Social Justice Usage
Source: Carbado, Devin W. and Mitu Gulati. Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America. Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 43.[W]e are using the “acting white” term loosely; sometimes to describe instances in which people of color obscure, downplay, or expressly repudiate the racial group to which they presumptively belong; and sometimes to describe instances in which people of color engage in conduct or activities that are not typically associated with people of their race. None of this means that there is some true or real way to “act white.” There is not. It simply means that we racially judge people based on perceived racial conduct or behavior, and not just on perceived racial physicality or phenotype. With respect to the former, there has been a fair amount of discussion about whether part of the reason for the performance gap between black and white students is the belief on the part of black students that doing well academically is “acting white.” Without weighing into that debate, our view is that the “acting white” phenomenon transcends it.
New Discourses Commentary
In the critical study of race, “acting white” is a concept that describes when people of color, especially black people, engage in a (cultural) performance of whiteness, very frequently in professional or academic settings. It is said to arise from the interaction of professional pressures and what is sometimes referred to as “double consciousness,” wherein people of color are aware that they have their own (racial) culture as well as a need to live within white culture, which creates a pressure upon them and threatens their ability to be authentic to their identities. Acting white is to be understood as a problematic in two different ways that are fairly typical of the analysis of critical race Theory.
First, acting white is a problematic in the sense that there is believed to be a systemic power dynamic in operation (see also, racism and white supremacy) that puts a pressure on people of color to act white if they want to succeed in white-dominant cultures (see also, Eurocentrism, Western, and the West). While this used to be the case in an institutional sense (see also, institutional racism), it is now understood under a doctrine sometimes called “new racism” or “cultural racism” to be a tendency within white culture to not hold the cultures of minoritized groups in as high esteem as they do white culture. White people—and some people of color—will not tend to see why expecting members of racially minoritized groups to “act white” (say, by being professional) is a problem, as the ideology of whiteness will rationalize it instead as “just being normal” or something similar (see also, internalized dominance, master’s tools, meritocracy, and individualism).
This is believed to be especially strong with regard to black culture (see also, blackness), with a deep-seated “anti-blackness” being considered fundamental to whiteness. As a form of cultural racism under its very purview, clearly critical race Theory considers the necessity for members of minoritized groups to “act white” to be a problematic; and it is Theorized to be yet another way that non-white cultures are marginalized and members of minoritized groups are oppressed. The purpose of this problematic is primarily to blame white people and the system for creating and maintaining an unfair circumstance for people of color.
Second, acting white is a problematic for the person who is acting white in the sense that doing so betrays the authenticity of that minoritized culture, often in the pursuit of success or other reward in the white-dominant system (see also, white approval, male approval, patriarchal reward, and neoliberal reward). That is, as can be read in an additional example below, a member of a minoritized group acting white is seen as a form of selling out (see also, white adjacent). Alternatively, if a selfish intention isn’t obvious or projected onto the situation, this aspect of the problematic will be understood as a form of false consciousness (see also, internalized racism and internalized oppression) from which the person of color needs to be awakened (see also, wokeness, consciousness raising, and critical consciousness). This view holds despite the fact that acting white is characterized as a performance under a doctrine of socialization (i.e., society may have taught them to act white without them realizing it is a racially inauthentic performance—see also, normalize). The functional purpose of this problematic is to be able to discredit the claims of people of color who don’t agree with Theory, as their views, behaviors, and experiences can be cast as a means—cynical or inadvertent—to align with and support the dominant white system.
Interestingly, the reason for complaining about acting white, mostly in the first sense, is because critical race Theory sees it as reinforcing and re-inscribing racial stereotypes against people of minoritized races (see also, essentialism) through a doctrine of absence (see also, Derridean). That is because, Theoretically, acting white is a (typically willful) performance that carefully avoids those racial stereotypes, thus increasing their salience through strategic erasure. This, in turn, follows because it is assumed that white people are aware of those stereotypes and associate them with things they discriminate against. This is needlessly complicated to the point of being tendentious, so one would be forgiven for thinking the entire idea of “acting white” itself reinforces and re-inscribes racial stereotypes, rather than the other way around (just not by Critical Social Justice Theorists!).
