Overcoming the insult of 'acting white'

Elizabeth Zalanga
Elizabeth Zalanga, left, explains to Brian Lozenski how students attending the Science Museum's Youth Science Day can learn basic computer programming skills.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Editor's note: A common struggle for African-American students trying to succeed in school is handling the putdowns of black peers. One of the worst is the accusation that they are "acting white." The insult sometimes hurled at young people who speak standard English is an implication that they have rejected their culture. Elizabeth Zalanga, who in June graduated from Central High School in St. Paul, has been stung by those words. But she has survived them. She knows that there is no single authentic black experience.

I was in eighth grade the first time I heard the term "acting white."

I was asking my teacher a question when I overheard a group of African-American girls whispering about how I spoke like a white person. There were more accusations of "acting white" later that same day. I was confused and deeply offended because I'd always tried to present myself in a courteous and mature manner, not in a "black" or "white" manner. I didn't even know what it meant to act or to talk white. I felt like an outcast among African-American students.

My parents were born in Nigeria, but I was born and raised in Minnesota. I consider myself African-American. So I didn't understand why these hurtful words came from other African-Americans.

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I didn't even know what it meant to act or to talk white. I felt like an outcast among African-American students.

When I talked to my dad, Samuel Zalanga, about this, he wasn't surprised.

"That's not good," he told me. "I think much of it has to do with the fact that many people do not properly learn what it means to respect other human beings."

My dad, who teaches sociology at Bethel University, tried to explain the tension between Africans and African-Americans. He said some of it is rooted in resentment and competition for education, jobs and housing. He also said some of it is ignorance.

"For many ordinary citizens, the little they know about each other is shaped by the context of their interaction or the context of their learning experience," he said.

That's similar to what my close friend and African-American co-worker Jamesha Jones thinks.

Jamesha Jones
Jamesha Jones, center, teaches a student basic computer programming skills to create a video game during Youth Science Day.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

When we first met two years ago, we didn't get along. Jamesha thought I was stuck up. Because of my past experiences with African-Americans, I assumed she wasn't going to like me. At the time, I thought I'd never have African-American friends. But Jamesha changed that.

I found myself code switching in order to fit into each group. I would consciously change the way I acted and talked in order to fit in.

"I don't think me and African people [are] different," she said. "I mean a lot of African people I meet, they already got this idea like 'oh, we're not going to get along 'cause of our personality.' But I'm always open to different kinds of people."

I am, too. In fact, I now have a racially diverse group of friends. But at one point I found myself code switching in order to fit into each group. I would consciously change the way I acted and talked in order to fit in.

It wasn't until my senior year in high school that I first heard race addressed in the classroom. My English teacher, Josh Hirman, created a safe environment for students to discuss this complex and sometimes uncomfortable subject. I was one of several students who opened up in class about my experiences. Mr. Hirman said this had a snowball effect on the class.

"As soon as students see that we've carved out a safe space to talk about race, I feel it's contagious and most students begin to let their guard down to freely kind of explore the subject of race in our society," he said.

Patience Zalanga
Elizabeth's older sister, Patience Zalanga, uses what some call double consciousness to make herself more easily understood.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Zalanga

I also talked about race at home with my older sister Patience. She's also been accused of "acting white." Instead of code switching, she uses a concept some people call double consciousness. Patience thinks it makes her more easily understood.

"So for instance, if I'm with white people it sounds different from when I'm with African-Americans and when I'm with Africans," she said. "So really what's come out of it is being really aware of my surroundings."

Patience and I have chosen different ways to deal with this situation. But there is no right or wrong way.

From middle school until now I've gained a strong sense of who I really am. I'm just me, and whether people think I "act white" or not, the statement no longer phases me.

Now, I no longer code switch. I offer the genuine me to all potential friends. I don't let stereotypes define who I am. You see, we're all more similar then we think and if we took the time to understand others there would be less tension between us.

Read more stories from MPR News Young Reporters series