‘Acting white’ – Bounty and coconuts

Black/Brown from the outside, white from the inside

by Amna G Riaz

babiesbigI often hear this term ‘acting white’ being thrown about amongst people of a black or minority ethnic background (I will use people of colour or PoC from now on). Or the term ‘bounty’ or ‘coconut’ is used to describe PoC who in their words ‘act white’. These terms are pretty self-explanatory with a little imagination or if you are a PoC and have been called one. But for those who are unaware of the word or meaning I will explain now. ‘Bounty’ is the name of the chocolate bar many of you are aware of, the chocolate representing the colours; therefore in street terms ‘Black/or Brown on the outside and white from the inside’. Same applies to the coconut. I’m being British centric here in the use of the term but of course I recognise that this may also apply elsewhere, such as ‘Oreo’ in the U.S.

But what does ‘acting white’ really imply? ‘Acting white’ presumably means acting in a certain way, dressing in a certain way and most importantly and soul crushingly speaking in a certain manner. The implications of using this term is however self-deprecating as it legitimises internal racism. It assumes that ‘acting white’ is acting right, and therefore minorities have to ‘act white’ because they are not fit or ready to live in a civilised Britain. Again, colonial discourse is being reproduced in a so called post-imperial and post-racial Western world. It implies that ‘dressing white’ (whatever that may be) is the right way to dress and dressing in a non-white manner is the wrong way. Same goes for accents. This ideal is also presented in the ‘successful black guy meme’ on facebook. A nasty and bigoted message is given about black people, that every Black person is inherently a ‘ghetto mobster’. It is derogatory assuming that Black people cannot hold jobs in the same league as white people.

A precept of White culture is the belief that white is normative. The characteristics of Whiteness, including culture, language, and appearance, are assumed to define humanity. “Others” that may deviate from that normative definition are therefore regarded to be less than human. Many scholars of Whiteness pay particular attention to the deeply ingrained doctrine of Whiteness as norm” (Frankenberg, 1993; Garner, 2006)

One only has to look through the lens as a historian and see how Black people were at the bottom of the racial hierarchy during the empire period and prior. Language is extremely important, by using the term ‘acting white’; we are reproducing and legitimising those very racist view and discourses of the occidentals, bigots, racists and xenophobes.  On the flip side, Sharon Osborne in a recent interview slammed Justin Bieber for his bad behaviour and said, “I think he doesn’t realise he is white and not Black”. Hang on there, so being bad is something only Black kids do? Hello racism, and the criminalisation of Black men – AGAIN. Justin Bieber peeing in a kitchen bucket, spitting on people and fighting with paparazzi is apparently something only Black kids do, and not because like many child stars they are not living normal lives. Middle class white boys are always good boys right? Wrong.

Example of how dramatically differently media portrays Black boys and white boys – for the same ‘crime’ Two 7-Year-Old Boys, Two Dramatically Different News Stories

7-year-old driver on TODAY

7-Year-Old Takes Car On Joyride

Lets look at what it means to ‘act white’ though. Everyone has to act differently in different environment and PoC are no strangers to having to ‘act differently’. In fact PoC, especially those with migrant parents, live double lives, they are ‘top ethnic/black children’ at home, that being religious or cultural protégés of their parent(s), and then less so elsewhere in their daily lives. But there needs to be a change in the words we use to describe the action of this performance of ‘acting differently’.  PoC have to act differently for a reason, the reason is that there is still widespread institutional and structural racism. PoC therefore are not ‘acting white’, they are adjusting how they come across to a white person/peer. Britain is racist by the same token as the US, in fact I would argue institutional racism is worse than outright racism because it goes on undetected and hence unchallenged.

blackbritonsbigToday’s young people are already stereotyped and scapegoated constantly as hooded thugs; a poor old lady may be frightened and will cross over to the other side of the street or road, but she will be more frightened if this is a person of colour. Is she a racist? A little yes, but she feels threatened because of the constant depiction of black man as the violent ‘other’. I say men here because hyper masculinity is almost always associated with men of colour. Women of colour are in contrast screened out of public discourse altogether by being often depicted as oppressed (I have written about this here) or dismissed as being hypersexual. So by calling someone a ‘bounty’ or saying they are ‘acting white’ he/she is also playing a role in reproducing colonial racial and racist discourse.

When it comes to employment tattoos, piercings and customised grills (silver/ gold teeth) are absolutely a no no. For the person of colour, they might as well hop on to the dole line as soon as they walk out the shop.  Black people and British Pakistani men have a higher rate of unemployment than their white counterparts. The TUC’s report (PDF) shows 50% of British Black 16-24 are unemployed.

