One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

I Don't "Act White"

Even if you've never been to Detroit, you've heard—through other people, the media and Hollywood—the rumors and stories about how bad it is here. And from that, you've developed a stereotype of the city, the way it functions, and the people living in it. The average Detroit teenager must have horrible grades, come from a broken family, be failing out of school, and be mixed up in drugs, right? Well if that's true, then what does that make the Detroit teenager who doesn't have those problems?

Evidently, it makes him white.

For a while now, probably since the beginning of high school three years ago, I've been called white, or it's been said that I "act white," when I say or do something that doesn't fit my designated stereotype as a Detroit-bred, black male teen.

No, I don't speak in slang and slurred forms of English. No, I do not live in a bad neighborhood where break-ins occur often and houses are boarded up. No, I don't wear my pants around my knees and my shirts three sizes too large. A lot of black teens today call this background and behavior acting or being white.

That doesn't bode well for any of us. Why is being proper, for lack of a better word, considered—by my own people—being something I'm not? If anything, we should want to be known as a group of people who are educated, and who conduct ourselves in a proper fashion—not as people who decided that being that way is a bad thing.

I'd take offence to being characterized that way if I was white, just as any self-respecting black person would take offence to someone saying that being in a gang was acting black. There's no specific way to act white or to act black—there's only one way to act: like yourself.

[Joshua Jamerson is part of the "TIME 11", a group of Detroit area high-school students working with Assignment Detroit. He is a junior at Renaissance High School. Click here for a related story by Taylor Trammell.]

  • Print
  • Comment
Comments (33)
Post a Comment »
  • 1

    Smart thinking and well-said, Joshua.
    "Self-respecting" is a key phrase up there. It's a huge part of what makes you strong and on the path to succeed. And the lack of it is a huge shortcoming for some people of all ages.
    Congratulations on well-earned pride,.

  • 2

    Thank you Josh,

    My wife grew up in Brewster with Diana, Martha and the gang. One summer day she was washing cars out in front of her home on Virginia Park wearing a red bikini.

    A red harley drove by and stopped with the flirty thumb and a handsome guy rode off with her and she quit school at Eastern and after a few stints here and there including the potato chip factory she got a job at Bell Telephone.

    Back then, Bell trained it's information operators extensively. They were taught good grooming and proper dress, English, Grammar, Spelling, Phone presence, handling irate customers, etc. Your teeth had to be perfect and you had to be in fom at all times.

    When she discovered that the white operators could go to the bathroom at any time but if you were black you had to raise your hand and wait, she effectively protested and Bell did change it's policies.

    Ultimately she ended up owning Detroit's finest Telephone Answering service, totaly professional, no gum chewing and clacking in the background and she also provided legal secretatial services, and printing.
    The advent of the computer with word processing and telephone answering machines put a horrible dent into her services.

    Believe me when I say that she was totally professional and she willed all this. You could have her proof anything and it would be perfect and she would make very intelligent suggestions.

    She did not want the life that her family had and television played a large part in developing her aspirations.

    In short, she was a fantastic woman. And she was killed one night by a drunken, and probably doped up white kid from Mount Clemens. They weren't even going to press charges against him.

    So I am well aware of certain problems in being black but I am also aware of what might be called the will to do right.

    And that is what caused me to fall in love with her and why I miss her so.


  • 3

    BRAVO! Joshua. I can not agree with you more. Acting with respect and intelligence is not just reserved for "white" people it is how people of all color should desire to live their lives.

    Leading a proper life should be the goal of everyones life for there is no glory in living the life of a stereotype in any form.

    It has been my experience that any person (of any race) that "acts" in the stereotypical roll finds them selves cast out of society in one form or another. I have friends of all colors and we all treat each other with respect and dignity as we should all treat each other. It is our duty at humans to rise above ignorance and want to succeed in life, and some time that just means that we have to act proper. "White" people don't have the monopoly on acting proper nor was it invented by "white" people. When I here any one say that some one "acts white" I cringe to be honest. Why? Because that statement is just plain ignorant, besides I have seen a lot of scary white people.

