THINKING LATINA with SARA INÉS CALDERÓN 5.20.12

What Does It Mean To “Act White”?

Last week I wrote about how, in the course of being a Latina nerd, I was sometimes accused of “acting white.” It never really bothered me, but I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. I’ve often talked to other Latinos who, in the pursuit of anything from academics to tennis to cuisine, were accused of the same thing.

But what does it mean to “act white”?

If you ask me, right off the top of my head, I would say it doesn’t mean anything at all. How could it? There have been scholars and tennis players and chefs and anything else from all walks of life since before my generation came into existence. Besides, while Europe was stuck in the dark ages, pre-Columbian nerds were creating some of the most advanced societies and science on Earth up to that point in time. So we know for a fact that being nerdy isn’t a “white,” in the U.S. sense of the word, idea.

Personally, I don’t know what it’s like to be white in the U.S., in the cultural sense of the word. I am light-skinned, but inevitably I manage to make mouths drop when I eat chile or use Spanish slang. I don’t know how not to be a Latina/Chicana/Mexican American. It’s who I am, so it’s quite puzzling to me that folks would accuse me of being someone else — just because I also happen to like to read, study, or pursue excellence in my work.

From my conversations with others in my shoes, and my limited understanding of human nature, I would say that this phenomenon, like most of humanity’s foibles, derives from fear. It’s that groupthink that freaks us out when one of our group starts to be different, or wants different things. Perhaps it pushes people who are in a comfort zone to consider other options that never troubled their world, pushes their boundaries to places they never imagined, questions the decisions they’ve made based on new information.

I really can’t say, but I can imagine that it must be scary to learn that there’s more to the world than you thought. It must also be easy to focus your resulting anxiety on the one who pointed it out to you. In this way, it makes sense to me, though it doesn’t make it right. But I could be wrong.

In the end, I think that, by “acting white,” those of us pursuing things that may not be deemed “traditional” by our peers or neighbors are opening up doors for everyone else. It’s not far off to be a Supreme Court Justice or an astronaut or a Pulitzer Prize winner because Latino nerds who came before me already did those things. By “acting white” and engaging in activities, professions and roles that aren’t “supposed” to be for me, other little Latina nerds will see the door cracked by the time they get there.

So maybe it’s no wonder that I was never really fazed by being accused of “acting white.” After all, it didn’t lesson my love of books and knowledge, it didn’t prevent me from pursuing the things that I love, but it did give me an appreciation for who I am. Perhaps that’s the best revenge of all.