Keneshia N. Grant, Ph.D.
Mr. Wilmore "don’t ‘know how to act."
Updated: May 15, 2019
Can we talk about the role of class in some of the reactions to Larry Wilmore's telling President Obama "you did it, my nigga!" at this year's White House Correspondent's Dinner?
Among Black folks who are mad, it seems that most of them are among the bourgeoisie. Ask them why, and they’ll tell you a story about history of the word nigger. However, something else is happening under the surface: the Black bourgeoisie’s desire to force-fit all Black people into their antiquated ideas of Black respectability Their fury can be easily translated as “Mr. Wilmore don’t ‘know how to act.’”
Let’s define knowing how to act as behaving in a way that does not upset Black bourgeoisie sensitivities. Note: There is no Urban Dictionarydefinition for this. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that knowing how to act is more honestly defined as behaving in ways that do not upset white people.
There are rules about how to act amongst the Black bourgeoisie class. These rules not only govern Black speech, but Black hair, fashion and even movement in various spaces. You can’t have big hair. You can’t wear baggy pants or “waste money” on expensive sneakers. You can’t hang out in this place or with that person because “that’s not what we do.” And you definitelycannot say nigga, especially amongst “mixed company.”
For some Black folks sitting at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Wilmore’s sin was not that he said, “You did it, my nigga;” it was that his not knowing how to act very quickly became a direct reflection of them. Undoubtedly, some thought about the uncomfortable conversations that awaited them at the afterparties. Others likely wondered whether their editors or producers may fear that they are the kind of Black people who privately say nigga, have big hair, or hang out with “regular” Black people. Mr. Wilmore’s standing up there, telling the truth, endangers the fragile Black bourgeoisie position of attainment in American society.
Not all of the ideas around Black respectability are misguided. Throughout America’s history, not knowing how to act had serious consequences, including getting killed or suffering other bodily harm. Even now, white discomfort can prevent the attainment of a job or home loan that helps us carve out a space for ourselves in the American middle class.
We believe Larry Wilmore and a vast majority of Black Americans know these rules. We can’t speak for his decision to “keep it 100,” but we break the rules—or more colloquially, “act up”—because we reject the notion that any part of our existence as people in America should center on making white people feel comfortable.
Over the past few years, we’ve become hyper-aware of the murders of Black people who were somewhere acting right, yet still unable to manage white discomfort. Let’s take time to remember Renisha McBride, who was shot to death after politely seeking help following her car accident. Samuel DuBosewas calmly encouraging a police officer to check a database for his license information when he got killed. Their deaths provide evidence that knowing how to act does not guarantee the safety of a Black body. Acting right does not guarantee that personnel offices will treat a woman with a name like Keneshia fairly when they read her CV or write the terms of her home mortgage.
During this presidential primary season, we’ve watched as some of our fellow Americans have chosen to throw traditional establishment politics to wayside to get behind a candidate who will “Make America great again.” They use racist speech at their rallies and they inflict violence against people who disagree with them. The strict rules that govern Black behavior do not apply to Trump supporters or any other group of white Americans. Further, by simple virtue of the color of our skin, we will never be able to act in a way makes the people who want to “make America great” feel comfortable.
At this point, knowing how to act mostly serves to oppress Black folks’ by limiting their expression. With no real benefit for knowing how to act, why not just let people be?
Today’s work shouldn’t focus on demonstrating that we know how to act in public or teaching young people not to act up. The work ahead should focus on understanding and respecting our cultural differences and having difficult conversations with people who do not look like us about how we can successfully co-exist in society.
In progressing towards this post-racial thing, more rules must be broken and more truth must be spoken. People have been acting up in America since its founding. Consider Native American resistance to white settlers, patriots throwing tea into the Boston Harbor, slaves rejecting enslavement and taking a chance on the Underground Railroad, or brave Negro students sitting in the whites’ only lunch counter at Woolworth’s. Even today, people are defying government mandates to use the restrooms of their choice.
Much of American societal progress is because some group of people “didn’t know how to act.”
Mr. Wilmore’s comedy was tough for us to hear because it reminded us that America is not as good as we know it can be and that there is still tremendous work ahead.
Mr. Wilmore’s monologue should be respected for its truth, and lauded as the daring act of a free Black man who used his platform to speak truth to power and push America a little further than we were before he got a chance at the mic.