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“You Talk Like a White Girl”

I can’t escape it. From Newport News, VA., to the Southeast Bronx, all the way to St. Louis, MO., and again in Atlanta, GA., it keeps following me. Whether it’s uttered in disgust or exclaimed in surprise, those six little words always find their way into my ears.

“You talk like a white girl.”

When I was little, it confused me. By the time I reached high school, it hurt me. As a fully-functioning adult, it saddens me. Naturally, it still causes a flare of aggravation on occasion, but it never lasts long enough to turn me bitter. Not anymore.

I remember adults and my peers both always using those six little words to describe me. Most adults said it with admiration, almost like they thought it was a unique way to congratulate me for loving English and devouring every book I could get my eager hands on. Like it was special for me having paid attention in school.

My peers, on the other hand, said it like I was pretending to be something I wasn’t. It was the cherry on an insulting assumption sundae. Often, it was coupled with the words “snob” or “stuck up,” as if those six little words weren’t damaging enough. Because I didn’t use a lot of slang, my voice was bright with minimal accent, and I enunciated well, it had to be because I didn’t want to be a “typical black girl,” right? I must have believed I was better than other girls who looked like me, and the best way to set myself apart was to adapt to the speech patterns of our whiter counterparts. Right?

No. That wasn’t right.

It didn’t matter whether I received the “white girl speech” as a compliment or an insult, because I took it all as an insult. How is it possible for me to speak a race? Why is it shocking for me, a person of color – a black Hispanic, actually – to have a good grasp on the English language, the language I was born into? In what way does my voice denote my desire or lack thereof to be a part of one race while denying the other?

I guess it doesn’t matter that I grew up with hearing loss and had to take speech therapy classes. I guess it doesn’t matter that I had to learn how to speak well. I guess it doesn’t matter that I spent much of my life with my nose in books which naturally expanded my vocabulary.

As I said before, this isn’t just a childhood issue. Half of my life was lived in the Bronx. I was born there. And not in the suburbs either. I am technically from the hood. After returning to my hometown after living several years in Virginia, I accepted a job in retail management. I will never forget my first week on that job. One Monday I joined a conference call between my store and the other branches in the district. No one knew I was on the line, because I was too busy listening to the other managers talking to announce myself.

“Bay Plaza has a new manager. They found a white girl. I can’t believe it.”

“Have you met the new white manager?”

“She’s in the wrong store. She won’t be there long.”

Oh, the bittersweet joy I had once I finally spoke and let the other managers know that I am in fact a woman of color. The apologies and explanations were swift, but by then they fell on deaf ears. I had already heard them all, and I hate to say it but the broken record is still playing.

You simply cannot base your impression of a person on ignorant assumptions.

There is no such thing as “talking white.” There is no such thing as “talking black.” Anyone can use bastardize grammar or speak with poise. White and black people alike are capable of expanding their vocabulary or talking in fragments. It doesn’t mean they want to be something they’re not. It doesn’t mean they hate what they are. How we choose to speak is exactly that: a choice. Granted, our environment has some influence over how we dress, speak, think, etc. However, you don’t have to be a product of your environment. I’m proof of that.

So, the next time you get the urge to utter those dreadful six little words, stay silent. I don’t talk like a white girl. I speak like an educated woman.

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