Acting White–Is it Real?
February 19, 2007
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the question of race, academic achievement, and culture. Remember Barack Obama’s address to the 2004 Democratic convention, where he says we need to fight the “acting white” phenomenon:
Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.
I like Obama and what he stands for, but I never liked this line. From the day I first heard the “acting white” thesis, I thought it was false. The thesis claims that black children denigrate academic achievement and accuse those who succeed in the classroom of “acting white.” I thought that many promoting the idea (but not Obama, who explicitly does not say this) must have simply been trying to blame the victim, to come up with some explanation for the academic achievement gap that took the onus off of the state and society.
In other words, we don’t need better schools, with high-quality teachers, good facilities, rigorous curricula and high-expectations. We don’t need to examine the wider economic and social context around schools–such as health care, just policing, quality housing, and a healthy environment. We just need the kids to stop tearing each other down when one of them starts studying hard. That line of argument seemed both wrong and damaging, I thought.
One of the reasons why the thesis seemed false is that it was flatly inconsistent with my own schooling experience. (Even though we know we should not generally excessively from our own experiences, it sure is hard to do.) Living in Atlanta for grades 8-12, I was in mostly black schools, drawing from low and moderate income communities. My schools were not very good as judged by test scores or reputation, and lots of kids were not studying much or thinking about life after high school. It was a prime location for the acting white thesis to play out, if it really existed.
And yet, there was none of that. Being at the top of the class was certainly not as cool as being the top athlete. And the school was party responsible for reinforcing this hierarchy. There was a shocking difference in quality between the athletic awards dinner and the academic awards meal, and the weekly pep rallies before football games had no equivalent on the academic side. Despite all that, being smart and studying hard were not ridiculed, and did not make you unpopular.
Perhaps most significantly for the thesis, the idea that studying hard was “acting white” is something that was literally never mentioned. In the rare instance where the nerd critique was offered, it was just that, stop being a nerd. But it had nothing to do with race. Indeed, since most of the school was black, most everybody at the top of the class was black, so it probably never would have crossed our minds to associate being at the top of the class with being white.
So that was my experience. But over the years, when I have discussed the issue with other African-American friends, I have gotten widely divergent reactions. Some agree with me; many, however, say that acting white was a real thing for them. So I needed to rethink my objection. Maybe Obama and co. are right.
Roland Fryer, at Harvard, has written about the phenomenon in Education Next, and his conclusions are fascinating. One of his main points is that acting white is less of an issue at mostly black schools such as mine.
I also find that acting white is unique to those schools where black students comprise less than 80 percent of the student population. In predominantly black schools, I find no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students’ popularity.
Fryer’s conclusions are unsettling for people like me, who generally support that race and class integration. While there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that race and class integrated schools are better, Fryer’s evidence does raise a qualification worth considering.
So I welcome comments on this topic. Based on your experience, is acting white real? And is it less powerful in schools that are mostly or all black?