'Acting White' Remains a Barrier for Black Education

Blaming the issue on society is like telling someone on a rainy day not to use an umbrella, but to support efforts to eliminate weather.


Talk about language

Here we go again. A black woman (see photo at right) has articulately battled the idea that using standard English is "acting white" in a video that has gone viral of late, and Jamelle Bouie at Slate has called her out for propagating a myth that black students devalue school. In the eighties, (black) anthropologist John Ogbu with Signithia Fordham argued that black kids underperform in school partly because those who behave scholarly are teased as being "white," such that often fitting in means letting one's grades slip. And indeed, legions of nerdy black kids are familiar with black peers saying "Why are you working so hard on that school stuff? You think you're white?"

However, the documentation of this has always rankled those who prefer to document black problems as due to institutional racism rather than cultural problems, and over the past ten years, it has become popular to claim that it has been "refuted" that black kids think of school as "white" and that this lowers black scholastic performance.

But the people taking that position have a way of serenely neglecting counterarguments, not to mention embracing starkly shaky argumentation as authoritative simply because it makes what they regard as the better music. For example, one supposed piece of evidence that the "acting white" bit isn't a problem is that if you ask black kids if they value school they say yes. But this is hardly the smackdown argument people suppose. Last time I checked, race and racial self-identification were a subtle business. Who's up for asking Donald Sterling whether he likes black people? Aren't these sociologists, educators and journalists such as Bouie exactly the people who would laugh out the room a study claiming that you can identify people's inner racism by asking them about it?

It's careful work that shows that indeed, black American teen identity often includes a sense of school as the province of whites—which is hardly surprising given black Americans' history in this country. Clifton Casteel did a study in Elementary School Guidance and Counseling in 1997 in which white eighth and ninth graders tended strongly to say they did homework for their parents, while black kids said they did homework for their teachers—that is, the black kids had a quiet sense that school was not for what "we" are at heart. Then, Harvard's Roland Fryer has shown that among black teens, the better one does in school the fewer people report him or her as a friend—and to much more of an extent than among kids of other races.

The evidence continues. Newspaper coverage of the phenomenon has been rich. John Ogbu wrote a whole book squarely documenting black kids being told that doing well in school was white. After I wrote Losing the Race in 2000, I was surprised by thousands of letters, including over a hundred from black people explicitly attesting that they were teased as "white" for liking school, as well as from concerned teachers wondering what to do about black kids coming to them and telling them about this happening. I could go on, and on, and on (and have, elsewhere). The evidence is of crushing weight.

But no, all of this is apparently mere "anecdotes," refuted by the fact that if you ask black kids whether they respect school they say yes. Or, beyond that, people who want to wish the "acting white" problem away have a rather extraordinary collection of further feints.

The "acting white is a myth" crowd see quite the weapon in, for example, Tyson, Darity and Castellino's finding that it's mostly in integrated schools that the "acting white" charge flares up. Their implication seems to be that because it isn't an issue among poor black kids, it basically isn't an issue at all. But whence suddenly the idea that only poor black kids' problems matter? Anyone can see that the reason poor black kids underachieve is lousy schools, not being called "white," but surely we aren't under the impression that there are so few middle class black students in 2014 that their problems qualify as mere static. That black kids suffer this in advantaged circumstances such as these is exactly why the "acting white" issue is a problem.

Meanwhile, another purported riposte to people like me is studies showing that problems like poverty, poor schools, and economic duress "disprove" that the acting white charge is significant. However, they do not—they merely show that the issue is multifaceted. The question is why a widespread brand of social rejection would not have an effect, and a serious one, on grades; people claiming "acting white" is a myth have no answer to that question.

Then, we are informed that white kids get made fun of for being nerds, too. But once again, the people claiming that there is nothing race-specific about this issue are almost willfully playing dumb. It's one thing to be called nerd, but to be told you are disqualifying yourself from your race, with its implications that your presentation of yourself as black is fake, lends a particular sting. It is, quite simply, worse than being called a nerd. Why it is that people otherwise sitting always at the ready to remind us that in subtle but powerful ways, race matters, on this issue suddenly become color-blind?

The reason is that ironically, given that they readily designate people like me as working from bias, it is these detractors who are working from a deep-seated ideology rather than empiricism. They are viscerally dedicated to tracing black problems to structural problems in America's workings, and vigorously deep-sixing any idea that black people might also have some self-standing cultural issues to think about as intellectually mistaken, and probably immoral.

Never mind if someone carefully notes that the cultural problem is a legacy of racism in the past—that isn't enough. To speak of black cultural problems other than in passing is to "pathologize" black people, tout court. For example, what's being identified as black issue must be re-identified as a Southern one, or class-based—which is like a Russian saying that addressing alcoholism in Russia as a Russian problem is wrong because Finns and Swedes drink a lot too. Or, Bouie and others try an idea that it's speech and dress that are being made fun of, rather than being bookish, despite endless reports that the taunt is indeed directly about the books.

Quite simply, there are no human groups with no disadvantageous cultural traits. Practices become entrenched at first for concrete reasons, but can hold on past the circumstances that created them, piggybacking on other human leanings (think Albanian blood feuds). The "acting white" bit, for example, is compatible with teenagers' tribal impulse and is also handy for assuaging insecurity about schoolwork.

But these sociologists and journalists somehow cannot comprehend that cultural traits do not walk in lockstep with societal forces. To them, we're wrong to warn black kids not to fall for the "acting white" slur. They bristle to see media pieces teaching the public to care about it. Instead, we are to battle societal inequity and institutional racism. To me, this sounds like telling someone about to go outside on a rainy day not to use an umbrella, but to support efforts to eliminate weather.