"You Talk White": Stereotypes in Life and Fiction
“Mom, [redacted] was like, ‘Wait, your mom’s black?’” I never know how I get into these kinds of conversations with my daughter. Usually we just blurt things out to each other.
“Last time I checked, yes.” I’m preparing for an inner Riker facepalm because I’m pretty sure I know where this is going.
“They were all shocked because they think you sound white.” Yup, that where I thought it was going. Facepalm engaged.
“Yeah? What does that sound like?” I break out my Mr. Spock face. My right eyebrow makes a heroic effort to reach my hairline.
Twenty minutes of debate later, “Do I need to go visit your friends?”
“Please don’t.” Teenager mortification complete.
Two decades into the 21st century and people in America still say things like “You talk white” to each other. Even young people from diverse backgrounds are tripped into making assumptions about someone speaking well or “proper.” There’s a certain level of confusion over the presumed differences between what behavior and vocabulary should be and what is. At its heart, “You talk white” and all its iterations (did I just use one of the “white” words?) is a racially tainted classist observation about a person’s interests that says, you don’t fit the stereotype and it’s making us uncomfortable.
Ask someone what they mean when they say, “You talk white,” and you might get some spin about word choices or chosen topics of conversation. Because people who don’t look white don’t use those words or talk about those things? Naw, son. I wasn’t down for that as a child. I’m even less down for it as an adult.
This is where I rewrite the limited view of being black in America to include the life experiences of actual black people. I’m black. If I say it, write it, think it, do it, it’s a black thing. That’s how that works.
In the mid-1990s, on a college tour in high school, one of my peers told me, “You talk white.” I probably said something, or several somethings, that I once read in a book. I read a lot of books. The information sticks in my head and flows from my lips. But somehow, in this dude’s estimation, my way of talking was at odds with the color of my skin and the neighborhoods I grew up in. I didn’t know any other way to speak, still don’t. The vulnerable insecure young woman I was then kept to herself for the rest of that trip.
I was born in a majority black country, Barbados, where almost everyone was some shade of brown. Even the white citizens were brown, most of them having some African ancestry. I shouldn’t have been surprised that one time my very brown father pointed out a wizened little white lady on a bus and called her cousin. We talked like we were from the island, visitors talked like they were not from the island. Those of us who traveled far from home talked like we were from two places at once.
I grew up in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. Some of those neighborhoods had reputations. I went to high school in the Bronx, it still has a reputation. What my peers on that college tour heard, and chose to react to, wasn’t white. It was a black girl who didn’t conform to the stereotypes they knew about themselves.
My father is a preacher and a teacher. Complex words, big ideas, and a thirst for knowledge come with that territory. Growing up I retrieved books for him as he worked on sermons, classroom assignments, and his own college homework. When I got bored reading the age appropriate books in the house--all of them including the encyclopedias--I started flipping through dad’s biblical commentaries and college textbooks.
When I was old enough, I turned myself loose on the libraries and museums of New York City without adult supervision. I imagined myself in every book and exhibit. I took apart some of the household electronics, only the broken ones, to see what they looked like on the inside. I chose to go to a high school that required a two-hour commute, one way, to focus on science.
Anyone find the white experiences in there that could produce something called talking white? Me neither.
As a science-fiction and fantasy writer, I have a powerful gift that can confront or confirm stereotypes. The “You Talk White” way of thinking permeates the writing and publishing worlds as well. Black writers in the genre are tasked with “redefining” a genre they were never expected to enter. A genre where black characters were hardly ever represented as part of the fabric of the stories.
I wonder how many promising black minds have been shut down by, “You talk white?” How many black writers have never considered writing science fiction or fantasy, or worse have been shut out from getting works in those genres published because black writers are supposed to write about “black things?” Instead of black sci-fi writers finding their place in the genre, they are still on the outskirts of the “norm.” An article terming sci-fi by black writers “afrofuturism” makes me question whether these writers are finding their place in the genre. Or are they being branded with their own kind of sci-fi, one with black characters mixed with elements of “black culture.”
I’ve always loved the science fiction and fantasy genres. They never required me to be anything other than myself to enjoy them. Each world created by a writer is full of possibilities. I can be whoever and whatever I want to be in every story. But as a writer, I decided to self-publish my work. I wasn’t confident in the publishing world’s ability see past color when it came to the genre I write.
It’s a tad amusing, as in I roll my eyes because I can only take so much of this, watching the publishing world wake up to the fact that other than white people have an interest in writing science fiction and fantasy. An article in the Christian Science Monitor titled, “After Decades of Dwarfs and Elves, Writers of Color Redefine Fantasy,” praises the rise of diverse writers in the genre. I can’t shake the feeling though that this excitement about diversity goes only as far as a one-dimensional understanding of diversity, as black sci fi writers that are successful bend the stereotypes only a few notches.
I’m still giving Black Panther the side -eye for creating a technologically advanced society that determines succession of leadership by mortal combat. That part of the culture didn’t evolve as Wakanda outpaced the rest of the world by every other metric? Really?
Meanwhile, I continue to curate a vocabulary that doesn’t fit my skin color, according to some. I’ll continue to be curious about everything and craft stories based on the fullness of my life experiences. I’ve read that a good writer writes what they know. I know what it’s like to be told, “You talk white” and not be able to identify the “white” in my speech. Makes me want to flip a table.
Has anyone ever told you that you behaved in a way that differed from what they expected for a [insert characteristic or identity here] person? Do you address that in your writing? What do you do when you realize you’ve written a character who’s all stereotypes? Asking for a friend.
Samantha is dedicated to advocating for children, especially those receiving special education services. She works supporting families and individuals with developmental disabilities. Website: www.samanthajcpierce.com