“You’re not really black. You act white. You’re white on the inside.” 

I’ve heard this hundreds of times, and though it’s construed as a compliment, this kind of thinking is counterproductive to the society we aim to form, one where we judge people for who they are and not according to racial stereotypes. 

“Compliments” that liken a person of another race to the “standard” white culture only reinforce broad generalizations that people of other races who “act white” are actively trying to defy. When someone says you “act white”, what they’re really saying is you aren’t like the damaging and demeaning stereotypes of black people, hispanic people, Asians, etc. that they see portrayed in the media. Compared to the black people they know of, you speak well. You aren’t loud. You respect authority. But instead of changing their perception of black people based on the black person they actually know—you—they instead decide that you’re the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. 

Growing up, we had a term at my school for black people that “acted white”: they were referred to as “oreos.” But the vast majority of my black friends at school–and most likely the only black friends that students who used the term “oreo” had–were not like the stereotypes of black people in the media. Why did they choose to minimize their real experiences with black people and continue to favor broader stereotypes that they saw no real basis for?

Stereotypes about black Americans go all the way back to minstrel shows in the 1830’s, when a white performer named Thomas Rice used burnt cork to paint his face black, and played the role of the slave Jim Crow to entertain white audiences. Stereotypes began to prevail in white society based on these shows, where characters spoke in imitation “plantation talk.” Characters called piccaninnies had scraggly hair and ate huge pieces of watermelon with their large mouths and disproportionately-sized red lips. Later on, when black males who wanted to act were allowed to perform in shows, they were limited to stereotypical roles that the shows’ producers thought would fit white audience expectations and draw crowds. 

Two centuries later, this trap by entertainment producers to only cast black people in stereotypical roles for comedy or otherwise is still in practice. Some argue that casting blacks in stereotypical roles is a step forward from no representation at all, but if the whole point of more representation in the media is to dispel prevalent stereotypes, then casting black people in stereotypical roles defeats the purpose. 

My least favorite stereotype is the “sassy black woman.” This stereotype isn’t completely damaging on the surface—the “sassy black woman” isn’t afraid to express her opinions, she’s confident, and she knows how to put people in their place. This stereotype started at the intersection of the feminist movement and the Civil Rights Movement, where black women became more visible parts of American society with groups campaigning for rights of both African Americans and women. 

Black female TV characters who took “no nonsense” from their children and made smart-alecky comments in the workplace became the expected “norm”. This unidimensional representation of black women became a favorite in blaxploitation films, a genre of movies prevalent in the 1970’s and 80’s that promoted generalized stereotypes about black people, and it’s continued into well-known characters like Rochelle from Everybody Hates Chris and Raven from the Disney Channel show That’s So Raven. Even Taylor McKessie from High School Musical, who was extremely smart, part of the scientific decathlon team, and student body president, still had an element of sass that is distinct from Sharpay’s upper-class snobbiness. It seems that to have diversity in television shows and movies, the black women must feature added stereotypical character traits to further distinguish them as “black.” 

The main problem with stereotypes like the “sassy black woman” is that they compromise the individuality of black women, so when we or anyone else who is part of a group generalized by the media acts outside of this stereotype, it’s surprising to people who have never known a black person as an individual. 

I’m not shaming people who don’t have close relationships with black people or other minorities, because I’m a firm believer in being friends foremost with people who you connect with and who bring out the best parts of you. 

But, allow me to be the first to give you a crash course: we’re not all sassy. We’re not all good at basketball (I was once jokingly called a “disappointment to my race” for not having any basketball skills). You shouldn’t be able to “sound like a black woman,” because our voices aren’t all the same. The sooner we look past the standards for people offered by stereotypes and consider them as their own person, the sooner we can start offering meaningful compliments. 

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "on the run from mediocrity" runs on alternate Fridays.