The Genesis of the “Acting White” Epithet
by MERCY FERRARS
It is high time to debunk a racial myth which has been up to mischief for much too long. The condescending epithet of ‘acting white’ is violent. Deeply rooted in African-American history, it spans cultural and political aggressions towards Black citizens in the States for hundreds of years, from the days of slavery to the era of Jim Crow laws to modern day efforts in keeping identities fixed and separated. Originally born from its outer political circumstances, it has since seeped into cultural narratives and intro- and extrospective convictions about oneself and the other. It is being cultivated and reproduced in the cultural panopticon. These brutal and violent cultural myths withstand the progress of time like ivory on the brick walls of most Caucasian mainstream societies.
Unsurprisingly, in the beginning, there was aggression. A slur born from violence will always perpetuate such violence and carry it on all its travels. It passes through all social classes, professions and it traverses all levels of prestige and splendour. From the anonymous citizen to President Obama, accusations of ‘acting white’ have and will continue to run riot.
The emergence of the epithet and the significant imprint it has on Black identity occurs in three phases throughout American history: During slavery and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin between roughly 1850 to 1861; during racial segregation between 1877 and the 1960s; and lastly throughout the turn of the century repercussions these racialised politics fostered.
Under the presumption that the idea of ‘acting white’ is historically grown and spilled from politics to cultural consciousness, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin serves as the set out for our venture. Stowe’s novel was potent in producing the myth of Uncle Tom: originally imagined as a noble character full of moral appeal, the character subsequently became the cultural register by which African-Americans who engaged in white-gated behavioural and identity clusters were appraised. Following Uncle Tom, the further amplification and replication of racial flagging and compartmentalisation of certain behavioural patterns, speech acts, or affective expressions proliferated through heated discussions between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois—a struggle woven into civil rights discourse. Du Bois’ provides a powerful metaphor to flesh out the insufficient racial communication of a segregated American society: the “veil,” understood as the racial division blocking communication and approximation of the races post-slavery.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
In the America of the 1850s, one of the world’s most famous novels saw the light of day. Amid Southern slavery, author Harriet Beecher Stowe lit a fire of abolitionism that swept across the country and, according to some beliefs, even prompted the Civil War of 1861. Her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was born into a momentous era. Not only did the novel literarily follow the birth hours of the New York Times and Moby Dick, but it also intensified the political conflicts between the Northern states united in the Union and the Confederate Southern states. The conflicts were caused, on the one hand, by the election of Abraham Lincoln as president and, on the other, by the controversy over the economy of slavery in the Southern states. Only two years earlier, the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, which ensured that slaves who had escaped to the Northern states had to be ‘returned.’
Stowe’s novel was an anti-slavery novel; its intent was to appeal to the morals of whites—fostering hope that slavery would be abolished. At the time of Uncle Tom’s publication, African-Americans were prohibited from educating themselves, from learning to read or write. For those who did educate African-Americans, severe penalties followed. Consequently, education and the prestige and aspirations that came with it were legally reserved for whites. Initially enshrined in law, this belief gradually seeped into society and naturalised into a blanket judgement: an African-American who was literate or otherwise showed character traits which did not agree with common law behaved ‘white.’ Paradoxically, the African-American communities were not immune from adapting this judgement.
Stowe’s protagonist was conceived by her as a hero who stood up to fierce masters and died protecting his own. He was to be an icon of pride and strength, of loyalty and faith. But opinions on the character Uncle Tom differed, some arguing that at many points in the novel Uncle Tom submits to his white masters, tries to befriend them and sometimes favours them over his family.1 Others point out that the countless plays that followed the book gradually cast the character in a bad light.2 The following decades would not obliterate the solidification of Uncle Tom as a derogating by-name. They would however introduce two key figures in African-American emancipation, one of which rose to fame facing strong opposition by his own people: Booker T. Washington, the South’s assimilationist conciliator and his counterpart, W.E.B. Du Bois.
