“Stop acting white.”—Are African-Americans Their Own Worst Enemy?

By Lee Williams (@Lee_Wms)

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Charles Barkley

Former NBA great Charles Barkley is generating waves of controversy for his latest tirade. Barkley called out “unintelligent” black people for their criticism of successful black people, who label them as “acting white” and that they aren’t black enough.

Barkley made his comments during his interview with “Afternoons with Anthony Gargano and Rob Ellis,” where he was asked about rumors that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been criticized by his black teammates that he’s not acting “black enough.”

Barkley’s rant targeted blacks that believe, “If you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough.”

“Unfortunately, as I tell my white friends, we as black people, we’re never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you’re black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people. It’s a dirty, dark secret; I’m glad it’s coming out.”

AUDIO of this interview below:

Barkley may have been on his soapbox, but he does have a point. There is a culture of praised mediocrity and criticism within the African-American community that few wish to speak on. I’ve lived it.

As a young man growing up in Georgia, I spent my childhood reading, listening to alternative music, and studying to make good grades. My parents raised me with pride and purpose. They taught me the value of hard work, and that as a black man, I’d have to elevate myself to an elite level in order to be successful in this country. Outside of the home, I found that the purpose-driven values I was taught were not embraced by some of my African-American peers. I was constantly teased for wearing glasses, being smart, and doing anything outside the sphere of the African-American experience.

“You’re not black. You’re an Oreo—black on the outside, white on the inside.”

“Listen to him, talking like a white boy.”

“Man, you’re lame. You listen to that music? Stop acting white.”

These are just a few of the comments that I heard when growing up, but the punishment didn’t stop there. My kindness and well-spoken demeanor triggered physical violence and constant bullying on a few occasions, all because I was open-minded and “different.” During high school, I shed the glasses and played sports—which negated some of the animosity—but I faced new social pressure to adopt the stereotypical “thug” image that was so embraced by other adolescent African-American young men, and negatively reinforced by rap music and the media.

According to my peers, if you weren’t a skirt-chasing, highly-masculine black guy with an edgy personality, then you weren’t considered a “true” black man.

You weren’t “black” enough.

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This is the inevitable pressure of every black male. Everyone sees you as one type of person: society, the media, even your own “people.” I never expected that other African-Americans would demonize me for wanting to strive for greatness in all that I do.

Of course, African-American culture as a whole is not reflective of this regressive, backwards perspective. I champion other African-Americans that defy public criticism for how they should act, dress, and express themselves. The excellent indie-film “Dear White People” addresses the dilemma of defining oneself against how society perceives you to be. In the past, too often, I found myself striving to assert my blackness to my African-American peers. This proved to be exhausting.

Similarly, African-American women are not immune from the intense judgment of “our” people. Recently, child-star and actress Raven Symone received harsh criticism from African-Americans for her comments during an interview with Oprah, where she said she was tired of being “labeled” as gay or African-American, and that she was “a human who loves humans” and “an American.”

A differing perspective in a world of infinite perspectives simply isn’t acceptable for many African-Americans, especially when it comes from one of our own. Like Barkley, I agree that this crab-in-the-bucket mentality is a toxic social norm within the African-American community that needs to end.

Where did this culture of praised mediocrity originate? In my opinion, the destruction of the nuclear family is the primary cause of many social problems facing African-Americans. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 30% of African-American families are single-parent households with only the mother present, and 51% of those families live below the poverty line. These disproportioned statistics are shocking. For any race, unclear family models, a lack of discipline and guidance, the effects of poverty, and psychological trauma suffered from those experiences can create a culture of fear and ignorance that is toxic in nature.

These days, thug culture, criminality, and rap music are the primary models for at-risk African-American youth. These popular forms of expression are encouraged and embraced by our society and pop culture. If they were to have met, Booker T. Washington would have never vilified Martin Luther King, Jr. on whether or not he was a “real nigga,” and George Washington Carver’s dress style would not have made fun of because he didn’t sag. These men were too busy being pathfinders for those that would follow them. Their sacrifices and advances were made to create a better future for the disadvantaged and disproportioned within the African-American community.

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“To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

Influential sociologists, author, and civil-rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote that the African-American race will be saved by its “exceptional men.” He used the term “the talented tenth” in describing the possibility that one in every ten black men would become leaders through pursuing and completing higher education, writing progressive literature, community involvement and inciting social change—effectively leading the disenfranchised African-Americans by example. In his Talented Tenth essay, he wrote:

“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.”