Even ‘equal opportunities’ employers give identical CVs with ‘white’ names more replies than ones with ‘black’ names ‘ Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination

Even when in employment, people of colour find is harder to get promotions, they are still considered ‘lazy’ amongst other dogmatic colonial judgments – Just look at the comments made by now resigned Tory MP John Cherry regarding the schooling of British Black and British Pakistani children. He argued that British Pakistani children would ‘fail to rise to the top’ and certain nationalities didn’t know what ‘hard work was about’. People of colour have to constantly dodge their popular tags of troublesome ‘others’ and have to work harder prove themselves as worthy equals in the workplace. I know many PoC who feel upset seeing their less experienced but white colleagues receive promotions over them. They have to constantly fret about how to come across as ‘proper’ in public life. This is not ‘acting white’ it is only a crude way of apologising for the extra melanin in their skin. This is the reality of institutional racism and this is probably the success of its survival – the very fact that it goes unchallenged and undetected.  There is not means to no way to prove to the courts and judges a racial bias, not when judges are also overwhelmingly white. In the workplace there is no way to prove that they didn’t get that promotion because of the colour of their skin.  Positive discrimination schemes, equality, race laws and other so called racial equality measures are ineffective in dealing with institutional racism. This is because there is already an institutionalised thought process that regards black and minorities as an ‘other’, as someone who is dangerous and is criminal.

flagsThere is always an appraisal of the ‘British character’ and the British nationhood during every national pride day (Jubilees, Sports etc.), but it seems Black and minority ethnics have little representation in those national events. There is little mention of Black people during the Victorian times in our history lessons. Our history curriculum is too busy trying to show our children how we saved Europe from Nazi Germany, despite the fact that we also had blood on our hands with our colonial escapades.  Britain cannot use allowing non-white immigration as an apology to the Empire. Second, third and fourth generation non-white Britons didn’t choose to be born here, so they shouldn’t just be ‘tolerated’, they are as much British as any other white person and should be treated as equals on paper and in person.

White is not proper, no colour is proper; we’re all an accident of evolution after all.

Amna G Riaz writes poetry on the themes of identity politics which covers racism, (neo)orientalism (neo)-colonialism and neoliberalism. She also make videos of some (as spoken poetry) on YouTube channel [].  Apart from poetry, she writes about neoliberal theory and practice, capitalism and the politics of development, Islamophobia and intersectional feminism at her blog. Tweet her @AmnaGRiaz

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9 replies

  1. I didn’t even know this was a thing. Disgusting. I will never know what it’s like to be a woc living/working/ studying in a predominantly white environment, but if I can help create ANY awareness about the discrimination and racial stereotypes these women (and obvs men) fight on a daily basis, then I will. I have white privilege, a thing repugnant in itself, and I promise to try, though education and protest, to change mine and others mindsets away from the inherently racist culture in which we live. For we are inherently racist. As we have been conditioned to be submissive/dominant according to our sex, so we have been conditioned to view the world with whitewashed eyes where ‘light is better’ and white is ‘sophisticated’, and, as with any issue of discrimination, awareness is the key to change.

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  2. As excellent as this article is, I find the issue so damned depressing. The history is horrible and still there, though as stated, many aspects of our western culture are well-masked, at least for many.

    I almost always try to find at least something amusing though it all, and in this case I suppose there is one commonality, which is that no matter what color one is, if you’re a kid you pretty much have to be dragged to go to church.

    For me that speaks volumes, and in hindsight I learned so much more from my little kids than I ever did in church.

    If you want to fully understand how this all came to be, please don’t underestimate the role of (some) religion in all the whole process of assimilation. Sorry, but this is not a pretty picture.

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  3. internalized inferiority at its best! I have been accused of this and I hate it to my core. If speaking correctly, and being successful is acting white..then it begs the question..what is acting black? Its opposite must mean ignorant, lazy and unimportant. We must stop this stupidity each and every time we hear anyone utter this nonsense! Especially when our children say it. Its just as bad as the dreaded light skin/dark skin, good hair/bad hair foolishness!

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  4. Reblogged this on Smash the Doll Face and commented:
    Very interesting post which relates to the first part of “Triple Jeopardy to Be Black, Female and Alternative”. The author of this blog posts links the “acting white” to different factors such as employment and how being white is seen as the “right” way to act.

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  5. I’m a local politician in the town I was born in, while out canvassing I had a resident refuse to believe I was local because I was black and then proceeded to tell me I needed to “Black it up” more so that I ticked more boxes. The thing is he was not trying to be malicious he genuinely thought he was giving me helpful advice. Growing up mixed race I’ve faced questions about my racial identify from both black and white people my whole life and we do face stereotypes and assumptions about us

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  6. Here in the US, the term “acting white” is used by black folks against other black folks (especially kids) who aim for improvement, such as attempting to do well in school. It originated with white folks saying it during Jim Crow days (as in, “Boy, you trying to be white?” which was said to black men who tried to better themselves by getting an education). Just telling a young man he’s acting white is enough to discourage him from performing well in school. I live in the District of Columbia, and people still say it. In fact, my colleague (also black) told me I was acting white when I decided to go back to school. I also heard one mother tell her daughter the same thing at my daughter’s school after the little girl got an award for good grades. You could just see how crestfallen the little girl was after that. To tell someone they’re “acting white” is one of the vilest and most hurtful things one can say to a black person. It says that 1) black folks aren’t capable of doing well, and 2) if you try to do well, you’re not being yourself.

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  7. I get that I “act white” . Just because I want a good job and I’m working hard, does it mean I “act white”? If I have a middle class education, despite coming form a working class background does it mean I act white? No, it just means I’m working hard as I know that I’m Black and I want to show to everyone, I can achieve something despite prejudice, stereotypes and racism. I’m like that because I’m from Italy and of Ghanaian origins, I grow up among a mix/ white community, but because also my parents left Ghana to give me a better future. Since I came to England to study, “acting white” and “coconut” have been my second name, which it annoys me sometimes because just I act different I’m not black..please allow me. Behaviour should be stop to be stereotyped, both by black and white, if I’m well behave is just that’s me, and if Justin Bieber misbehave is him. Not a matter of black and white.

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