The 'Acting White' myth and other influences

by Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend and Big Brass Blog

An article in the New York Times by Paul Tough a while back postulated that the phenomenon of black kids being scorned by peers (claiming one is "acting white") for excelling academically by their underscoring peers is a myth. It's no myth -- I've experienced it first-hand right here in the good old South.

From the NYT article:

When Bill Cosby spoke out publicly in May against dysfunction and irresponsibility in black families, he identified one pervasive symptom: "boys attacking other boys because the boys are studying and they say, 'You're acting white.''' This idea isn't new; it was first proposed formally in the mid-80's by John Ogbu, a Nigerian professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, and it has since become almost a truism: when smart black kids try hard and do well, they are picked on by their less successful peers for "acting white."

The only problem with this theory, according to a research paper released in October, is that for the most part, it isn't true. Karolyn Tyson, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke and U.N.C., coordinated an 18-month ethnographic study at 11 schools in North Carolina. What they found was that black students basically have the same attitudes about achievement as their white counterparts do: they want to succeed, understand that doing well in school has important consequences in later life and feel better about themselves the better they do.

So where does the idea of the burden of "acting white" come from? One explanation the authors offer will make sense to anyone who has ever seen a John Hughes movie: there's an "oppositional peer culture" in every high school -- the stoners and the jocks making fun of the nerds and the student-government types. When white burnouts give wedgies to white A students, the authors argue, it is seen as inevitable, but when the same dynamic is observed among black students, it is pathologized as a racial neurosis.

My mom was born in NYC to a West Indian father, who was a first generation American from Barbados and a Native American/black mom. She was a huge reader and read to us constantly and fostered a lifetime love of reading. By the time I went to kindergarten I was already reading ahead of grade, and my mother always taught us that academics were a priority. I attended Catholic school for K-6 here in Durham, and then went on to public school for 7th grade (this was in 1975). It was a culture shock.

I got slammed by the kids for "talking white" and "acting white" because I was doing well in school -- they said so. It was made worse by the fact that I didn't have a southern accent.

The sad truth is, in a school that was at least 75% black, I was pulled over by one of the elderly black teachers one day and she told me that she was so proud of me -- she said I was the first black student to make the honor roll in that school.

If that isn't a sad reflection of the state of things in the 70s, I cannot imagine what it is like growing up today, with the saturation of anti-intellectualism and materialism foisted upon and soaked up as "culture" by some in the black community.

The discussion has, over time, focused more closely on the impact of the "pimp/ho" subgenre of hip-hop culture. The glorification of violence and the negative, anti-educational-achievement role model it provides for minority youth, particularly young women is finally being called out. These images continue to be rewarded in the segments of the black community, and promoted shamelessly by corporations, who don't mind profiting from the situation.

It has been interesting to see Al Sharpton recently call for a 90-day ban on radio and television airplay for any performer who uses violence to promote albums and for filmmaker Spike Lee to speak out about the trend. These conversations are difficult ones to have because of the potential for finger-pointing and generational political football, nevertheless the discussion needs to happen. The influence of this sub-genre now crosses race and class lines; the problem cannot be roped off and considered part of the culture of the "other."