“Mom, the kids at school said I act White,” my daughter told me one afternoon a few weeks ago. I asked her why. “Because I do my work, the way I talk and because of how I dress.”
It saddened me as I thought back to my own experience of attending school in the inner city and being told that I “act White” or being made to feel somehow that I did not love my Blackness because I wanted to show my excellence and strive for more.
She told me that they even asked if her parents were still married. When she told them yes, they said, “Yep, you’re White.”
We had a long talk about how we want her to be excellent at all times, to do her best, to show others what excellency looks like—to display her Black excellency. We have always raised our children to be proud of who they are, where they come from and never to dim their light for anyone.
This morning, I ran across a news article about McKenzie Adams, a 9-year-old beautiful Black princess who hung herself because she was bullied for having a White friend and “acting White.” She was taunted for being who she wanted to be. For being innocent. For being excellent.
It is time we address the elephant in the room. For years, Black youth have been accused of “acting White.” Economist Roland Fryer (who happens to be the youngest African-American professor to receive tenure at Harvard) defines this simply as any “statistically significant racial differences in relationship between popularity and grades.”
In the Black community, acting White can mean taking AP classes, speaking proper English, hanging around White people or not dressing a certain way. When some Black students aspire to excellence, they can be accused of thinking they’re “better” than the other students of color, or acting as though they have forgotten where they came from.
As an English teacher, I took great pride in teaching my students the English language through authors that would reflect who they were, like Langston Hughes, Mildred Taylor, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tupac Shakur and many others. At the same time, I made sure that they knew they were excellent, all of them; they were kings and queens, and learning was not something that was “White,” but something that was right!
Teachers, we have to expect excellence from every child in order to combat this! We have to demand the best from every child. Parents, we have to instill in our children that they are all deserving of a great education, and that aspiring to be successful is not something only reserved for White people, but for all people!
Just last week, I watched my daughter’s grades decline in an effort to fit in with those kids who told her she acted White for being respectful and doing her work. I watched her try to fit in so badly that she was willing to pretend to be less than.
I have watched it too many times in the classroom. And just as I refused to sit back and allow it to happen with my students, I certainly was not going to let it happen in my home.
We worked together to catch back up on her missing work and assignments, but we also did something else—we talked about why she has the right to even have the audacity to get an education. We talked about the Edmund Pettus Bridge where leaders like Rep. John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were nearly beaten to death so that I could become a teacher years later and teach children of all races, and eventually become the first African-American Teacher of the Year for my state.
They marched across that bridge so that she, and all our beautiful kings and queens, can be who they want to be. They marched across that bridge so that there could be a Barack and Michelle Obama, a Jay-Z and Beyoncé, an Oprah, a Jahana Hayes and so that my daughter can aspire to greatness!
We talked about Brown v. the Board of Education and how this case allows her to go to desegregated schools and made law the fact that “‘separate but equal’ has no place,” and that segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” I told her that this case was the spark that lit the fire of the Civil Rights Movement.
Finally, I told her we love her. We love her just the way she is. We need to tell all our children we love them. Educators must set high expectations for all students so that all children can perceive that they can and should aspire to be all that they can be.
Black people have an insurmountable amount of pressure on them, from societal pressure, to implicit bias, to a lack of belief, to microaggressions and finally from our own kinfolk who sometimes perceive a desire to be successful as a departure from Blackness. It has to stop—we must stop inflicting pain upon our own people because the world places enough pain all on its own.
I wish I could have told McKenzie that it was okay to have a White friend; that one day it would not matter what the bullies said; that she was not ugly; that her Black was beautiful; that her life mattered. But she is gone, and it should never have happened.
So, what will you do today to honor McKenzie? How will you remember her life? How will you ensure that all children know and understand that being smart is not a “White” thing, but a RIGHT thing?