crowded. I recently watched in horror as my 10 year old black son exclaimed that a black woman in line with us did no know how to behave. My son was responding to her vocabulary and her volume. Well, because she did not handle the situation like my son’s white mother – she was must be rude or stupid. Oh my God. We have since had long conversations about how behaviors and styles of speaking differ from community to community. I have explained the term civility and we have discussed it in relation to many events including police shootings. Bottom line, until white people learn to that they don’t own the right to define civil behavior and don’t own the right to evaluate others based on our own insular definitions of “articulate” – black folks who can speak “white” will be “safe” for white folks to talk to. Please don’t stop talking. We need all the voices we can find – especially those of us who are trying to have these discussions with our transracially adopted children. Happy New Year, Angela.

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  7. In school I heard a lot of people say,” I don’t really think of you as Asian.” I took it as a compliment then, but not I am appalled at myself for thinking it was. Now, what would be so bad if they thought of me as Asian????

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  8. Societies decide what civility means to them. In the US, our history has given us a European structure, even though we are not just like any European country these days. Having a generally agreed upon way to approach and react to public situations is how we can all, regardless of being in a highly diverse society, live together reasonably peaceably and in a relatively organized manner. Disliking the fairly loosely agreed upon amount of civility and good manners we currently display in the US because the ideals were originally brought by white Europeans centuries ago seems…unhelpful.

    Probably even Sudan, a country bereft of governance at this point, has social conventions. Teaching our children that anyone can behave how they want to regardless of the effect it will have on others doesn’t seem wise. Teaching children that white people are not the arbiters of civil behavior so screw them doesn’t seem very helpful either.

    By the by, not having black friends doesn’t make white people insular. I don’t have to have black friends, just as black people do not have to have white friends. It would be nice and probably very helpful to our country if we did but alas, we can’t force friendship on anyone. Respect, civility, compassion, kindness, appreciation, understanding, fairness, justice, inclusion…so many things we can and should demand, but not friendship. That is the right of the individual.

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  9. Societies, by definition agree upon macro ideals of organization, rules and consequences. Communities agree on common expressions, greetings, behaviors and gestures. I do not know the commonly accepted greetings or mannerisms in urban black barbershop nor do I know how to assimilate gracefully into an Asian coffee parlor. I am seeking to teach my children that “our way” is not the “best” or only way of communicating, interacting, socializing. With social segregation alive and well…these ideals require intention and questions. Trust between communities requires an understanding of one another’s values and common civilities; this applies in the line at the fair and between the police and private citizens.

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  10. I remember growing up and someone being called “oreo.” It was in middle school and even at the time I remember thinking that the comment was meant te be offensive and degrading to that person. In the part of the country where i lived (Oregon) a person being called “white” was a degrading term.

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  11. Growing up in the 1960’s, there were many different comments and assumptions around race and it seems that of all the races, the black and white race seemed to have the most division and the most comparisons. Still do. Odd isn’t it? I remember hearing, “she sounds white” or “he is trying to act black.” In truth, there was much more to define us by our race back then. But that’s what the Civil Rights Movement was attempting to eliminate. Being the mother of a mixed race family through natural biological connecitons, I see various types of people in both races. There is no need for assumptions.

    Take my own experiences; I came to Texas with a Rodeo Cowboy (white man) who lived in the suburb of Dallas, liked Rock&Roll and could not country dance. I lived in New Jersey, raised on a horse farm, liked Country and Western music and could do almost all the country dances. People made assumptions about us all the time and some were in disbelief.

    Now I get assumptions and judgements based around my mixed race family. People judge what they do not know. They base their opinions off of the media, and other people’s perceptions (whether acturate or not) without absorbing their own experiences.

    Without true interactions, we can never really know the truth about a person or a race.

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