  • 4


    You need a lot of real informative lessons on American history with an emphasis on Black American history..

    There has always been a contrast between city folks and rural folks between the elite and the working class.. Various terms have been ping pong back and forth across this gap and I expect more names will emerge even in the future when you are no longer and impressionable teen writing applause seeking narratives like this one..

    Your examples of "acting white" are nothing new at all.. Black folks who have been educated were called elites, bourgeois etc..Your experience is not notable it is just new for you.. What is sad about your rant is how the propaganda talking points of white conservatives and patronizing white liberals have contaminated our schools to the degree that such nonsense like this is given any attention..

    Many of my peers children in school and college never ran into this nonsense about Black students and achievement...Most folks in my circle have never allowed whites to define excellance or what consitutes sucess.

    In my own home I rejected the backward adage of my kids having to be 3x smarter and work harder than white kids..I never adopted this backward white math in my home..The notion that it takes 3 Black folks to equal one white person is insane and so is this nonsense of 'acting white" ..We must pruge these backward conventions in every aspect of Black life..

    The only redeeming aspect of your hollow rant I embrace is your premise to act like yourself...Stay true to oneself..

    • 4.1


      To assume that Joshua is an ill-informed, attention seeking, sponge for propaganda proves his point exactly.

      At no point is Joshua saying to aspire to be like white people. I'm offended that you dismiss his concerns as him being an impressionable teen. Are you saying that my similar views, as a strong 24 year old woman, are only because I've been told by white people to think this way?

      That sounds suspiciously like being told we're acting white.

      He is trying to explain that he is offended that HIS hard work, HIS achievements, HIS perseverance in being a good student and productive member of society is being written off as his wanting to be white. As if to say that he doesn't want to speak his native language fluently, dress attractively, live in a nice place or abstain from drugs for himself, but because he wants to copy someone.

      To say things like that is the same as saying that he's too stupid to make his own choices.

      Joshua is making a valid point; he's asking good questions and articulating himself very well. What is so wrong with him wanting to know why good behavior has to have a race? Why can't he want to be this way, eloquent, productive and respectable for himself? This isn't a white people standard, but a global one.

      As far as the” contrast between rural and city, elite and working class” you speak of– Joshua is a student at Renaissance High School in the year 2010. We're passed the point at which blaming our history is appropriate. Anyone that continues to do so is using it as a crutch. It may have been understandable when students didn't have the opportunity to learn, but that is no longer the case. Children are required to attend school by law. If someone isn't present to learn it is by choice. If someone is there and doesn't get the basic fundamentals of their own native tongue, that too is by choice.

      The only redeeming aspect of your own hollow rant I choose to embrace is your premise that we must purge the backwards conventions in every aspect of black life. Including belittling our own people for striving to be and do something higher than the stereotypes we impose on each other.

      @ Joshua please continue to strive for excellence and don't let the pressure of people that should support you but instead choose to tear you down have any effect on your achievements. From one black person to another, from one decent human being to another, I'm proud of you and I again thank you for choosing to be someone that wants more for our city and society.

  • 5

    Well wasn't that a polite way to rip the man up for saying what he thinks and feels. Way to go, Nothing like rippin Joshua a new one in a polite manner and belittling how he feels.

    Don't listen to his crap Joshua, be proud no matter what.

    Oh, and Thrasheman, Whites do not define anything at all, even saying that we do is poor on your part for even thinking it, or to even entertain it in your own mine shows that you are not even true to your self.

    Joshua feels this way for a reason, and he stated the reason in this blog. Who are you to tell him otherwise.

  • 6

    Thank for speaking up for us Joshua. It's wonderful to know that you refuse to accept the stereotype our people have put on us. I especially appreciate your comments in regards to acting like ourselves.

