“Dear Kent State Psychologists:
I am writing to you today because I AM DESPERATELY SEEKING HELP FOR MY TEENAGE DAUGHTER NIKKI. She is 16 and attends a predominantly White high school. She listens to White music and socially identifies with White society. I feel, and she has confided to me, that Blacks see her as strange and acting White in the way she talks, dresses, and acts. I no longer force her to go to church because she is very withdrawn there and tries so hard to be accepted, but she is only laughed at by other teens who say she acts like a White girl.”
Acts like a White girl. Talks like a White girl. Dresses like a White girl. Must be a White girl. What is this thing called acting White and what does it have to do with anxiety?
Acting White is one of the most negative accusations one Black adolescent can hurl at another. The acting White accusation (AWA) arises when a Black adolescent’s racial identity is perceived by other Black adolescents as being not Black enough. Acting White has nothing to do with wanting to be White and everything to do with what it means to be Black in this country.
Continuum of Blackness
Rarely do you find a Black person who wants to change their race. What you will find is that different people assign different meanings to what it means to be Black. It’s as if there is a giant continuum of Blackness: On one end is what adolescents and young adults refer to as hardcore or ghetto Black, such as engaging in stereotypical behavior (e.g., listening to hip-hop or speaking slang). At the opposite end is the idea that being Black is no different from being White, green, or purple—a content of character approach. In between these opposites is a myriad of definitions of Blackness.
Picture a giant scale of Blackness. The definitions for being Black and where they fall on the continuum lead people to accuse others of acting White. At one end is Snoop Dogg and at the other is Tiger Woods at the height of his popularity. When “Mr. Puff Puff Pass” meets “Mr. Pass the Grey Poupon,” the accusation of acting White is sure to occur.
But not everyone’s definition is at the top or bottom of the scale; most people fall somewhere in between. Yet when Snoop Dogg meets someone who falls in the middle of the scale, he also sees that person as acting White. The person in the middle is perplexed because he does not see himself as acting White. And this person looks down at someone on the Tiger Woods end of the scale, accusing him or her of acting White.
How an individual defines what it means to be Black (or any other race) is part of what psychologists refer to as racial identity. Another part of this racial identity is the importance someone assigns to being Black. Everyone in this country who is Black knows they are Black — they just may not feel the need to alert you to this fact. That is their prerogative.
However, if a person does not overtly signify that they are Black, we may surmise that their Blackness is not important to them and accuse them of acting White. How do you let people know that being Black is important to you? At the same time, when people tell us being Black is important to who they are, why don’t we believe them and then keep accusing them of acting White?
The Accusation Experience
People experience the AWA in one of two ways — directly (“you are acting White”) or indirectly (“you talk like a White boy”). No matter how the accusation is delivered, it bothers those who receive it. As it relates to anxiety, what matters is how much it bothers them.
Many adolescents who have been accused of acting White have difficulty describing how the accusation made them feel. Some simply say it bothered them. But what is bother exactly? Research suggests that bother is associated with anxiety1. What this means is that some adolescents feel anxious when they are accused of acting White. Additionally, the accusation has been associated with social anxiety2. In fact, the more bothered an adolescent is by being accused of acting White, the more social anxiety they experience.
The relationship between the AWA and social anxiety has major implications for Black adolescents. It suggests that they become fearful in social situations with their Black peers. On the surface, it makes sense. If a Black adolescent listens to country music, speaks “proper English,” and prefers to associate with their White peers, it’s likely they will be perceived as acting White. Such an individual is likely to become anxious around Blacks out of fear of being constantly and negatively perceived as acting White. This becomes especially problematic for adolescents who have a strong identification with their racial identity, but are constantly having it questioned by other Black adolescents. The result could lead to avoiding their Black peers so much that they become isolated and withdrawn, or engaging in stereotypical Black behaviors that do not reflect who they truly are.
Many Black adolescents have received the AWA. Some are more bothered than others and are more likely to feel anxious, isolated, and misunderstood. Acting White may be a concept among other ethnic groups, but the research primarily focuses on Black populations because of its prevalence among Black adolescents. Given the link between the AWA and anxiety, we must now ask ourselves, “How do we address this issue?”
The next article in this series will be published soon.
1. Murray, M. S., Neal-Barnett, A., Demmings, J. L., & Stadulis, R. E. (2012). The acting White accusation, racial identity, and anxiety in African American adolescents. Journal of anxiety disorders, 26(4), 526-531.
2. Davis, M., Stadulis, R., & Neal-Barnett, A. (under review). Assessing the effects of the acting White accusation: Social anxiety and bullying victimization.