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E-Mail of the Day: What Is Acting White?

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Ask the White Guy Luke ViscontiReader comment:

I have to say that I am a 29-year-old Black female–and I am not articulate. I try, but I have a deep southern accent and I say things like “ax” instead of “ask.” It is a very hard word to pronounce when you’ve been raised in New Orleans, La. I am a Kansas City transplant since Hurricane Katrina, and my friends and colleagues here say that when I get excited or angered about something, it’s pretty hard to understand anything I say because I talk too fast. So being complimented on being articulate would really make my day.


We have to learn to accept people for who they are, and that means understanding where they come from and the experiences that have made them who they are. I do not get offended when people “ax” me questions about my race or culture or make comments regarding either, unless they are being blatantly racist and obviously trying to insult or hurt me. I try to understand the person asking the question, according to their experiences and the way they’ve been brought up, and then I answer.  


Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc:

This frames a situation that must be very complicated, especially for Black professionals who are not from upper socioeconomic levels. My observations from being a trustee of a Black women’s college, my interactions with hundreds of Black executives and my professional relationships with my Black employees have led me to believe that hearing “ax” in a professional setting is unusual.

 

A slip of pronunciation may reveal one’s roots (I occasionally slip and use the “vernacular” of the active-duty Navy), but is that a terrible thing? Does growing up in the ghetto make a person inappropriate for senior positions? Given the number of high-ranking executives who came from humble beginnings, I’d say the overwhelming evidence says “no.”

 

I would say, however, that it is not a good idea to establish “street cred” with people you don’t know–not just for Blacks but for any group. It’s a bad idea to “dumb down,” period. For example, I really find it offensive when people approach me as a fellow “goomba.” (See www.urbandictionary.com if you don’t know what that means.) Until you establish who you’re speaking to, it is best to follow the conventions of the dominant culture, not only out of safety, but to avoid looking like a person who would seek an unearned favor from an implied association. 

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15 Comments

  • You are articulate. Being articulate is not limited to the spoken word and you express yourself clearly and succinctly in writing. (There are people who both speak and write with an accent.) From what you said, it seems that you do control your accent in ordinary conversation and are aware of the times you are likely to “slip”. I have trouble putting my thoughts into words in those types of situations as well. I try to be aware of my feelings and when I am upset I concentrate on speaking more slowly than usual and on selecting my words carefully. That usually slows me down to “normal” speed so people can understand me.

  • I come from a poor rural white background (first generation out of the cotton fields) and encounter similar situations. My inner ‘bubba’ can come out in situations of extra stress, and when that occurs it is obvious that some of the people around me work under the assumption that “Southern” = “stupid racist cracker”!Why should any of us who have risen from working-class roots be made to feel ashamed of where we came from? Heaven knows, I think no less of my boss, a highly polished professional, when she uses “ax” instead of “ask”: I KNOW her competency and skills are beyond challenge.

  • From an Chinese POV, I never understood this concept of diction and acting white. English, is a language spoken by people originally from a white European country–white people. Therefore, speaking it as they do, is proper. If you, as a non-Chinese speak Chinese as I do, does that make you, speaking standard Mandarin, akin to acting Chinese, even as very few Chinese would believe that to be a remote possibility?

  • Is speaking correctly your definition of “acting white”. If so, then could you please define what is meant by being called “white white”?

  • Anonymous

    I have been teased -called “white girl” my entire life because I had a mother who insisted that I speak correctly. Being “from da hood” meant nothing to her. The “acting white” thing is not about regional accents – it is about the desire of some people who will not take the trouble to involve themselves in the wider world to project their insecurities onto others.Like all psychological cave dwellers – they want everyone else to remain inside in fear with them and ridicule those who venture out.I know my history and I refuse to let anyone tell me the street and hip hop filth, limited education,a limited vocabulary and a refusal to participate in all the parts of the world in which you live in an intelligent manner is “being black”. I come from a great people with a heritage to be proud of and there is no reason I should pretend to be less than who I am as an African American for someone who calls other Africans the “n” word in complete disrespect for the wonderful people that we are. We do not owe them that. They owe us – to get off of their behinds and do something constructive for society and their people.That is what “acting black” is – accomplishment.

  • Anonymous

    Is it really that hard to pronounce it correctly?

  • Anonymous

    What needs to be pointed out is that there is no “standard American accent.” It seems that almost every state has an accent, and then certain cities within those states have sub-accents. And there is nothing wrong with that. Saying “ax” instead of “ask” is not a grammatical error, it is simply a regional accent, which we as citizens are all entitled to, as it is a natural social occurrence. The issue is really that certain accents are associated with socio-economic levels, and that’s where the prejudices occurs. A white man from Boston can speak perfect English with a Bostonian accent, and it’s not a problem in the business world. However, a southern black woman like you or me can also speak perfect English, but because we pronounce some words in a way that people may not be familiar with, we are “unprofessional” or “inarticulate.” Of course, this notion is ridiculous.

