Monday, January 25, 2016

"Acting White"

Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn.They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.
—Barack Obama, Keynote Address, Democratic National Convention, 2004
I'm pretty sure that most people reading this are aware of this fact, but I am not white. Not entirely, anyway. For my entire life, when filling out survey forms and such, I've always checked off the "Native American/Alaskan Native" box. My father is chairman of my tribe and has been fighting to get our tribe nationally recognized for a long time now.

I don't bring up my race very much, though. I'm not active in my tribe, and I have no real connection to Native American culture. Does that make me less of an American Indian? Does the rejection of my ethnicity mean that I'm just acting white?

"Acting white" is a derogatory term in almost every non-white race; a strange instance of a derogatory term that's only effective when used within its own race. Sometimes they come up with cute nicknames, like referring to black people who act white as "oreos," or Asian people who act white as "twinkies," indicating that though they appear to be one race or another on the outside, they're white on the inside.

And, as with any derogatory term, it's incredibly damaging.

What does "acting white" mean, exactly? Well, usually it means things that seem like pretty strange things to mock people for: being well-behaved, taking an interest in education, being articulate (which probably shouldn't impress certain white people as much as it does), holding a steady job, maintaining a clean home, and just generally being good-natured.

It's weird and backward that many behaviors that I would call "common decency" are considered to be the sole province of white people by people who aren't white. And because they demonize the white man for various reasons, some of them valid, they likewise demonize these traits that, in my opinion, are qualities that only the best white people exhibit, the ones that may be worth emulating a bit.

I can understand the concern, though. If there's one thing white people are great at, it's absorbing and homogenizing other cultures. Whatever culture my own tribe once had, it's been melted into general Cajun culture: "Cajun," from the word "Acadian," referring to the exiled French settlers of Acadia in Canada, who were sent to south Louisiana in the mid-18th Century. White people, in other words. If my tribe had a language before, it was replaced by Cajun French, a language that is itself dying now after years of public schools punishing children for speaking it. Nowadays, "Cajun" is a style of food and an accent, little more.

Black people, Latinos, and other First Nations tribes are fighting to hold onto their cultures, even though I'm not sure many of them are fighting a fight worth fighting.

For instance, First Nations tribes fight for many of their sacred grounds, which I can understand, but they also often seem to hold very tightly to their Indian reservations, trying to maintain some semblance of their old civilization within the boundaries the US Government has given them. It's the latter part that's strange to me, since that seems very different from the actual tribes' way of life before they were restricted to reservations. The US Government wasn't terribly shy about only ceding the most inhospitable places to the native tribes, so in many cases the native cultures simply aren't suited to the locations the people have found themselves.

So, at some point I can't help but wonder what, exactly, are people preserving? The important stuff has already been taken away. The land is gone, and much of the culture and language is either dead or fading away. There isn't much prosperity to be had on the reservation, just as there isn't much prosperity to be had in the inner city. By fighting the culture the white man has created, civilizations are simply fading away, dragging their people with them. The other option is to play the white man's game and integrate.

It's funny, though: in my experience, integrating into the white man's civilization doesn't destroy your culture. Like the Romans, America has absorbed the various cultures that make up the country, appropriating helpful/useful elements and ditching the rest. Homogenization, for better or worse.

I don't think of it as a win for "white culture," though. American culture is a mix of many cultures, all of which have lost something during the appropriation process. Much of the European culture has been lost as well, and though white privilege still exists, I think American culture is only "white culture" as long as the other cultures that can influence it reject it.

That said, though I've never felt very connected to the trappings of my ethnicity, I've listened to stories about other Native Americans, and I've come to realize that I have more native qualities than I thought. The way I express my emotions and my perception of time have both found parallels in some stereotypically native behavior despite never having learned these behaviors. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by that some time, but in short I think the core of what makes a person Native American, Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, and so on isn't purely in the culture we are raised in. Rather, there will always be something distinctly Native American in my genes, something other than my skin color, which my culture will never be able to take from me.

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