Du Bois would be shaken to find that aspects of African-American society has become so toxic. I am happy that Barkley was bold enough to publicly address what many of us already know—that many of the negative, prevailing notions we have regarding our black identity are wrong, need to be challenged, and ultimately destroyed.

It’s wrong to idealize thug culture, dysfunctional relationships, and a flashy, extravagant lifestyle of vice. Having sex with as many women as possible and leaving your child fatherless does not make you a man, it makes you a coward who is condemning his family to a harsh life of poverty. Why do so many of us try so hard to be a thug, when it is hazardous to your health? You’re only becoming a target for trigger-happy police, racial profilers, racists, and EACH OTHER to villainize and attack. This is not real manhood, but an extreme, over exaggeration for what many lack on the inside, which is self-esteem, confidence, and ambition. baggy+pants01

It’s saddening that so many African-American children are raised in single-parent homes, that so few of us complete higher education, and that this vicious cycle only continues without much as a discussion from our own. It’s saddening that much of our music praises the “bad bitch” and “ho” mentality portrayed in twerking and booty clapping videos, that violent fight videos are shared regularly via WorldStarHipHop and YouTube, and that a promiscuous female is considered a desirable one. It’s saddening that our young men still sag their pants so much that their boxers show. Who sold us on the lies that this is the way to carry ourselves in the world?

Lastly, it’s saddening that I have to admit that Barkley is right. The cultural of self-hated and antagonism between regressive and progressive African-Americans has been present since slavery and Jim Crow, where we’d admonish blacks for being “uncle Toms,” and “house slaves” when they would be too closely associated with whites, and mulatto women were treated harshly by darker-skinned African-American women since they had white lineage in their blood. Now “uncle Tom” has been replaced with “Oreo” and that you’re “not black enough,” but the intent of the message is still the same: To some, you aren’t a true black person if you do not share the same backward views as they do.

To the regressive black people that will inevitably attack Sir Charles and myself for our views, I’ll say this: Grow up. For too long we have let others dictate who we are. African-Americans are not monolithic; they come in all shapes, forms, and from a variety of perspectives. Why should one narrow view shape who we are? Why do so many of us think inferiority is cool? Why are so many of us raised in single-parent homes? Why do so many of us allow government programs like welfare to be our safety net for way too long? To go a step further, why do so many of us vote overwhelmingly Democrat, no questions asked? Many of the things I’ve mentioned have helped to maintain this destructive culture of mediocrity.

I challenge you to consider outside perspectives. I challenge you to think bigger.

Championing a chipped shoulder of entitlement and backwardness WILL NOT solve the problems within the black community. This dysfunctional perspective is a cultural hindrance and a psychological brick wall in the consciousness of some African-Americans, and has allowed some of us to hold each other back for generations. This will only end when all of us refuse to accept mediocrity as a cultural standard. Then, and only then, will we be truly able to move forward as a race.

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9 comments

  1. Pykia Kudjoe · September 8, 2015

    Dear Mr. Williams,

    I came across your article when I searched Google for “African American regressive mentality.” I was very enlightened by it, and most certainly concur.

    I recently had the great misfortune of spending this past weekend with two African Americans who were prime examples of “regressive mentalities.” But the worst part about it, most other African Americans who are born & raised in Orlando, (a city which I have the misfortune to be stuck in), seem to be plagued with the same idiotic & simple minded way of thinking.

    Thank you for your post and I pray that things will get better for our people.

    Yours truly,

    Py

    Like

    • commactivist · January 26, 2016

      Pykia, thanks so much for your comment. I am so sorry that it has taken me so long to respond, but I was travelling for most of 2015 and had taken a break from blogging. Interestingly enough, I used to live in Orlando as well. Regressive people are everywhere because we tolerate the mindset that mediocrity is supposed to be championed as some admirable trait…when it’s not. Instead of challenging ourselves to uphold moral values and hard work as qualifiers for success, many of our disillusioned youth have a backwards view of what “cool” actually represents. Ultimately, they fear anything new. It’s up to us to live up to standards that can be modeled by those that respect us. In the end, we can only control ourselves.

