I was talking to a friend of mine a few weeks ago, and I asked about his first impression of me. With a smile, he told me that I, among other things, "talk like a white girl," am "white-girl friendly" and have an "overall white-girl vibe." He meant these statements as compliments, but I wasn't flattered.
I've heard "compliments" like these several times throughout my life, and I'd usually smile or laugh them off, ignoring the slight pang of offense in my chest. I know he meant well, but meaning well does not strip a statement of its racism, sexism, or general rudeness. Many Black and brown girls and women will hear these not-so-flattering words in their lifetime. Whether it be from a friend, family member, significant other, or stranger, someone may make these remarks and bill them as compliments. But they aren't.
I told my friend that saying things like "you talk like a white girl" and, my personal favorite, "you have good hair," (typically said if your hair texture resembles that of white women's) promote the idea that white culture is the norm, the status quo, the standard that all should aspire to. This friend is a nice guy and a good person, and I'm sure he did not mean to offend. And, as I told him, he may have meant well. But in a society — namely the U.S. — where racism, injustice and the general erasure of non-white cultures run rampant, he can (and should) aim to not be part of the problem.
Here are a few reasons why “you talk like a white girl,” and statements like it, aren’t compliments:
1. They Promote White Superiority (Yes, They’re Racist)
When we say someone talks, acts, or looks white, and intend for it to be a compliment, it implies that any other way of talking, acting, or looking is inherently wrong, lesser, or abnormal. And this shows that there is a standard by which non-white people are judged — a standard of whiteness.
With white culture at the top of the totem pole and that of non-whites (Black, Latin, Asian, African, etc.) at the bottom, it seems the value of a non-white person increases based on how well we conform to what is perceived as "white." Society says that the more "white" a person is perceived, the better they are.
And the complimentary nature of these statements suggest that this is a good thing. It implies that the perceived whiteness a non-white person exhibits makes them better, more valuable. This promotes the simple, yet harmful, idea that whiteness is good and everything else is bad.
2. They’re Oppressive
Racist ideologies, which are often manifested in statements like “you talk like a white girl,” permeate U.S. culture so much that they are seen and treated as normal and natural. It’s been happening for so long that we don't give a second thought to how oppressive these ideologies can be.
In her 1990 book, Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins wrote: “From the mammies, jezebels, and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, ubiquitous Black prostitutes, and ever-present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, negative stereotypes applied to African-American women have been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.”
Because these negative stereotypes are attached to Black women (of course, there are many attached to other, non-white groups as well) it has become natural to look to some standard by which to judge and attach value to our being. Most of the time that standard is the dominant culture — in America’s case, white culture.
These statements, much like the stereotypes they perpetuate, are fundamental to oppression.
3. They’re Demeaning
The fact that we applaud perceived whiteness proves one thing: we as a society subconsciously assign a higher value to white people, culture, and whiteness in general than that of non-whites.
Of course, we don’t go about our lives with a list of “white standards” shoved into our pockets, ready to judge people based on its components at any given moment. But the practice is inherent.
Through conditioning, it has become second nature in the U.S. and other Western countries, where white is the dominant culture, to aspire to whiteness and view it as the norm and standard.
Establishing white culture as the norm has been done by, among other things, erasing and under-representing other cultures. So, to compliment someone on perceived whiteness, their apparent conformation to the status quo, is blatant approval of the erasure of their actual culture and heritage.
4. They Take Away a From Person’s Individuality
To automatically dub someone’s characteristics “white” is to completely disregard that person’s uniqueness.
Everyone is different, we are made up of several different, parts, values, traits etc. and assigning the whole of someone’s being to a culture — and worse, a culture other than their own — is dismissive.
When we call a specific characteristic "white" it's usually a trait we view positively. Positive traits, characteristics and qualities are not exclusive to one race, to one culture.
These practices are so internalized that non-white people are even sometimes "accused" of trying to act white — trying to conform to the status quo. This is both presumptuous and an immediate dismissal of a person's identity.
Doing away with this harmful practice frees us to all be our unique, different, individual selves.
5. They’re Simply Untrue
Obviously, saying someone talks, looks or acts white implies that there is a specific way all white people talk, look and act. That’s not true, and it’s a harmful generalization.
Of course, not all compliments have to be factual, but in a society where issues of race and culture have long been sources of oppression and pain, it is absolutely necessary to think twice before giving a culture- or race-based compliment.
Society does not define what is white, Black, Latin, Asian, Indian, etc. It is the people, the individual, unique people who define society and what their cultures are. I am a Black woman, therefore I speak, act and behave like a Black woman. My identity as a Black woman is the sole definer of what Black womanhood is. And the same is true for every other Black woman.
Author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best in her famous TED Talk, We Should All Be Feminists: "Culture does not make people. People make culture."
Images: Char Adams (2); Giphy (2),