See also, double consciousness
Absence; Anti-blackness; Authentic; Blackness; Consciousness raising; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical race Theory; Cultural racism; Derridean; Dominance; Double consciousness; Essentialism; Erasure; Eurocentrism; False consciousness; Hegemony; Identity; Ideology; Individualism; Institutional racism; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Internalized racism; Male approval; Marginalization; Master’s tools; Meritocracy; Minoritize; Neoliberal reward; New racism; Normal; Normalize; Oppression; Patriarchal reward; People of color; Performativity; Problematic; Race; Racism (systemic); Social construction; Social Justice; Socialization; Systemic power; West, the; Western; White; White adjacent; White approval; White supremacy; Whiteness; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Carbado, Devon W. and Mitu Gulati. Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America. Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 16.
Williams’s story converges with a central theme of Acting White, namely, that the resume-whitening phenomenon is a mechanism some African Americans use to appear racially palatable or not “too black.” Invoking the experience of another African American, the New York Times article hit the nail on the head: “Activism in black organizations, even majoring in African-American studies can be signals to employers”—signals that suggest that one is too black. Eliminating those explicit racial markers is one way of “calming down on the blackness,” to quote Yvonne Orr, who has worked for fifteen years in fund-raising for nonprofits.
Source: Carbado, Devin W. and Mitu Gulati. Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America. Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 23, 26.
What does this have to do with “acting white”? After all, employees of all identities feel pressured to signal to their employers that they belong and possess the right institutional stuff to succeed. White people, people of color, men, women, heterosexuals, and gays and lesbians all have to work their identities to fit into and thrive in their workplaces. Our claim is that the problem is worse for people of color than it is for whites, worse for women than it is for men, and worse for gays and lesbians than it is for heterosexuals. Focusing on race, we will explain why this is so. … (p. 23.)
All employees, regardless of their identities, feel pressure to fit into the workplace. Every employee is subject to the negotiation dynamic we describe. Everyone works identity. However, race can increase the likelihood that one’s sense of self will be in conflict with criteria that an institution values, and, correspondingly, race can increase the pressure one feels to compromise one’s sense of identity. This is because racial stereotypes often conflict with institutional criteria. When this is the case, the employee’s assumption is that the employer’s stereotypes about her are at odds with the criteria that the employer values. The stronger the employee’s perception of this conflict, the stronger the incentives are for her to signal—by working her identity—that she possesses the criteria that the institution values, and the stronger the incentive for the employee to compromise her identity. … (p. 26.)
If we are right that the existence of negative racial stereotypes (particularly as they conflict with institutional norms) creates an incentive for employees to work their identity to negate those stereotypes, the next question is, what forms will these identity performances take? We offer six possibilities: racial comfort, strategic passing, using prejudice, racial discomfort, selling out, and buying back.
Source: Carbado, Devin W. and Mitu Gulati. Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America. Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 16–17.
Chapter 1, “Why Act White?” asks a central question about Working Identity: why would a person of color do it? Why might an African American, for example, “act white” or not act “too black”? The answer is, to be racially palatable to the majority race. Being racially palatable is hard against the background of negative stereotypes associated with one’s race. Chapter 1 describes the incentives for African Americans to work their identities to disconfirm these racial stereotypes. There are a myriad of strategies a person might use. These include strategic passing (I might look black, but I am not really black), racial comforting (I won’t make you feel guilty about being white), and racial distancing (I don’t hang out with other black people). All these strategies have costs. To the extent that an employee is overly concerned with negating racial stereotypes, he may take on too much work (to prove that he is not lazy), attend too many social events (to prove that he is “one of the guys”), refuse to ask for help when he needs it (to avoid the impression that he is unqualified), or avoid other racial minorities who might mentor him (to signal that he is racially colorblind). In short, an employee who is worried about negating racial stereotypes may end up with more work and fewer resources than his white counterparts. Chapter 1 sets out these and other costs of Working Identity.
Revision date: 6/17/20