Abolition, Segregation and Booker T. Washington
The Civil War lasting from 1861 to 1865 came and went. After the Northern states were victorious over the South, the latter was incorporated back into the Union. Slavery was abolished throughout the States, and military, economic and cultural Reconstruction was initiated. But the next cancer was already growing in the South. One to which the official abolition of slavery was a thorn in the side, and which aimed to continue oppressing newly freed African-Americans despite their adjudicated civil rights anchored in the 14th and 15th amendments.
First, in 1865, the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan emerged, whose goal was not only to intimidate but also to attack and lynch African-Americans. Second, the so-called Jim Crow laws (named after a racist dance performed in blackface by comedian Thomas D. Rice) came into effect in the Southern states. The beginning of the Jim Crow laws were the Black Codes, which specified where and how former enslaved people were allowed to work and how they were compensated for it. Of course, these regulations also affected where they lived and how they travelled.
The Jim Crow laws spread the racial segregation of or respectively denied African-Americans access to most public places. These prohibitions and segregations affected places such as homes, schools, buses, and hospitals. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that these laws did not contradict the U.S. Constitution if they followed the principle of ‘separate but equal.’ In reality, ‘coloured’ institutions and areas were significantly worse endowed and equality applied barely on paper. After part of the Black diasporic identity was shaped and warped by slavery, Jim Crow laws followed suit. Segregation seeped into all sorts of cultural areas, including rock & roll in the early 20th century. It poisoned music, dance, literature and art, education and profession, health and wealth with stereotypes built around whiteness and Blackness; it segregated, defined and affected a troubled post-war society that demonstrated significant refusal in unifying itself. But it also oppressed on a more subtle level: by nullifying and negating African-American influence on what was understood to be ‘American’ culture.
Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) was born into slavery. He moved on to become his era’s most esteemed public speaker, an educator at Tuskegee Institute, and was closely affiliated to several American presidents after the Civil War had come to an end in 1865 and segregation had begun. Today, he is known as a historic leader of the African-American community. But both then and now, Washington represents two sides of the same coin.
His position as a highly esteemed intellectual and his networking with the state elite was disproportionate to his time. Yet he acquired this position by promoting conservative views that urged African-Americans in the South to bow to whites and to submit to segregation. He achieved statewide fame in the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, in which the South, having been economically set back by the abolition of slavery, was to showcase its progress and present itself as an attractive territory in the public eye. This included a statement on race, and so Washington was chosen as a representative spokesman for African-Americans, not least because of his conservative views. He spoke to a predominantly white audience and found all sorts of approval there, as he supported racial segregation and advised his fellow sufferers to defer to white supremacy and Jim Crow laws. Instead of demanding radical equality, he advised people to focus on educating themselves, implying that it was everyone’s own responsibility to shape their fate.
“In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,”
he famously promised3, further strengthening the legitimacy of racial segregation in the hopes for a ‘win’ for both races. In his assimilation strategy he appeased conservatives, but in the eyes of his community he surrendered social and political equality.4 Despite prompting African-Americans to succumb to white society, he did not follow his own doctrine. “Far from segregating himself from the company of whites as he encouraged other blacks to do, Washington actively sought to be in their company and confidence at the highest social and political circles. […] Washington promoted a tranquil American society with blacks acting separate and subservient to whites while he could act as freely as whites and consider himself their equal,” writes Ron Christie5.
W.E.B. Du Bois—The Souls of Black Folk (1903): Double-Consciousness, the Veil and opposing Booker T. Washington
Washington’s doctrine was met with resistance even in high academic circles. American philosopher, historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was among those who heavily criticised Washington’s take on racial emancipation. In The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, Du Bois designs the project of unveiling the diasporic identity, which finds itself being trapped between two extremes. What does it mean to be Black in America? Navigating one’s own fragmented identity in the post-slavery years was affected by the outside and the inside. African-Americans were first being promised the civil rights of white Americans by proxy of the war amendments. The theatrical metamorphosis of slavery mentality would however soon produce the Jim Crow laws which dehumanised African-Americans once more. All the while, the fire of a diasporic African core identity kept illuminating the soul from within and it fiercely withstood a white society’s attempt at forging it into anything less. How does one reconcile an African cultural heritage with a white colonialist upbringing, blending in one the confluence of two cultures foreign to one another?