    I was voted Class Prep senior year in 2004. I'm not even the preppy type, but it was a phrase everyone in my school associated with me because I was the light skinned girl that enunciated, looked adults in the eye, didn't wear the same clothes other girls did and was usually appalled at my fellow students' negative behavior. This wasn't something I was acting at. It is who I am. Apparently, this makes one preppy.

    Even the kids I was friendly with would tease me about “acting white” - going so far as to making me be the one to interact with people when we were in pulbic.
    "You go get the table, the hostess will be nice to you"
    "Pay for this at the register for me, they won't look at you like you've stolen something"

    Just as negative behavior like drive by shootings and drug dealing can't be assigned to one race, neither can positive behavior like speaking your native language correctly and wearing clothes that fit.

  • 7


    I have the same privledge and right you have as a white person to applaud and affirm Joshua's applause seeking rant..

    Who are you to tell me I must comport to your views about Joshua??

    It is revealing how you view my accessment of Joshua'ss prose as crap and a belittlement of him..

    White folks like you simply cannot help themsleves always thinking your view and opinion is all that matters..

    Sorry but not anymore..I provided Joshua with a honest and candid perspective your need to attack and demonize me reveals your ugly nature and continued contempt for me and others who dare to have an opinion that does not comport to yours..

    • 7.1

      Your right you do have the same privilege as me or as anyone else for that matter. But your bitterness to what you believe is Joshua just being an impressionable teen writing applause seeking narratives. Is just your way of saying " Don't fall for what the (white) man tells you how to act"

      You really need to get over your self.

    • 7.2


      how closed-minded you are is quite humorous

  • 8

    Great story, Joshua. I completely agree with all the topics you cover. Keep up all the good work.

  • 9

    Joshua - your feelings are felt all around America, where ever a young black is trying to work hard and be successful.

    ThrasherMan - way to belittle a young man. Congrats. Mission accomplished.

    Bill - I'm not sure what your late wife's story has to do with Josh here, but you need to really work to accept that she is gone. She's awaiting your homecoming in Heaven.

  • 10


    Sorry but your opinion of my comments are yours not mine..I do not agree with your twisted opinion of my advice to Joshua..It is pretty apparent you never had a Black child certainly not a Black son...

    Young Black kids and Black families all over the world understand, respect and agree with my perspective of course.... I understand you have a cultural blind spot in understanding this Black Cultural subject matter

    • 10.1

      I am fascinated by your choice of usernames in addition to your demoralizing spiel at Joshua. Did someone beat the spirit out of you somewhere along the line? I think Joshua is a brave and intelligent young man and you are in sense trying to "thrash" him into not expecting too much out of the world.

      "If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing." Corinthians 1 13:1-3

  • 11


    You doth protest to much...Brevity is the soul of wit..

    Your long winded banter was even more inane and applause seeking than Joshua's self serving angst.. As a 24 year old you should be embrassed as well as Joshua for your rant..

    Please learn how to comprehend and digest with some maturity the advice I provided to Joshua..One other note learn how to remove emotional anger ffrom your responses if colors( excuse the pun) your logic and weakens your arguments...

    Step up I expect more from a 24 year old BF

    • 11.1

      Oh Thrasherman,

      How cute that you begin with Shakespeare. As if it lends value to your rude words. It's hard to understand your posts, for they're littered with misspelled words, lack proper grammar and have little to no punctuation.

      I once had a teacher like you. He didn't respect the opinions of his students. He thought we were beneath him. Administration understood that it isn't decent to belittle the imaginations and minds that you should be cultivating.

      He was fired.

      I always wondered what happened to him after that. Maybe he trolled the internet looking for TEENAGERS to verbally assault. Is your last name Owens perhaps?

      And apparently you don't know any real strong black women, as we don't tend to do what other people tell us to. Especially those whom we feel are beneath us.

      Your comments make you one such person to me.

      And alas, having seen your rude and distasteful nature, I choose to no longer interact with you. Have a wonderful time living up to the sad stereotype of the angry, know it all, black man.

