Phillips Addresses Racial Perceptions, American Idealism
by Greg Slisz
October 30, 2009
While his memoirs may have been titled, “He Talk Like a White Boy,” Joseph C. Phillips’ lecture examined more than just race in America. Phillips, an actor who played Lt. Martin Kendall on The Cosby Show and is now a nationally-syndicated columnist and political advisor, spoke Thursday evening in Baxter 101 about racial perceptions, family, and American idealism.
Phillips began his lecture by addressing the anecdote behind the title of his memoir, He Talk Like a White Boy. As a seventh grader in an accelerated English class, he raised his hand and answered a question. A black girl from across the room suddenly raised her hand and said, “he talk like a white boy.” From that moment onward, Phillips’ life was forever changed. “Every moment after that moment was different from the moment before,” Phillips said.
As a 12 year-old, Phillips was confused at his classmate’s assertion, but this label would follow him through his early adult life and beyond.
Phillips studied theater at New York University in the early 1980s, a time in which, Eddie Murphy, rap, and breakdancing were the main representatives of black culture in entertainment. “I would show up at the casting director’s office and they wanted to know, ‘Can you do Eddie Murphy? Can you rap or breakdance?’ No I can’t rap or breakdance, I’ve been in acting school studying Shakespeare!” Phillips stated, prompting a wave of laughter from the audience.
Even as a young actor, Phillips was unable to shake the fact he sounded white. A typical audition, he described, would go well, but often be accompanied by casting director asking, “Joseph, can you do it again, but this time try to sound more black.”
However, this frustration did not end once his career began to transition into writing and politics. “The accusation changed. I was no longer talking like a white boy, I was now thinking like a white boy,” said Phillips.
Yet these accusations, both of speech and thought, always left Phillips confused. “How does one think white? I’m black; this is how I think. Some black people must think like this,” he explained.
Ultimately, Phillips concluded that while that limited point of view in a seventh grade classroom was understandable, continuing that way of thought into adulthood is damaging. “To no longer have the excuse of being a child, to then point out that the substance of what you think is problematic, and somehow makes you inauthentic, is a problem. I think it’s constipating. I think it’s limiting. It confines black people into a very limited definition of who we are and who we can be.”
These accusations of inauthenticity sometimes grew even bigger in scope. “Because of the substance of what I believe, I am suddenly not only inauthentic, but I am also a race traitor, a race hater, and dangerous to other black people,” Phillips said.
Despite those obstacles, Phillips explained why “thinking white” was, in his view, positive. “It’s a handful of principles,” Phillips said, “that I believe have made America the greatest nation on the face of the earth. Principles that I think have made the black community strong, dynamic, vibrant. They are principles that I do not believe belong to any particular group.” Among the characteristics, Phillips specifically mentioned character, family, faith, and idealism.
Character, Phillips explained, was important for its objective nature. “It’s not only what you do when no one’s looking, it’s that you accept the fact that there is an objective right and wrong, regardless of your race, regardless of your income.”
Phillips then stressed the importance of the traditional family unit as the cornerstone for the country’s success. “The primary source of education in our society is the family,” Phillips said. “So the freedom, the liberty that we as Americans brag about, that we talk about, that we would shed blood for, is dependent on strong impact families.”
This family, however, is also dependent on faith. Phillips stressed the importance of acknowledging a higher power. Our ideas of justice and morality, which should be objective, necessarily come from “reason and the association with the divine,” Phillips said.
Phillips ended the speech on a patriotic note, espousing the great American idealism of our nation’s great men such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. Phillips described Jefferson’s opening words of the Declaration of Independence to be the “55 most important words in world history,” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as a call to a “new birth in freedom.” Ultimately, the most poignant of those individuals for Phillips was King, who in his “I Have a Dream” speech referenced the rhetoric and principles of both Lincoln and Jefferson. The unending loyalty to those equal rights and freedoms was, as Phillips said, the American idealism he believed in.
Phillips’ lecture was sponsored by the Wabash Conservative Union.