John McWhorter on 'Acting White' and Cultural Barriers to Black Education



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 she's been called 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. To them, we're wrong to warn black kids not to fall for the "acting white" slur. John McWhorter writes that 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.