The normalisation of alleged ‘white acting’ behavioural grids based on the enduring colonial Black and white identity clusters shows that the same Du Boisian twoness explored in Souls still afflicts and shapes Black identity in this (as modern as can be) age. How does Du Bois suggest solving the problem of such twoness? He seeks to unite these two cultures tearing and pulling at one’s identity into one while appreciating both. “His vision for the active construction of Self and community rested on this dialectical tension between participation in the white world and in the black world,” write Blau and Brown6.
“In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk,
Chapter One, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”7
The Veil and Double-Consciousness
“In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself,—darkly as through a veil […]. […] born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk
Chapter One, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”9
Du Bois uses the metaphor of the veil to describe “the problem of the Twentieth Century” which is the “colour-line.” 10 The colour-line is what “divides and separates […] as an essential aspect of perceptions and communications between those divided.”11 In “The Forethought” Du Bois makes it clear that Souls is written from within the veil—“I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil”12—, from outside the veil, and from “within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls.“13 Blau and Brown liken it to the Black perspective, the white perspective and to an effective communicator between both worlds when Du Bois raises the veil so whites can see the world within.11
The veil is a clear communication barrier, but it is without a doubt more obscure to those who look at it from the outside compared to those who wear it.14 Those who wear the veil see the world outside, granted, darker and less detailed, but they can perceive the world outside the veil, which includes how that world looks at them— understanding their practices, institutions and privileges. Those looking at the veil on the other hand may see faint and distant sketches of human faces, a single tear distorted in obscured blurriness, the biting of a tongue, but the greater human expression is blocked from the outside person’s perception, effectively hindering the comprehension of their counterpart as a fellow human. Many stay within and outside the veil in their fixed positions, which further fosters a division of the races and perpetuates the racism greatly rooted in the supremacist thought that only whiteness fleshes out abstract humanity.
In the first chapter of Souls, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois introduces the world within the veil. For many Black Americans as for Du Bois, the veil is first experienced in early childhood when one suddenly makes the realisation that one is perceived as a ‘problem’ by the outside world. From there on one feels like seeing white America as through a thick veil.15 While moving in white America, one also cultivates a Black American identity, and the twoness of that soul presents a conflict in perceiving one’s own wholeness.
“One ever feels his two-ness,––an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. […] this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people.”
W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk
Chapter One, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”16
Where such twoness represents a sociological split into two cultural halves, Du Boisian double-consciousness as a phenomenological division of the self: “Together they capture the experiences and feelings of exclusion in white America, but they also clarify the complexity of black consciousness.”14 Twoness also shows as a two-folded identity as the other and the self; the object and the subject. On the one hand a confinement to imposed truisms sprung from colonialism and white supremacy—from which one cannot break out without sanctions, both cultural and legislative—and on the other hand, the fully fleshed-out self with all its dreams, experiences and phenomenological riches.
