About this Blog

The title of this blog, "I'm About to do My Thing," was inspired by Jill Scott's introduction to her poem "The Thickness" from her live album Experience: Jill Scott 826+. In this intro, she warns that the content to follow is "real" and proceeds to deliver a beautiful message about self-esteem in young black girls, what can influence and damage that self-esteem, and the entire village's responsibility--"it takes a village"--to elevate its children.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Talking White": Teaching Our Kids about Race

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.


  1. Great post!

    I teach at a rural, predominately white middle school. Everything “redneck” is white and everything “ghetto” is black. Students of both races justify their grammatically incorrect speech/writing because they’re a “country redneck” or from the “ghetto”. Unfortunately, dialogue in the classroom has to be limited or the lesson needed for the standardized test will never happen. The students are still so concrete/literal in their thinking that when I try to engage them, much like “the kid”, they are left confused.

    SN: I'm currently reading "Stop Being Niggardly" by Karen Hunter. She argues that we're in a hyper-racial state.

    Middle School Teacher

  2. Thanks for your post, Middle School Teacher! "Ghetto" came up in my convo with the Kid too, and it has in many other convos. No matter how much I try, I cannot get him to stop equating "ghetto"--which really has a lot more to do with economics and more social constructions--with "black." I even had him look up the meaning of the word and its etymology before, explaining that it's an Italian word and does not have its roots in "black people."

    You make a great point, though, cognitively speaking, middle schoolers are still in the concrete/literal stage. I'm confident that he'll grow out of it. By the way, does Hunter think we're in a more hyper-racial state than at other times in our history? I'm curious. I'm going to have to check it out. Thanks for sharing!

  3. This was a great post, Mo. I remember when I was in eighth grade through high school, one of my best friends was black. She and I, you know, had a lot of shared interests and the issue of race never really came up. Until one day when I went over to her house to hang out, and one of her other black guy friends was there. He decided to leave when I got there, and as he walked out the front door, I remember him saying, "I'll let you hang out with your little white friend here. You should know--the white girl changin' you." And my friend and I just sort of stood there, utterly stunned, and entirely confused. What did he mean that I was changing her? Her family spoke the same way my family spoke. Her neighborhood was almost a mirror copy of my neighborhood. We went to the same school district. Our parents had similar cars. We had identical grades. Shared interests. She was better at some things, and I was better at some things. But, apparently this guy felt like I was intruding on something racially significant. This was one of the only times she and I actually had an in-depth conversation about the differences between race. And after going around in circles (and never landing on something that really satisfied us about how she was "changed"), we finally shrugged our shoulders and said, "Well, he's just a jealous jack-ass."

    But I know now what he meant. He thought that I changed the way she spoke or thought. The way she prioritized things (academics over social interactions). But, news flash to that young man: that's not racial. That's a disparity in maturity. When my brother-in-law, who's white, refuses to study and is put on academic probation, it has absolutely nothing to do with his race and everything to do with him. The fact that my friend chose to take her studies more seriously than her social life indicated her maturation. I never noticed that she spoke really any differently with her black friends versus her white ones. There might have been a slight difference in slang choice...but I always just chalked that up to the different inside jokes between friends. She and I spoke with Japanese slang words. We're not Japanese. We were just interested in Japanese culture.

    I'm glad that you and the Kid were able to have this conversation. You handled it so well, too. I think this is the kind of conversation any parent can have with any kid of any race. You can change the words around, too, to fit different scenarios. "You're fat/skinny, so you'd know...." "You're poor/rich, so you'd know...." "You're interested in these activities, so you'd know...." I think that this age group in particular is just obsessed with using labels and stereotypes to understand each other, themselves, and their world. I believe you're right--he'll grow out of it. But he'll grow out of it because you and his father won't let him keep maintaining these beliefs without calling attention to them.

  4. Awesome post! I was "the white girl" of my neighborhood. My mom sent me to a predominately white private school as a kid. I dealt with ridicule everyday because of the way i spoke. I too, tried to slow down my language pattern to fit in. I have grown out of the need to be accepted, and now that I have kids of my own I find myself constantly educating them on what it really means to be an African American individual and it has nothing to do with speech pattern or where you live or what you have.. I appreciate this post.

    Thank you.
    Peace :-)

  5. This is a great post! Back in College people some blacks use to tease me that I dressed like a white girl just because I was rarely in jeans and always ' dressed' up in skirts or dresses. It was a strange statement because the white girls in college dressed like Blacks to me.
    I did go to school in Europe and Africa so I honestly did not feel the race issue until I moved to the USA. Overseas instead of being teased that I sound ' white' I was teased that I sounded like a scholar. Because where I grew up the white too talked just like the blacks, sometime you will actually think it's a black person talking until you look at the person face. With very educated parents I was never allowed to use curses words or speak improperly so all my friends just made fun of me because my French ( my native language) was so proper! So you see it's not just white or black it's just that people have some standards and some are lowers than others. But it's a shame that ghetto is what people associate with Black. Growing up ghetto was associated with poor. Again I did not grow up with the racial issues people have here. So growing up when you talked/acted ghetto it reflected more on a social status versus on your race.

  6. Thanks for the discussion, ladies!

    @ A.Hab. and N'na, you make great points about the fact that it's not all about race - I'm certainly not suggesting that. Maturity and standards, as you both point out, respectively, definitely play a role in the way children are raised to think about differences.

    N'na, it's funny: I've found that at a lot of historically black colleges in the American South, it's considered strange to "dress down" on campus. I remember going to class with girls who wore stillettos and dresses/skirts every day!

  7. @ A.Hab., I forgot to mention that I love your story! That's such a great example of how racial thinking can be so skewed, especially among the young. Yet, I wonder where the jealous friend got his ideas...

    @ SistahChick, I think it's so important that you're teaching your children about what it means to be African-American. I say it's perfectly fine for us to see differences because they do exist and they make us all beautiful. The real issue is that those differences aren't perceived as superior or inferior - teaching that distinction seems to be one of the hardest tasks.