All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1991

Acting Black Crushes Personal Spirit

Mr. Hill is a senior at Georgia State University. Reprinted with permission of The Detroit News, a Gannett newspaper, copyright, 1990.

For years I have been disturbed by the psychological batterings and lynchings blacks inflict on each other. All this is performed in the name of some undefined code of “appropriate” behavior: acting black.

There is a strong tendency among many blacks to malign and ostracize other blacks who in their view do not fit within the concept of how a black person should behave. When I was attending a university in Atlanta, a woman in one of my classes accosted me one day. For one thing, she said, I spoke “too proper”; black folks didn’t talk that way. She added emphatically that white people just would not appreciate my being so intellectual in class. I needed to shut up sometimes, she insisted, because white people owned the school.

I looked closely at her to remind myself that this was no dream—that this was the United States of America in the 1990s.

She said she also thought it disgusting that I was studying so much with a white girl. Why couldn’t I share my brains with other blacks? She reminded me that the “sisters” would think I was trying to prove I was too good for them.

On another day, another black student asked me what my major was. When I declared it was philosophy, raised eyebrows, a cynical smirk, and a self-righteous “whoever heard of a black philosopher?” were the responses I received. By the time the individual discovered that I enjoyed classical music, I was no longer perceived as a real person, let alone a black man.

Another fellow told me that “new blacks” needed to stop going over to Europe and visiting all those cathedrals and patronizing white values, that whites would laugh at us and ask us if we didn’t know that there were African pyramids we should be visiting.

The situation is much worse on the job. Dining with fellow blacks I have been accused of “acting white” because I placed my napkin on my lap. Black people don’t eat that way, I was informed.

A co-worker once told me that I spent too much time reading books and that I should be in the ghetto getting a real education; that because I was a middle-class black who hailed from the suburbs I had not lived the black experience, nor had I lived real life. I wondered if there were blacks who longed for a day when the “black experience” could be seen in terms other than victimization and inferiority.

But I knew such individuals existed because I had met several who admitted they sometimes felt guilty about their success. Some said they would rather bear this agony silently than be labeled an “Oreo,” a disgraceful term used by many blacks to describe a person they feel is trying to be white. When our black academicians and politicians sanction and use such terms, one has to wonder what kind of moral and psychological atmosphere we want for our young people.

This startling revelation was brought home during a conversation I had with an office manager some time ago. Observing him daily, I had the distinct feeling he was more intelligent than he appeared to be. Our conversations confirmed that my assumption was correct. He eventually confirmed that he consciously repressed a great deal of his intelligence.

Since all his employees were black, he said, he was afraid he would be perceived as being arrogant and pompous. It was hard to maintain that degree of professionalism he knew was necessary, he explained, because he had to make his co-workers realize his office position had not alienated him from them. Proof of such commonality took forms such as tolerance of sloppy, vulgar behavior or using curse words. The manager did not want to be labeled as a betrayer of the race, the man who forgot where he came from. Why would any human being apologize for the best within him?

Another fellow, an intelligent college student whom I knew very well, who is an advocate of Black Power, declared that blacks are racially superior to any other group. I pointed out that besides being irrational, such a view had been extolled by other races to dominate other groups throughout history. He said I was nothing more than a self-hating “house nigger” who was selling out.

What I saw in him was the black slave master regulating our activities, defining our emotional, political, and psychological existence to conform to his guilt-ridden, intellectually bankrupt vision. I want no part of this vision.

We scream racism when the Klan hurls racial epithets. When blacks do the same against other races and against their own, it suddenly becomes justifiable. How can one condemn racism while practicing it?

I spent a long time attempting to discern the nature of this mentality. I realized that in its most blatant and perhaps instinctual form it is tribalism. A tribalist mentality attempts to mold people’s character and their values into the image of what constitutes tribal mores. Who are the definers of such values? Everyone and no one in particular. In such a culture, the individualist, the nonconformist, is resented.

It is truly unfortunate that those who dare to break from this hostage/captor mindset are forced to pay such a great price, often in the form of ostracism. Usually, however, the greatest price they pay stems from within. On the one hand the individual is torn between a sense of fulfilling his personal value system and of responding to new growth. But he is also torn by what he feels is his moral obligation to fulfill the implicitly understood code of”black values,” even if assuming such a role means displacing and disowning his own personal feelings.

Slavery and years of government-sanctioned segregation forced the “black experience” to be one primarily of pain. But do we want to cling to the past forever? When the history of black people in this country is placed in the mainstream of academic consideration—not with any special consideration, but read simply as a part of world history-it would certainly be pleasing to read of the black experience as merging closer with the traditional American dream.

Until many blacks make a concerted attempt to see the members of other races and themselves as individuals, and start practicing healthy individualism, until they learn to see the universal qualities in education, art, literature, and ideas and stop this generalized talk about white values and white education, until they learn the importance of exploring values for mutual benefit, these psychological lynchings will continue unabated.