Acting White, Part II–What Can Schools Do?

February 22, 2007

One of the things I find most frustrating about the acting white discussion is the suggestion that schools are simply victims of the phenomenon. Too often acting white is presented as something that undermines the work of the school, but is beyond the school’s influence. It is surely true that there are larger societal and popular culture forces at work–and that too often these forces tell African-American kids that academic achievement and being black do not belong together.

But what about schools? What can schools do? I wrote in my last post about the way my own Roosevelt High School celebrated athletic success more consistently than academic accomplishment. That is too often the norm.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Schools can choose, and some do, to celebrate hard work and success in the classroom. The results can be powerful. I was reminded of this when I came across an e-mail written to staff by a former Maya Angelou teacher, Colin Bane. In the e-mail below, Bane describes the first time he attended “Family Night” at Maya.

A few months after I started teaching at MAPCS in the Spring of 1999, I remember bringing Jen and several close friends along to my first Family Night so they could catch a glimpse of the students whose lives had become so inextricably tangled up in my own. The school was even smaller then, and all of the students, tutors, faculty, parents, and friends gathered in the lobby on benches designed for elementary school kids, their knees up near their chests as they leaned forward in anticipation of the celebration. Whatever images or preconceived notions my friends may have had in their heads of “at-risk,” “inner-city,” or “court-involved,” students were quickly dispelled.

First, the names of every student who had completed the term were read, and there was raucous applause for each and every student in the room… simply for making it through. Staff were recognized, and the students screamed for each faculty member as if they were celebrities. They went nuts in support of their tutors, then their families, then just nuts in general for having made it through a year together.

But when awards were given out for things like Dean’s List and Perfect Attendance, each winner got a true rock star reception. My creative writing students from the first class I ever taught each read their poems, and the response was overwhelming. By the time Ms. Russell was done reading her tribute to Phil, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place. I sat there, beaming with pride, tears streaming down my face, clapping like a madman.

The love and support and positive vibe in the room was unlike anything in my own experience as a student, and it cemented my resolve to work with these young people.


It is a moving account of how a community can come together to celebrate students success in the classroom, and how doing so can have an impact on peer culture. I especially like the bit at the end where Colin writes about Ms. Russell, the mother of Phil, one of the first students to graduate from Maya. I still remember when, after the first Family Night our first year, Ms. Russell told me and David she wanted to organize parents to speak at the next Family Night. They would each get up, with their child on the stage, and the theme would be: “you make me proud when . . . ” Ms. Russell told us that for her and many of the other parents and guardians, it had been a long time since they could finish such a sentence. Now that their teenagers were in school for long hours surrounded by caring staff, the parents could be proud, and should talk about how, in front of their kids.

Now, I don’t want to pretend that this sort of culture is easy to create, or maintain. When there are other demands on teachers and school leaders it can be hard to set aside the time to organize effective events like these. But when done right, the rewards are enormous.


5 Responses to “Acting White, Part II–What Can Schools Do?”

  1. abu ameerah Says:

    this issue has been around for quite some time now.

    My personal belief is that there needs to be a more holistic approach in confronting this particular issue.

    Spike Lee has also commented on this matter in past.

    interesting post…thanks!

  2. watex Says:

    there needs to be a more holistic approach in confronting this particular issue.

  3. […] 25th, 2007 My acting white posts (here and here) inspired some thoughtful and nuanced responses, which are all available below the original […]

  4. […] in isolation from each other. To me, this way of dividing the world seems profoundly misguided. Family Night at Maya Angelou taught us a different […]

  5. […] Acting White, Part II–What Can Schools Do? « Extra Credit Extra Credit james forman, jr. on education, race, kids and justice Home About Acting White, Part II–What Can Schools Do? February 22nd, 2007 One of the things I find most frustrating about the acting white discussion is the suggestion that schools […]

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