What Does ‘Acting White’ Even Mean?

White People Asking Questions is a series where White people submit questions and they are posed anonymously to the public for a 24-hour period and are answered anonymously.

Oftentimes White people have questions about themselves, People Of Color (POCs), or awkward situations, but are afraid to ask them due to public backlash. On the other hand, POCs get asked these questions everyday and are burdened with the emotional labor of constantly explaining the same concept to people that will never relate because it is not their experience.

But just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn and do something about it. Amirite? As Angela Davis said, “You have to be intentionally and actively anti-racist.” 

Therefore, this series is having the conversation on how White People can be ACTIVE in dismantling racist systems and not passively watching. What is unique, though, is this series is set up to be answered primarily BY White People FOR White People teach each other about their privileges. 

POCs are always welcome to participate in dialogue, but this also creates a space for POCs to watch White People do the work in educating each other. Many times our communities are so disconnected that we don’t know the conversations happening amongst other communities. This is also meant as a resource for POCs to direct White People to for difficult concepts.

How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch wants to acknowledge and thank everyone who took on the emotional labor of sending in these responses. We include all responses that are directly relevant to answering the question. We don’t filter or edit, but we do correct spelling and grammatical errors. Highlighted in red is an answer deemed most appropriate, although we recognize this is strictly opinion based.

The Question

It’s becoming evident to me that most people don’t consider “being white” as just a skin colour. It seems to be a concept. Basic question, to you, what is white? Can it be defined with physical features? Or is it a way of being? What is acting White?

White Responses

Whiteness is so complicated! It’s a skin color, yes, but also a position in society, an expectation of how you will be treated by others (especially in regards to the law, POC, your government) and even how you don’t experience the genetic and intergenerational pain that POC (and especially Black folks) do. Whiteness physically moves differently in the world. I always think about how White folks will often expect others to move out of their way when moving somewhere, getting on trains, waiting in line. These are small symptoms of larger trends and expectations the come of Whiteness.

Whiteness is needing to be centered at all times. White as normal or default, I think, is the center of the pushback with the All Lives Matter schtick. Like how dare Black people in America center their own lives over everyone else (ahem ahem White people).

Acting White is messaging WOC asking them to educate you because you don’t “get it”. Acting White is thinking your voice needs to always be the loudest, that your questions are the most important. Acting White is wanting to avoid the “tourist areas” so you can get your perfect instashot, because you want to be “special”, but not actually researching or understanding any of the indigenous or cultural history of the places you’re taking photos of. Acting White is when you laugh at your racist uncle’s jokes (we all have one, sorry) instead of calling him out, because you’ll never have to experience the discrimination personally and it’s easier to be complicit than to have an uncomfortable conversation. We can always improve at that.

Whiteness is such a weird thing, because it’s not really defined by what you are, but by what you’re not (which is to say, not Black). Like, around the early 20th century people started incorporating the Irish and Italians into their idea of Whiteness because it suited the demographic changes in the U.S. Like also it’s weird because for a long time Jews were not considered White (ok Ashkenazi Jews, not Sephardic). Like when my grandparents were growing up in Poland before WWII, most Poles made that very clear. But now I can’t really deny that I am White, or even that my mom and her parents are White. They definitely have that hint of olive-y skin and dark, curly hair, but no one stares at them as obviously non-White outsiders where they live in California.

Hey! White girl responding to your stories question. I guess behaving White would entail to deny or take for granted your privilege, and thinking and advocating that every person gets what they deserve according to their efforts without taking into account several sociological circumstances.

Being White is also thinking Jesus and Adam and Eve were White Aryans. It’s also avoiding the ethnic grocery stores and not eating at the taco truck where the owners don’t speak English. Give me all the supermercados with the cheap and fresh AF produce.

White people who think they aren’t racist and you wouldn’t immediately see that they are but the nonverbal communication like not making eye contact while being perfectly friendly tells another story. Entitlement comes in many, often subtle, forms.

Whiteness is a construct, not a color. Despite this, White privilege is a real thing that comes from being lumped into the “White” category…whether you abuse that privilege or not, it is always there. I understanding “acting White” as doing things that people seen as “not White” could never get away with, while not acknowledging this as a privilege. Or seeing everyone “not White” as someone to pull a savior complex on rather than work alongside as partners

Whiteness is ‘it’s not here, it doesn’t affect me, I don’t care attitude.

POC Responses

Being white is never having to worry about discrimination against you because of your skin colour. Like never having to think if the person I am interacting with is going to be a dick just because they are racist.

Some of it is personality, but one’s racial experience can shape your personality.

White privilege is having the benefit of the doubt.

Acting Black and acting White are things people say that are stupid, even though I have used both.

Bullying does not cause school shootings, entitlement does and White boys are the most entitled demographic by far. They have been promised wealth, power, and women-as-commodity in all forms of media since childhood and when they don’t receive it, they react the way mass media has taught them: with glorious violence.

We were walking around the streets of Seminyak, Bali and like I never really thought of it back home in New Zealand, but I really noticed that I often end up walking on the road or in the gutter to get out of the way of folk walking towards ma and I just thought obviously my mother brought me up to be a polite person. But then I noticed they were all White. And it’s like they had unspoken entitlement to just get be on the footpath. My husband is White, it’s weird because he is the nicest and most considerate person but I’ve seen him do it, too.

In South Africa…White is no longer a skin colour, it’s an attitude. White people think they know the truth and have to educate people who think differently with the real truth not realizing there are alternative ways of doing and thinking things.

White people not acknowledging this is a White thing, is a White thing.

I once met a guy who said he really wanted to come to India because of all the poverty and pain and suffering in it. I expected him to go on a White Savior rant and say he wanted to fix everything and volunteer for 2 weeks or something. Instead, he surprised me. He said, being around suffering is good for the soul, it helps you appreciate what you have. So…I suppose being White also means you get to use ACTUAL poverty and suffering as a backdrop to YOUR personal “spiritual awakening” or whatever lol…But it doesn’t end there. I was pretty shocked by what he’d said. I looked around to see if anyone would challenge him. NO ONE did, in fact folks in the hostel nodded along in understanding and some even gave him props for “self-awareness”. And, it goes without saying, they were all White. Finally, I got a lil’ salty and commented on how he’s a hero for using other folks’ suffering as a backdrop to his own “enlightenment”. And then, I was shocked for the third time that evening when he didn’t sense (or seem to sense) that I wasn’t ACTUALLY calling him a hero, he just took it at face value. So, being White is treating your existential malaise as more important than the suffering that certain groups of people might be subject to, using that to feel good about yourselves, and being in a system wherein you’re seen as “noble” for doing so somehow…amongst a whole host of other things lol but I’m just talking about this instance.

It’s funny though cause I’m Indian, born and brought up, and growing up the only White folks I ever “met” were on TV screens lol, and it wasn’t until I started traveling that I started meeting people from all over (and now White people are about 95% of the people I meet lol). Anyway, despite White people not being much of a part of our society (anymore, lol) we’d still imbibed “White People problems” and “acting White” into our vocabulary. And we basically used it as a blanket term whenever one of us said or did something that highlighted our privilege against other sections of our society. Whiteness is perhaps the most privileged class out there, so if either of us (even as Brown folks) had trouble checking our own set of privileges, we would be “acting White” lol.

To submit a question, go to How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch and submit a question in DM or email alohakiona@gmail.com.

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