Does President Obama Speak White?

When Logan West, the newly crowned Miss Teen USA, announced that she wanted to use her crown and platform to help end bullying, that wasn't much of a surprise. Some cynics might argue that bullying has replaced environmental activism as the cause du jour among celebrities and politicians alike. What was somewhat surprising was that Logan -- who at 17 is already more beautiful and poised than most professional models -- has admitted to being a victim of bullying herself. Even more surprising, or shocking, than that, is the reason why.

Logan was targeted in part for being biracial, but more specifically for acting and talking white. The reason I found this so shocking is because I didn't realize "white" was an official language, like Spanish or Swahili.

I also found it shocking because I heard the same thing when I was growing up and being more than a decade older than Logan I had assumed that this sort of ignorance on the playground and in hallways had gone the way of VCRs and bulky cell phones. But according to others I've spoken with, the "you talk like a white girl" taunt is still very much alive and well, destroying self-esteem and intellectualism in the black community one taunt at a time. Even more discouraging is the fact that this type of taunting remains alive, well and effective in the age of a black president, whose own critics consider one of the most eloquent men to hold the office.

Recently I met a brilliant and beautiful young student at the phenomenal "Black Girls Rock" camp who shared how this same taunt has been wearing her down. After hearing this student's story, as well as Logan's, I set about asking other black friends how many of them heard it growing up and watched and listened as the stories poured in.

Farai Chideya, the award-winning author, journalist and former host of NPR's "News and Notes," recalled hearing the accusation growing up, as did tennis player MaliVai Washington. Victoria Uwumarogie, an editor at Madame Noire, said she heard it constantly in high school. "When you're older, you just take it as that individual being ignorant, because there's nothing wrong with enunciating and talking proper, or as I like to call it, talking like you have some sense," but she admitted that when you're younger, and trying to fit in, it's not quite so easy to see that the issue is with the other person and not with you. Instead, she said, "you take it as someone questioning your blackness, and trying to make you different during a time when you really want to fit in."

To Uwumarogie's point, Stanford-based anthropologist and linguist H. Samy Alim said, "When somebody says 'you talk white,' it may be far more than a linguistic judgment. It may also be a political one." But he went on to explain that the reasons are as complex as our country's own troubled racial history.

According to Alim, who tackles the racial politics of language in his forthcoming book, Articulate while Black with co-author Dr. Geneva Smitherman, as far back as the 1700's there were documents categorizing American slaves based on their mastery of grammatically correct English.

As our country evolved there became a seemingly never-ending tug of war within the black community between establishing, celebrating and protecting our own cultural identity and willfully assimilating into the dominant culture, established and dictated by white people, specifically educated, upper class white people. "The problem in the U.S. is that powerful language ideologies link 'standard' English with Whiteness," he explains. Since speech tends to be one of the primary indicators of who someone is, where they come from and what they stand for, some black people may be suspicious of someone who seems too eager to embrace the cultural norms of the predominant culture. To his point, Alim notes how black Americans respond positively when President Obama inflects his speeches with a little soul, or other linguistic nods to the community.

In other words, these nods provide a sort of cultural signal that say, "I'm educated. I'm now part of the dominant power structure but you can still trust me." (The book Articulate While Black specifically analyzes the impact of President Obama on language.)

But it's hard to believe that those kids who are tossing the term "you talk white" around like an emotional grenade at schools are doing it for political reasons. More likely they are doing it for the same reason that other kids bully: to hurt someone. What is particularly disturbing about this is that the message is being sent that speaking grammatically correct English, is a teasing offense and that telling someone they sound intelligent should be hurtful.

The domino effect of this thought process is proving disastrous for our community. As speaking well and performing well academically are increasingly denigrated as so-called white behaviors, more black children set themselves up to fail linguistically and academically in an effort to fit in with their black peers who don't "act white." According to Dr. Janet Taylor, an instructor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, who has served as Board Chair of the National Black Women's Health Imperative, "Some black kids who are subject to hearing that they 'talk white' are at risk to stop talking or to pick up slang to fit in."

Is it any wonder then that some states have a less than 50% graduation rate among black males?

I'd love to ask some of the kids who teased Logan West if they think she "talks white" in all of the TV interviews she has participated in since winning her title. I'd also like to ask them if they think she'd be better off talking like them, and therefore getting to sit at home watching the winner on TV, just like they are now. I'd also like to ask them if they think First Lady Michelle Obama talks white. After all, every speech or interview I have ever heard her give has been grammatically flawless.

Then I'd like to ask them if they think President Obama "talks white," and if so, if they'd rather he talk the way they think he should, from his private home, as a private citizen. Because he surely wouldn't have become a United States senator, let alone president, if he talked like them.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate. This post originally appeared on