A Curmudgeon Rerun: Black Talk
"The black man in America is the most-copied man on this planet, bar
none. Everybody wanna be [black], but nobody wanna be [black]."
—Paul Mooney, comedian
(who used another term for "black" which I, being white, decline to quote)
Look, I get it. Some of us white people find black people utterly fascinating. In much the same way we're inclined to assume that all English people are smart or that all gay men have flawless taste, we're inclined to assume that all black people are keepers of the cool. What's more, some of us attribute to this idolized people the mystical power to pronounce us cool as well—to bless us, to christen us, as it were, honorary black people. We bloody well live for that. For these reasons, some white people get so excited when they're in the vicinity of a dark-complexioned individual that they become overwhelmed and lose all reason. Like the family dog spotting his favorite treat, their focus becomes singular. All other interests disappear; they just want to be involved in any way they can.
That's when they start casually mentioning famous black people* they admire, just kind of slipping them into the conversation. And then some of these hapless souls . . . oh, here it comes . . . God help them . . . start affecting a dialect, language, and mannerisms that are nothing like their normal behavior. It's the desperate act of a person longing to be (depending on the decade) "hip," "hep," "cool," "with it," "down," or more likely, some new term we white people have yet to appropriate.
To that subset of Caucasians I say this—because someone has to tell you: you're embarrassing the rest of us.
Any attempts to "act black" when you're not are both misguided and off-putting. Let's track this. What's the plan here, exactly? Are you figuring that your best "sassy black girlfriend" voice will bridge some sort of vast language barrier you've decided exists? You reckon a sprinkling of "y'all"s and "we be"s will make it easier for someone with dark skin to understand what you're saying?
Or maybe you're hoping to convince black people that you're just like them—that is to say, black—that your hip-hop lean and vague finger signs are your day passes to an exclusive club that's not for you. Now, I don't know what kind of Rachel Dolezal Jedi mind trick you're hoping to pull off there, but you're not fooling anyone. Do you imagine any sane black person thinks to himself, "I'm so confused! He looks white . . . but those mannerisms! Clearly he's one of us!"? Take a deep breath, white friend, and use your brain.
What makes all this potentially even more awkward is that many of the people you're speaking to don't talk the way you're trying to talk or use the mannerisms you're trying to adopt. And when that's the case, chances are your emphatic neck movements and outdated black slang are viewed as even more ridiculous. It's like a Frenchman trying to ingratiate himself by speaking to you in an exaggerated Texas drawl when you're from Connecticut.
There's a sort of favorable prejudice at work here. It is, nevertheless, prejudice. First, there's the ignorant idea that people with brown skin are all alike, with the same mannerisms and cultural backgrounds. And second, there's the idea that black people somehow require your uncanny behavioral adaptability in order to be able to hold a conversation. These assumptions are more than a bit insulting, not to mention absurd, when you think about it . . . which I suggest you do.
I've observed black people in these situations, and been amazed again and again by the remarkable grace with which they choose to handle these bizarre imitations. Sometimes, they'll even bless their superfan with an "Uh-oh! Look at you!" or a "You sure you're not black?" But trust me, these are niceties. They're trying to save that person from embarrassment. Nobody has mistaken the wanna-be for a member of the tribe.
I know that unique cultural "isms" can be fun and infectious (Mrs. Curmudgeon informs me that even I morph slightly if I spend enough time immersed in certain groups.) But people—try to resist doing your "I'm black like you" routine. It's not working like you think it is. I promise you, you can talk like yourself and be understood just fine. What's more, it's a far more respectful and dignified way to behave. You feel me?
*You may notice that the Curmudgeon chooses to use the descriptor "black" rather than "African American." For those of you who are curious, there are two reasons for this. 1) Not everyone who is black is African American. Some are Haitian, French, Dutch, or even . . . wait for it . . . African. And 2) I believe the only people who need to use the term African American are those who don't know any. The black people I know are still black, with no plans to stop being black, and we're all quite comfortable with that.