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NYT: The 'Acting White' Myth

This NYT article by Paul Tough is absurd; it postulates that the phenomenon of black kids experiencing grief (claiming one is “acting white”) for excelling academically by their underscoring peers is a myth. It’s no f*cking myth — I’ve experienced it first-hand.. Read this crap, and then my personal encounter with the phenomenon…

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 (born in NYC to a West Indian father, who was a first gen American from Barbados and a Native American/black woman) 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, and my mother always taught us that academics were a priority. I grew up in Durham, NC and I attended Catholic school for K-6 . I had a culture shock when I attended public school for 7th grade (this was in 1975).

My late mom, Shirley (L); and ugh — it’s grade-school Pam.

Boy did I get 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 — 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 now growing up, with the saturation of anti-intellectualism and materialism foisted upon and soaked up as “culture” by some in the black community.

And I don’t even want to begin with the tales about “good hair” vs. “bad hair” and what shade you are — it was/is an insane obsession for some black folks.

This ad is ridiculous — straight hair=success?

Maybe someone is going to write that those things don’t exist either. Total BS. And the dirty laundry Cosby is airing needs to be out there.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding