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The Acting White Myth, again

“Black students that are doing well in the classroom or hang out with white friends or have good grammar, talk properly or don’t use slang, they get accused of being white a lot.”

— NC college freshman Erin Burns

Triangle educators debate racial issues at conference. A good article about a local effort that opened the discussion about peer pressure in elements of the black community regarding the negative pressure on kids that academically excel.

Smart black students being accused of “acting too white” is an issue Triangle educators are debating at a youth and race conference this week.

Students say the stigma is keeping some of their peers from doing well in school. Tenth grader Anais Guzman is on the honor roll. She says some of her peers see the achievement as acting too “white”. “They can get high grades but they don’t want to because they’ll be considered as acting white, so they put white people down,” Guzman said.

That’s the argument some educators say is fueling the achievement gap in North Carolina schools. Smart black students being accused of “acting too white” is one issue they discussed.

“It’s a serious issue in North Carolina,” said William Darity with the African-American Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. He says while the “acting white” stigma does play a part, student performance has more to do with school structure and curriculum for minorities. “We argue it’s due to the school context and because of a pattern of exclusion of vast numbers of black kids from the most challenging curriculum,” Darity continued.

But students say the “acting white” theory is a reality. “Some people might say some people are acting white, or acting black or different things like that so I see it often,” said tenth garder Vance Cherebin.

And, as I wrote in my first post on this subject, I think one has to look at how many of these kids come from homes where there isn’t an emphasis on fostering a love for reading and academics — and the importance of it for one to succeed in society. That’s what my mom did:

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).

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 — 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.

However, one cannot discount the legacy of racism at the core for this pathology developing in the community. Black kids in middle class homes fall prey to this pressure at school, and there are plenty of kids in crap public schools (and from broken homes) that still manage to achieve. There is no one cause, no one answer.

What truly tires me is that “mainstream intelligencia” and social scientists like Darity think the Acting White phenomenon is no different than the peer pressure to dumb down that occurs in white suburbia. No matter what research and data they pull to bolster the claims that minimizes the Acting White Myth, the anecdotal stories keep emerging about it. Clearly there is something pathological going on in schools, and the high-achieving students are feeling the pressure and perceive it as anti-intellectualism fostered as cool culture, tying a racial identity to it. This is crazy. It’s real to them.

Paul Tough, in a NYT article, also wrote that this a myth, citing Darity’s research:

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.

You’ll note that Darity’s position today, in that first story, at least acknowledges that the acting white phenomenon exists, but plays it down.

This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue in many respects; it’s another one of those topics that neither side knows how to fix, and talking head ends up arguing on the fringes of the problem, pointing fingers about what’s to blame instead of acknowledging it’s too complex an issue for “black/white” thinking. Instead of minimizing the theory, talk to the students, ask the right questions. Let there be a discussion and an outlet to talk about it, no matter the cause — the black students that achieve in spite of the odds and pressure need the validation. What they feel is real.

Another perspective, via The Moderate Voice (hat tip Holly): Race, Education, and Society

Thanks to Blender Steve T. at Whole Wheat Blogger for the pointer.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding