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.

Reader 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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