  • 12

    @Thrasherman you humor me with your arrogance. Detroit needs more funny people like yourself if we are to arise from this mess.

  • 13


    MY humor and your lack of skilled reasoning works for me....I am sure the city can do without another empty shell like yours..Now that is funny

  • 14

    In the voice of Mr. T....

    How dare you fools speak verbage in a negative manner at the Thrasherman. Don't you fools know who he is! huh! Well do ya! Ha ha ha !

    You are a funny person, (notice I did not say man) in a sick twisted up kinda way. It really is impossible to break you out of the bleak world you have made for yourself, and it seem you want every black person to join you in it.

    What really do you do? you extol all that you are doing a body of work? What work?! Besides making ever blog that has anything to do with a young black male or female feel like they should be ashamed that they are not black enough.

    WTF is that all about?! I don't think I would ever say that a white person was not white enough, or a Chinese person is not Chinese enough. What good are you with your belittlement of every aspect of what ever does not fit into you sorry compartmentalized pathetic life. You rip every one up, and to be honest I would think that most of the posters think you are a joke. I know I do. It's almost predictable that I can write something here and you will just have to have a comment to the complete negative of the whole blog as well as any comments that will be left.

    Your as predictable as the tide you know, it comes in and it goes out, just like you do. Awaiting your ever witty reply.

  • 15


    What are you babbling about now?? What bleak world have you cast for me?? What nonsense are you talking about me making young Black folks feeling ashamed??

    You are out of your element here..You have no idea or standard of reference when I speak about Black folks and the names we have been called..

    Please stick to attacking me with your venom ..You really are clueless about my culture.

    Get a grip man this is a chat forum..No more no less..

  • 16


    In the 1860's a freed black man stood in the oval office and counseled Abraham Lincoln, and I can guarantee you that he never thought once about how his intelligence would be perceived by the black community...and neither should you. Frederick Douglass was a free man amongst slaves, a dissenter amongst bigots...he was a free thinker, and he understood the US Constitution better than the Framers themselves. He stood on his own without fear of judgment because he knew that his job was bigger than being nervous about what other people would think of him.

    Let Frederick Douglass be your muse, your inspiration & your mentor. Just think for yourself and do your best...if you do that much nothing else matters.

  • 17

    why does it seem like every one of your comments have had some kind of racial undertone aimed against white people.
    I think teenagers should have way more of a voice about this than adults, considering it was written by a teenager for the purpose of discussing something he has personally experienced. It's not an issue to become an internet martyr over. While you make an extremely valid point about giving candid wasn't candid to describe his post as hollow, that was a cheap remark.
    Your endearing use of the term, "backward white math" is really offending to me as a white American, but considering how I'm white and apparently trying to impose all of my beliefs on everyone of a different color, who are growing up in a country with all civil rights that are granted to any other race...I must not know what I'm talking about, and certainly be "out of my element".
    In which case, if you want to provide something truly educational, and thought provoking I suggest you do it sans the sarcastic remarks and cleverly disguised insults. Otherwise, it's just upsetting that you would find any kind of accomplishment in criticizing a high school student. I'm young and have a lot of knowledge to gain, but I know the difference between providing a different opinion in order to spark conversation, and just plain belittling someone's personal experience.

  • 18


    • 18.1

      Johnintexas, you don't have to yell, the internet is like talking to someone standing next to you. :)

  • 19

    peaceand tha,

    Your post addressed your a young white person your comments reflect as much..You simply do not have a clue about the advice I am giving to Josuha..

    So I am content with just ignoring you now

  • 20

    Joshua, this is a great piece. Hope to see more from you soon. I shared this with a few co-workers and their comments are encouraging:

    1) I am very impressed with this young man's insight. It speaks directly to what my nephew is going through and I am forwarding this article to him.

    2) This was very good for sparking deep dialogue.

    3) Good article. If he has aspirations about writing, have him to contact me.

