There's a thin line, I imagine, between willful ignorance of scholarship and non-recognition. How much should one pay attention to a problem one doesn't have? Analogously speaking, what kind of nutritional advice do you give to the man who is one pound overweight? This is what puzzles me about Stuart Buck's new book and the phenomenon of 'acting white'.
I am in a quandary about how to deal with something (race) that used to be of compelling interest to me but no longer is. Part of it is related to my personality. I can only accept a certain amount of geeky expertise as I approach the level of having read, say five books on the matter, I constrain my ability to socialize with any but those similarly well-read. And there are only so many hours in the day and I do have a day job and a family.
I was graciously considered to preview Buck's book but I declined, (hopefully graciously enough in kind) because I couldn't manage to sustain the conversation at my own dinner table. I asked my kids about it and they had basically nothing to say. I'm from a small town called Black and it seems to get smaller every day, but it doesn't change how much being black has meant to me over the years. Except that now that I am who I am, less and less of that matters. In other words, in retrospect I can think of a dozen 'black' choices I made (according to the ethics of my small town called Black) that I could have made another way without any consequence to my life. And there are probably others I cannot think of that only somebody else from that small town could remind me of. But all of that is because there hasn't been much in the way of my black identity that has interposed itself between me and my education.
The fundamental thesis (I think) of why 'acting white' stigma is a problem is because it socializes black youth into educational under-achievement. OK so that's education. What else you got? What about church? What about music?
Reading McWhorter's review of Buck leaves me even more confused. I think perhaps we need Inigo Montoya to tell us that maybe that phrase doesn't mean what we think it means. It's not big bad deadly racism. Acting white doesn't ever get IDF paratroopers onto the boat and attacked with metal pipes. It is a subtle psychological erosion of some basic positive middle class values. But it doesn't frighten me. It is an epiphenomenon. And I know that I walk directly into the criticism that McWhorter pitches at suburban whites(!), it's easier to pretend it doesn't exist than to pay attention to the scholarship and make it relevant to your life. Well, I think it's irrelevant to my life and I'm black. Or at least that's what I grew up thinking.
But there's a second possibility here, and it's something I rather profoundly hope. That is that my upbringing was so proper and that I ended up so well-adjusted that the psychological problem of racial identity is simply, in me and in my children, overcome. I'm going to stay attached to the meme and read up Buck's interview with Dreher and see if maybe this is a real thing that to me is an anklebiter I've already kicked to the curb and forgotten. Or perhaps I have 'acted white' for so long that the criticism fails to arouse any inner conflict or concern for the approval of my critics. I am, after all, a conservative who votes Republican.
It certainly makes sense for me to make sense of how other people make sense of acting white. Unfortunately for my Boohabian legacy, I simply don't care enough. And having said that three times, I need to assert what it is I must feel is the problem. The problem is that no matter how finely crafted is this scalpel of academic discipline, I'm concerned that it will act as a mere shiv for people who are not the sharpest tools in the shed. Because at bottom, the fundamental issue is that black Americans who lob this criticism have interpreted as concrete their racially defined position of inferiority. I wonder if people are willing and able to say that clearly. To racialize educational achievement, and moreover to racialize the cultural component of such racial rationalizations is a double whammy against that 'black community'.
It's a serious charge I've been beating around the bush. That is to say what to make of those people who make it their business to call certain black Americans 'Uncle Toms'. My standard refrain is "When will black people realize that they don't own black people?", but there is going to be a point at which (I reckon) America may face the problem that portions of black America knows all too well. Some blacks are some of the vilest white supremacists around. It is their acceptance of racial essentialisms that makes it so, and theirs is a culture of racism within black America that makes their tirades both inescapable and corrosive. Perhaps this is the thing that Buck sees. If so then he's onto something which is much larger than just education. He is onto the reason for the collapse of the Talented Tenth itself which is the real success of post-Civil Rights integration. It has created within those semi-autonomous black communities, a brain drain that leaves the hypersegregated with nobody to lead them but the Sharptons and Jacksons of the world. That's kind of an old story though, bigger than acting white. But seeing that the subtitle hints at the ironic failures of integration, it would be a marvelous place for Buck to start his next book.