The task of cultivating double-consciousness is no easy endeavour, to perceive the affective shape pressing on one from the outside while finding the truth within oneself and carry it proudly: “He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another.”17 Blau and Brown point out that “Twoness, in this sense, potentially either is debilitating or is the key to synthetic emancipation.”11 Ron Christie remarks: “The color of black accomplishment for Du Bois did not require a reflection of worthiness first reflected from a white image of success.”18 Du Bois calls for self-respect which carries such self-realisation. Much of his criticism of Washington, who founded and taught at Tuskegee Institute, will rest upon this call, for he wants to know: “[…] what need of education” there was if one was “content to be servants.”19
“Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”
Between Jim Crow laws and Washington’s appeasement strategy—between separation and submission—Du Bois suggested a third way: dialectic participation in dichotomous America while preserving an affirmative Black identity. In the Du Bois / Washington conflict, the first grasps the latter as “a compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro.”20 With Washington’s “programme of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights” he greatly misrepresents African-Americans’ desire for selfrealisation and instead plays into outdated cultural myths of inferiority. “Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance for developing their exceptional men?”20 Du Bois asks rightfully. He concludes that Booker Washington has gotten himself into a precarious paradox that unfolds in justifying white supremacy, negligence in identifying the real cause of African-Americans’ unequal social status and in asserting that it is upon every individual themselves whether they will make it in the future.20
It is implied in Du Bois’ writing that Booker T. Washington either completely overlooks or blatantly ignores that both the reason for an unequal society as well as the determining factor in non-white individuals’ future prospects are undeniably bound to the veil; the colour-line; racism. Du Bois criticises the myth Washington had spun to maintain his own elitist social status as not only unproductive to the cause but potentially harmful to it.20 He asserts that “[…] slavery and race-prejudice are potent if not sufficient causes of the Negro’s position” and “it is equally true that unless his striving be not simply seconded, but rather aroused and encouraged […] he cannot hope for great success.”20 The effect of the harm caused by Washington’s policies is that “the burden of the Negro problem” was being shifted “to the Negro’s shoulders” while white folk “stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators.”20 The problem of the colour line however is not within Black responsibility. Bending the truth to fit into a cultural narrative that legitimizes racist ideologies; while the violence of slavery had not even completely evaporated into thin air yet, should be pinned down as a crime against humanity.
‘Acting White’ Revisited
Are there Black or white ways of behaving? The essentialist answer is no, but the cultural-historical answer is also yes. The ‘acting white’ epithet was born under slavery and raised during segregation. In an article on the history of African-American influence on rock & roll we published in March, it becomes visible how Du Bois’ veil was almost briefly lifted when music united segregated audiences and African-American music found its way into white American homes. However, this moment was brief and soon turned asymmetrical when white money replaced rock & roll’s roots and monetised it into an industry marketed towards whiteness. After several acts were ruled in the 1960s, which eventually abolished segregation, the damage was already done. Whiteness does not get to magically turn back the clock or reset reality. Instead of falling back into a colonialist body of thought and carrying on a racially flagged cultural narrative, it is whiteness’ responsibility to understand where certain race myths originated. Once they lay before us stripped of the diffusion of time and the ideology of power, they may be crushed with but a fist.
EDITED BY LARA HELENA.
Mercy Ferrars is a MA graduate in philosophy and writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction essays. She is madly in love with Scotland, dogs and Bojack Horseman.
1 Christie, Ron. Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur. 1st ed., Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010, p. 36–37
2 “Why African-Americans Loathe ‘Uncle Tom.’” NPR, NPR, 30 July 2008, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93059468&t=1648665030166.
3 Washington, Booker T. “‘Atlanta Compromise Speech.’” https://thehermitage.com/, 1895.
4 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p.34
5 Christie, Ron. Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur. 1st ed., Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010, p. 48
6 Blau, Judith R., and Eric S. Brown. “Du Bois and Diasporic Identity: The Veil and the Unveiling Project.” Sociological Theory, vol. 19, no. 2, July 2001, pp. 219–233., https://doi.org/10.1111/0735–2751.00137. p.220
7 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p.8
8 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p.3
9 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p.8–11
10 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p.3
11 Blau, Judith R., and Eric S. Brown. “Du Bois and Diasporic Identity: The Veil and the Unveiling Project.” Sociological Theory, vol. 19, no. 2, July 2001, pp. 219–233. https://doi.org/10.1111/0735–2751.00137. p.221
12 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p.4
13 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p.3
14 Blau, Judith R., and Eric S. Brown. “Du Bois and Diasporic Identity: The Veil and the Unveiling Project.” Sociological Theory, vol. 19, no. 2, July 2001, pp. 219–233. https://doi.org/10.1111/0735–2751.00137. p.230
15 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p.7–8
16 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p. 8–10
17 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p. 11
18 Christie, Ron. Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur. 1st ed., Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010, p. 73–74
19 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p. 13
20 Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2007, p. 38; 33; 39–40; 43; 44