I thought “talking white” was an old-school concept. If you grew up in the 80s and 90s—maybe earlier?—as a black child who could speak articulately, you might have been told by your peers a time or two that you “talked white.” Such a statement might have been an insult, or it might have been simply an “observation,” but the point was clear: white folks spoke “clearly” or “well,” and black folks…didn’t.
Whatever the case was back then, I was surprised to discover that it’s still a thing among kids in 2011. After picking the Kid, an 8th-grader, up from school today, I engaged him in a conversation about his day. In the process, he told me how he often reads books for leisure when “[they] don’t be doin’ nothin’ in math class.” “Why are you suddenly talking like that?” I respond, to which he replies, “Oh, I’ve been hanging around a lot of black people today.” When I tell him that such language is not a “black” thing, that people of all races speak that way, he tells me a story:
Over the weekend, while on a band trip, he and one of his white female classmates were checking out their Facebook pages. After reading a post, the young lady says to the Kid, “I don’t understand this. Here. You’re black. Tell me what this means.” The Kid humorously replies with something like, “I’m not so fluent in English, but I’m attempting to become more fluent in this language [“Ebonics”?] so that I can better communicate with my people.” The young lady laughingly responds, “That was so white.” The Kid also found this funny.
This whole thing struck me as odd on one hand but not so surprising on the other. On one hand, we supposedly live in a “post-racial” society, which I never really believed in but once thought was somewhat the case for children of the 2000s. On the other hand, I know good and well that racism is alive and well, as are prejudices and firmly established stereotypes, one of which is the notion that blacks and whites “talk differently.”
There’s another matter at work here, though, and it involves the very construction of race itself. I told the Kid that he’s got to stop thinking that there is a “black” way of being and a “white” way of being, that people of all races speak the way he and his friend were mocking—it’s not a “black” thing, nor is his being articulate a “white” thing. I then told him that it reminded me of President Obama’s run for office—remember his being called “articulate and clean”?—when the Kid quickly interrupted,
“But he’s not black.”
“Well, he’s identified himself that way, and plenty of people identify him as such.”
“But his mom is white. He has her white genes!”
“What are ‘white genes’?!” I laugh. “Kid, race is a construction created by people a long time ago to create division. Now, you think you’re “black” because your mom is “black” and your dad is “black,” but you have non-black people in your blood line, in your ancestry. Does that mean you’re not black?”
“Well, not fully black.”
“So what does black mean? What makes you so different from the President? Do you see that race isn’t a fixed concept? It’s very complex and doesn’t have any one meaning.”
“Yeah, it really is complex…I’m confused…”
I could tell as much. Hey, who isn’t? He wanted to make race about skin color at times and about blood and genetics at other times. Either way, he couldn’t sustain his ideas. Sound familiar? Whatever race is or isn’t, I hope this is a more solid beginning to getting him to see the socially manufactured ways we think about race and to question the stereotypes that he’s been accepting as factual.