      Lee

      Like

  2. Devin McReynolds · November 3, 2015

    Beautiful, absolutely beautiful work. I could not have said it better myself. My brother just showed me this article and you described exactly what we both have been coming to terms with in our struggle to become who we both want to be as african americans. We both go to a private school and for a while have accepted the comment that we were so “white” from whites people and not black to blacks in our school as well. We only recently figured out we have been lied to for so long, this article makes us both feel assured that we are not alone in this thought process. Keep writing sir, keep writing. P.S, sorry for the cheesiness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • commactivist · January 26, 2016

      Devin, thanks so much for reading and I appreciate you and your brother for sharing your thoughts. I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond, but I had taken a break from blogging in order to focus on other creative endeavors. (I’ll be posting more soon!) The internal struggle between African Americans is an experience that isn’t talked about as much as it should be. It seems as though our race also suffers from a political correctness issue when we critically look at the ways our community treats each other. But there can only be progress by confronting issues head on, not ignoring them or ridiculing others. Example: I had this blog reposted on a popular African American site and you will not believe the amount of negative criticism I received. I can understand if someone respectfully disagrees with my opinion (after all, it is mine), but some of the comments were mere attacks on my character and downright name-calling…which only PROVED my point about these regressive types. It was an amazing case study.

      I’d love to communicate further with you or your brother on some additional topics that you may find afflict the African-American community. Please email me at leewms1127@gmail.com if you’d like to discuss.

      Lee

      Like

  3. mknudstrup · January 24, 2016

    Thank you for posting this article. I like the independent perspective you gave. In the world at large, there are probably groups of people who are more victims than independent creators of their destiny. In America, however, a large share of any person’s credit (or blame) for their circumstances rests squarely on their own shoulders. Indeed, some people don’t get the same chances or treatment as others. American society is not perfect. That said, a large share, over half at least, of what happens to a person is his/her own doing. There are plenty of methods to independently pursue one’s place in the world, as you so nicely state.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. P. Lewis · February 23, 2016

    Reblogged this on A Black Writer in Berlin and commented:
    I will comment on this post a bit later. Right now, hustling myself. No Glot. Clom Fliday.

    Like

  5. Eileen Schultz · September 17, 2016

    Enlightening article I came across when looking for “the psychology of crabs-in-a-barrel mentality” in the AA community. Thank you for it. I resided in Atlanta for 4 years and for the life of me could not get accustomed to the Black Americans’ mentality that permeated the metro. What I noticed however, there is another layer of ‘regression’ in Atlanta from folks who are well spoken, educated in HBCUs and Atlanta Public Schools Systems and overall ‘put together’ (read: not thuggish). They have a horrible time financially. They cannot hold a job to save their lives. They are constantly trying to directly or indirectly mooch out of the few who are financially stable and are a term coined by my spouse ‘broke-ballers’… I have been married into an AA family – I am Hispanic – and in 13 years I have not seen their financial situation improve yet. Matter of fact, it is deteriorating to the point we decided to move out of Atlanta so we would not fall into the bottom of the barrel.

    Like

  6. Jay · January 14

    Thank you very much, my brother from another mother. Finally another Black American who is an educated man who understands. Being that I am originally from the hood, I have experienced the intense and severe bullying which included being physically assaulted & brutalized inside AS WELL AS outside of my household for being “different” (i.e. very smart, loving to read, interest in different genres of literature, music, art, etc.). Despite this, I was still able to become a college-educated Black American woman. But I realize that those past experiences have greatly affected me to the point that I am very hesitant to deal with other Black Americans especially the women because I don’t know what attacks I might get. Sigh. Wow. It is a shame to fear one’s race because you know what you stand for is going to make you a target by them.

    Thanks again for allowing yourself to be vulnerable and sharing your story. Because of your bravery, I know that I am not alone in my traumatic experience. Therefore this blog has helped me to continue healing & excelling.

    Like

  7. Gena · March 13

    Thank You so much tor writing this. I was recently going through a mini-identity crisis because I look pretty black (even though I was raised by my Mexican family) and I know that everyone around me thinks I act white. I was trying to ignore it at first but I started getting all this anxiety about how I should act because everyone saw me a certain way and I wasn’t like that I guess. I’m still pretty confused but I think ill have enough confidence now 🙂 “defining oneself against how society percieves you to be” really love that line.

    Like

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