This article is a follow up to my very first article on diversity How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour if you are White. It was requested by a reader who wanted further explanation on the term “Western Neutral” which I had used when explaining how to write People of Colour.
The first time someone ever accused me of “speaking white” I was maybe seven years old.
The concept completely baffled me.
My mother is a speech language pathologist, I grew up in a middle class multicultural neighborhood, I went to a gifted school and I live in the midwest.
Literally everyone around me sounded exactly the same.
So, why on earth was this tow headed, yellow bellied, idjit kid accusing me of “talking like a white person” when literally everyone within shouting distance of us spoke with the same exact midwestern standard dialect?(Which, of course is also the dialect used on radio and in films: “Standard American”)
It didn’t occur to me until much later, when I was in high school and my white friends had started jokingly calling me an “oreo” (and then later, a “coconut” when they learned that I was Bajan), that that boy’s comments didn’t have anything to do with everyone else around me, but more to do with cultural perception and my own inescapable visible brownness.
Such began my journey towards understanding and debunking the concept of “Acting White”:
The concept of “Acting White” relies on the ideology that all modern western culture we enjoy was created by, built by and influenced by white people and that all other brown, red and yellow peoples are merely (new) participants in a dominant white culture.
Of course that is a concept with deep roots in historical white washing, purposeful misguided cultural ignorance, and the pervasive and destructive and relentless ego born of being a long standing member of a dominant and oppressive racial system.
But really, guys. What it boils down to is this: A fairy tale delusion that everything in Western culture is “white” and everything “ethnic” is somehow other.
Ironically, even the barest glimpse at even the most whitewashed of history books paints a picture of the development of modern Western culture as something that has been continually contributed to and influenced by people of color from all over the world. Everything from music, to the English language, to technology, to basic creature comforts like refrigerators and our traffic system were literally shared efforts between POC and white people throughout history. (x)(x)(x) etc
People of Color own western culture just as much as white people do because it was built using our hands and minds too.
So, lets go back to that boy and “speaking white”.
With the understanding that Western Culture is comprised of more than just white accomplishments, does that accusation actually make logical and historical sense?
No, it damn well does not.
So, why on earth do we, as people of color, and white people as well, keep accusing each other of “Acting White”? Using that particular vocabulary to talk about (other) POC who have likely adopted dominant western culture as a form of survival in their homelands, or adopted nations?
It makes literally no sense. We need new academic vocabulary for that phenomenon that is not nearly as convoluted as what we have now.
The phrase I have coined for this is: Western Neutral.
This refers to classic dominant Midwestern culture in particular, as well as Westernized culture the globe around (I see you, UK) without attaching that culture to whiteness in any way. It is also designed to be difficult to stigmatize, which is enforced by the word Neutral, because in no way should Western Neutral Culture be seen as superior or inferior to cultures outside Western Culture. The word neutral is also referring to a meshing of the conglomeration of western culture as it is formed the world around (ie: Basically, the opposite of the word “ethnic”. Which, by the way, includes the cultures of other areas with white people that are still highly indigenous like parts of Iceland for example)
So, can we all just stop accusing people of “Acting White” because when those words come out of your mouth, what you’re really saying is that the glories of modern metropolis, science, pop culture, literature, and invention was created from the ground up by White Americans and White British people, exclusively; and that this POC you’re describing will only, ever, and always be, just a visitor in the glittering greatness of “white culture”.
Which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so incredibly and horrifyingly sad.
Kayla Ancrum is an American YA novelist. She graduated from Dominican Universities with her BA in English. She currently runs the blog KAYLAPOCALYPSE, where she provides information about the writing and publishing process for other young authors, as well as original articles about writing tropes and diversity in media. Find her on twitter @Kwritesfiction
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