For the first time in decades, I recently got my ass kicked. And by my brother no less. He kicked my ass from one end of the house to the other. Because that muthafucka fought me like a nigga in the street, I felt so betrayed by his rage and unmitigated brutality. But then again, I'm sure he felt betrayed too. After all, it was the thing I said that set him off. 'Take yo' ass back to the suburbs, you lily-White muthafucka!'
My assessment (or more accurately, my accusation) was a bit surprising. On occasion, I too have been in the same position as the accused for the same racial crime: 'acting White.' As a child, my speech was totally devoid of vernacular and marked by a studied elocution, which was unusual since I was the product of a poor/working-class Black neighborhood where vernacular took precedence. So, early on, it was assumed I was a linguistic nerd, a cultural outsider who took the king's English way too seriously. Whenever a new kid would arrive on the block, if we didn't get along, any disagreement could be cause enough to cite my crime: 'You always tryna act White.'
That such assessments were without merit in general and quite silly (after all, what is 'acting White?') apparently hasn't prevented me from lodging the same stinging critique. Because my brother has a white spouse and lives in a suburban area where all the other residents are white, I imagine he took my directive as hateful language against his marriage and way of life. Thus, at some point we need to make amends. But what could I possibly say (not only to him but to myself) to justify the aspersion 'lily-White' if indeed the accusation 'acting White' was without merit in general and quite silly?
In considering my actions, I immediately began thinking about what feminist critic bell hooks once said about conservative Shelby Steele, whose book The Content of Our Character had received wide critical acclaim some years ago. The book itself attests to a Black conservative ideology that has quite a bit in common with traditional White (or Eurocentric) critiques of Black folks. In his book, Steele condemns the tendency among Black folks to self-segregate, that is, group themselves together in settings that are largely white (for instance, the all-Black table in cafeterias at white universities). Steele views such a practice as limiting and divisive, a disavowal of the melting-pot democracy that fosters unity and growth.
Hooks suggests that Steele's critique is, absurdly, without context. She explains that when you grow up in a community where all the love and nurturance you receive is due solely to Black folks, self-segregation is a seeking out of the familiar amid the unfamiliar. Further she asks, would it be ridiculous to assume that Black racial wounds due to white racism, to some degree, compel self-segregation in largely white settings?
Like Steele, I think my brother often fails to recognize what can be gained or created when Black people assemble, as well as what can be lost when that assemblage is disrupted by white majorities. For instance, he once said that his neighborhood has numerous amenities and advantages that far outclassed those offered where his buddy lives, an attractive all-Black, middle-class area. He remarked that his friend could have stretched his dollars so much further with a slightly larger investment in a 'better area' (read: where white folks live).
In the main his analysis is quite accurate. Due to institutional racism, the racial composition of any community (whether all-Black or all-white) greatly affects its property values and thereby the quality of its amenities. However, what my brother doesn't understand is that a home in a better area, even one with luxurious amenities, still may have been overlooked by his friend due to its location in an all-white community. I say this because my brother, in a comment about his friend, once mockingly said to me, 'He's on that same Black Power shit you on.' So perhaps what his friend receives from close proximity to other Black people is also an essential factor when choosing a home. It simply never occurs to my brother that his friend may have wanted a nice home particularly in a Black community, regardless of perceived disadvantage.
For Steele, my brother, and a growing number of Black folks, living in a Black community, even a middle-class one, is somehow passe or limiting, more reflective of a time when racism ruled our lives, especially with regard to where one chose to live. Of course, to some extent this is a new day. In fact, my accusation has little to do with my brother's lovely wife or the pristine all-white community in which he resides. Rather it's a statement about his cultural view that has much in common with a traditional Eurocentric perspective—a perspective that sees a rejection of Whiteness (and its implicit advantage) as limiting at best or down-right unAmerican at worst (in fact, it's often taken as a refusal to properly assimilate). In this case, however, I'm particularly pissed, because my brother imagines that his friend has made a poor decision by choosing a Black community with less attractive amenities. Of course, he immediately recognizes what is lost but not gained. And therein lies the rub.