  • Anonymous

    “Go to college and get a good job” is the statement I have been hearing all of my life. No one in my family will come up to you and ask, “Are you going to college?” Heavens No! (Oops) Ironically, they will use a grammatically incorrect question to ask you about it. “Hey boy, what-you majorin’ in?”As young students we believe in the above statement. Our parents and elders plant seeds in us from an early age. We work hard to be in the highest percentage of our class. We apply and attend the best possible university. We enter the best workplace available. We have achieved a status!The hardest part of this journey is the constant deluge of insults; dirty looks on awards day; and the belittling of the achievement. It is during this journey that we are barraged from all sides on “acting white.” Although I am bald, there are times I would like to grow hair just to rip it out, again! I was having lunch with one of my roommates from college, today. I was telling him that I am the only black man working on two campuses owned by a corporation. I am one of the few, in any demographic, with a Masters or above degree at this career college. The other component of the “acting white” mindset is the constant litany (oops) of questions from these employees:”Oh my, did you go to Carolina?””What school did YOU get a graduate degree from?”(Sic)”How did you get this job teaching Human Resources Management at OUR school?””Ohhh…..my…..Gawd….you speak English so good!” (Sic) (You can laugh here….)My old roommate is a successful white (OMG!) attorney in Florida. He told me that becoming friends with me in 1979 and maintaining a friendship over the last 30 years has changed his perception of all minorities. (By the way, he married a Puerto Rican / Cuban lady. That’s close enough – if you know history.)He says that his perception of me is that I have been able to swim with the sharks – regardless of the color of the sharks. He laughs when I tell him that in most professional settings, I am “the only chip in the cookie.”I am comfortable there, but it can be debilitating (oops) when you have to deal with this attitude from BOTH sides. I revel (hmmmm) in the fact that I am fluent (oops) in three languages: I can speak “Formal English.” I can speak “Southern English, with a Carolinian accent.” Finally, I can speak Black English.”Therefore to all “AW” people, let us unite and tell these people eloquently (oops) to go see the Devil. Secondly, we know that familiarity breeds contempt. Therefore, resolve to be the most successful “AW” person, in their sphere of influence. Lastly, rejoice in the fact that you have achieved a status that no one can take from you!

  • Associating speaking correctly with being White is a double insult. You assume speaking correctly,clearly with being educated. The real question should be are you just acting or making the effort to be educated?If acting “White” is synonymous with speaking clearly, I will speak clearly because I am educated, not white.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think it has much to do with race, more that your coworkers don’t understand your different dialect? In the UK we have an amazing variety of regional accents and what’s more amazing is that often someone from, say, London can’t understand someone from Liverpool. You sound perfectly articulate to me and having a different accent or dialect doesn’t mean you don’t speak properly…probably someone from New Orleans would think someone from Kansas City spoke funny! As for saying ‘ax’ it’s a pretty well recognised way to pronounce ask and it’s obvious what you mean.

  • Anonymous

    I am a white teacher with a degree in English and a masters degree. I think “being articulate” means being able to express your thoughts clearly. It isn’t something that comes easily to me, especially since with aging I often experience presque vu, the temporary loss of the word I need. I would feel complimented if someone said I was articulate, and if I said it to someone else, it would be a sincere compliment.As for dialects, although some may be more widely spoken, one is not superior to another. They all enliven and enrich the language. People shouldn’t be made to feel self-conscious about regional pronunciations. There are too many more important things to give attention to in this world.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting question. I am also one of those who grew up “in the hood”–in the projects to be more accurate; and I was constantly told that I acted “white.”I don’t get it. Does wanting to achieve and be accomplished mean that I act white. If that were so then that would mean to “act black” would mean I would want to be an underachiever and a failure. No such lie!My mom used to say to me”hold your head up high, “child.” When you walk down the street your are carrying “Negro Womanhood” with you. I believe that to this day and I am 54 African American female with two Masters’ degrees.

  • Anonymous

    Jill Walthew: What “Received Pronunciation” is to the UK, the accent of the American Midwest – or, more precisely, the Central Plains region centered on my native Kansas City – is to the United States. You will still find very few broadcast anchors and reporters on national channels who speak with Deep Southern or Middle Southern or New England accents, for instance. I suspect this is because the Midwestern accent is the least objectionable to those with other accents.And after spending a good bit of my life in a Northeastern city most of whose African-Americans are not native to the region, as most black Kansas Citians are (remember, Missouri was a slave state, and the descendants of the Exodusters have been resident for more than a century), but rather came up from the Deep South in the Great Migration of the 1920s, I am now aware of the difference in regional accents that most blacks probably don’t recognize unless, like our New Orleans refugee, they find themselves in an area with a native black population not of Cotton Belt origin.Oh, BTW, I’ve been accused of “acting white” too over much of my life, and my own speech lacks the inflections that distinguish black Midwesterners from their white counterparts. I do think that the equation of street or lower-class culture with racial authenticity has done serious damage to our race and that we must get the countermessage out more effectively.

  • Anonymous

    this is not a comment but a question. I will like you to send me several definitions of acting and what makes a good action be it stage or film. And what to do to develop oneself as an actor.
    Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I will also like to know how to interpret script effectively as an actor, and tips for an actor. Thanks FESTUS

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