    Keep up the good work.

  • 21

    Nicely done! I was raised in a family of well-educated and successful people of all colors and ethnicities. We were taught to speak properly and higher education was strongly encouraged. My grandmother, who was the only black woman in her college class, had the philosophy that black people did not fight so hard to obtain an education only to sound uneducated. I'm sure your ancestors would be proud of you and your accomplishments.

  • 22

    I have found myself labeled with this same behavior of 'acting white'. I've heard it so much that it doesn't phase me but it is still disappointing. I don't care if someone is impressed with my accomplishments and I'm not looking for consolation I just think it's ridiculous that people actually think this way. For any high achieving person social situations are more difficult. People tend to think you're arrogant or something like that and that either intimidates them or turns them off to you. Enough of that, this was a really nice piece and I enjoyed most of the comments.

  • 23

    It's refreshing to hear this from a high school student. I live in MI, not in Detroit but close. My area is very diverse but the kids that are not black tend to dress and act like a (forgive me for better lack of words) stereotypical black aka gangsta ghetto "person". It's not cool, it's rather disgusting. Everyone regardless of race, creed, or status should always display self - respect. And one of the best ways is to behave & dress proper. There's time for play and whatever but in the real world day it is so important. Wonderful writing Joshua. I only wish that more young adults could see your point.

  • 24

    I might be going off topic a bit here but I can remember a time when white people who knew me quite well would say to me "we don't see you as coloured" (this is going back quite a long time). This was clearly an overt racist insult; however, at the time I took it as a "compliment" and I felt proud when people said it because it made me feel like one of them, The reason why they didn't "see me as coloured" was because I am mixed race (white British and black African) but I was brought up by white English people, so my culture is very white English.

    Getting back to the topic, what I notice is that when people talk about "acting white" they start citing certain favourable traits such as being polite, having self-confidence, wanting an education, etc., etc., and this to me is where it's offensive because it's implying that white people are decent human beings whereas black people aren't. Well I know lots of black people who are polite, have self-confident and want a good education and their not all accussed of "acting white".

    I personally think that when someone (usually a black person) accuses a black person of "acting white" it has to do with some other insidious covert thing that's going on. Most people, whatever their colour or nationality, are decent humans beings and have those decent traits that people cite when talking about "acting white". This "acting white" implies something else.

  • 25

    Race has no biological validity and is a social construction. I am "Black" yet my genes could be closer to those of Jackie Chan's than they are to those of his siblings. The terms "black" and "white" have been improperly defined to also be pointers to certain behaviors. One's skin pigment does not determine their physical ability nor does it decide superiority. Our skin pigment simply tells us the color we are and how much sunburn to expect if out at the beach/pool for a prolonged amount of time. My parents are both Ghanaian-born (from Ghana). My dad is a Canadian citizen and my mom is a British citizen. My sisters and I are also British citizens. We've all lived in the United States since 1999 and are lawful permanent residents to this date (we have "green cards"). Regardless of our backgrounds, we are blanketed by a word [black] that some claim to be a stigma while others embrace it even though the word should not represent whether or not we are smarter, dumber, aggressive, or passive. It should not decide the way we speak or dress either.

    I would attach links to articles that I've read from the American Anthropological Association or other scientific journals that support my assertions, but, I'm too lazy for all that. Not because I'm "Black", but because it's 4:44am and I'm a Computer Science student @ JMU who needs sleep.

    Take a sociology class and make your kids take sociology classes. This will be a small step to making a positive difference to our society.

    ...I hear you Joshua

Add Your Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.
The Detroit Blog Daily E-mail

Get e-mail updates from TIME's The Detroit Blog in your inbox and never miss a day.

More News from Our Partners

Quotes of the Day »

NICHOLAS FISHER, expert at Stony Brook University in New York who took part in a study which found that bluefin tuna contaminated with radiation believed to be from Fukushima Daiichi were present off the coast of California just five months after the nuclear meltdown.