Some Thoughts on “Acting White”

by Latoya Peterson

Beyond Acting White CoverOver at Slate, Richard Thompson Ford promises to teach the readership “How To Understand “Acting White,” which immediately prompted an eyeroll from me. The article opens:

Some black students in the 1990s had a derisive name for their peers who spent a lot of time studying in the library: incog-negro. The larger phenomenon is all too well-known. Many blacks—especially black young men—have come to the ruinous conclusion that academic excellence is somehow inconsistent with their racial identities, and they ridicule peers for “acting white” if they hit the books instead of the streets after school. The usual explanations for this self-destructive attitude focus on the influence of dysfunctional cultural norms in poor minority neighborhoods: macho and “cool” posturing and gangster rap. The usual prescriptions emphasize exposing poor black kids to better peer influences in integrated schools. Indeed, the implicit promise of improved attitudes through peer association accounts for much of the allure of public-school integration.

(Side bar: has anyone else heard incognegro applied in that way? I haven’t, but maybe I’m missing something…)

At any rate, Thompson is exploring a new book by Stuart Buck, a white adoptive parent of black children who believes he has the answer:

But suppose integration doesn’t change the culture of underperformance? What if integration inadvertently created that culture in the first place? This is the startling hypothesis of Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. Buck argues that the culture of academic underachievement among black students was unknown before the late 1960s. It was desegregation that destroyed thriving black schools where black faculty were role models and nurtured excellence among black students. In the most compelling chapter of Acting White, Buck describes that process and the anguished reactions of the black students, teachers, and communities that had come to depend on the rich educational and social resource in their midst.

Yawn. My boyfriend’s grandmother delivers this speech every Tuesday. The “integration fucked us up” meme runs deep, and not just in terms of education – I’ve heard it apply to black business ownership, housing, art – just about anything that we used to own and operate before segregation ended. I’m not sure why Buck thinks he’s stumbled upon something new – there is a certain set of older black folks who will happily explain all the unintended consequences of desegregation if you just ask. However, this was the most emailed article on the Slate site on the 6th, so it’s worth taking a longer look at this alleged phenomenon and why it is such a popular explanation for the achievement gap.

Thompson explains the main thrust of Buck’s ideas:

Like the Moynihan Report’s account of the “tangle of pathology” that kept black families mired in poverty, the “acting white” thesis has been attacked as an insult to black culture, an instance of blaming the victim. In taking on not only black culture but also school desegregation—the defining achievement of the civil rights movement—Buck is sure to be tarred as a callous bigot by uncharitable critics. But he tiptoes through the minefield with nuance and compassion. He credibly (and repeatedly) insists that he supports school desegregation but wants to be forthright about its unintended consequences, so we can find ways to contain them.

Buck proposes a grab bag of alternatives to insisting on blanket integration. His approach is attractively pragmatic and results-oriented. “[W]e should be tolerant of educational experimentation,” he writes; “it’s not as if our nation’s inner-city public schools have a stunning record of success that would thereby be jeopardized.” For the most part, his specific proposals are familiar. For at-risk kids, Buck endorses everything from vouchers to exclusively black-male charter schools to the novel idea of replacing individual grades in integrated schools with academic competitions between teams of students.

Again, nothing really new or novel here. I watched Waiting for Superman (discussion forthcoming) which is about school reform and all of these ideas were touched upon or floated during the course of the film. While I had a few issues with the conclusions in Superman, I felt that film was solid in exploring the core issue – our schools are doing a poor job of preparing students for life in general (forget college) and the students who suffer the most have access to the least resources. Interestingly, in the film, the concept of “acting white” was never raised. Nor was the concept raised in a recent front page Washington Post story about Sousa High School, a low performing school that is 99% African American and 80% low income. In Jay Matthews’ discussion of the article, where he raises a lot of issues around the circumstances of Sousa, the term “Acting white” is still nowhere to be seen on the page.

So why does this idea keep surfacing again and again when discussing black students and scholastic achievement?

Gene Demby, writing for the American Prospect’s TAPPED blog, checks out John McWhorter’s review of the book and points out the obvious:

Despite McWhorter’s protestations, though, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of this meme, and Buck’s reading of it in particular. Buck has said that he learned of this phenomenon after he and his wife adopted black children, and other white adoptive parents had also said that their children were teased by black kids for acting white. I don’t mean to trivialize how unsettling this must have been to those parents, and how much it hurts for those kids to have their blackness called into question. But why is it a shock that black kids who are raised by white people might face extra hurdles in being accepted by other black kids? And if Buck’s kids are indeed academic standouts, why attribute the taunts to the fact they’re achievers and not, you know, because their parents are white? This is a pretty telling conflation, I think.

But setting aside Buck’s particular situation, we know that in integrated schools, black students are less likely to be placed in Advanced Placement classes and more likely to be placed in remedial ones. Black students are also more likely to be punished more harshly for the same infractions committed by whites. A consequence of that disparity means that black kids who are academic will be spending most of their school days and class time in the company of nonblack kids. Again, it’s not clear that those kids are being told they’re acting white because they’re in AP classes and not because of the company they keep.

(It’s worth noting that Buck appears in the comments section to Gene’s post and mentions he dedicated “a whole chapter” to other factors like, oh, poverty. I’m not jumping on my educational reform soapbox in this post, but I will say I feel really strongly about the need for students to be sheltered from life’s chaos, and how that plays into the ability to achieve in school. This is something many wealthier kids receive access to [i.e. a depressed parent receiving treatment] and that poorer students are just left to cope with [see the last page of the Sousa article I linked for more examples.])

Also at TAPPED, Jamelle Bouie uses his personal experience to poke more holes in the theory:

I’m with Gene; as a nerdy black kid who was accused of “acting white” on a fairly regular basis, I feel confident saying that the charge had everything to do with cultural capital, and little to do with academics. If you dressed like other black kids, had the same interests as other black kids, and lived in the same neighborhoods as the other black kids, then you were accepted into the tribe. If you didn’t, you weren’t. In my experience, the “acting white” charge was reserved for black kids, academically successful or otherwise, who didn’t fit in with the main crowd. In other words, this wasn’t some unique black pathology against academic achievement; it was your standard bullying and exclusion, but with a racial tinge.

What’s more, it seems that Buck, McWhorter, and Thompson are working under the assumption that this stigma is at least somewhat responsible for poor academic performance among black kids. If we are going to assume these taunts evince some unique black pathology, then it’s worth actually looking at the data on black educational achievement. Matthew Yglesias checks out data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and finds that since 1978, the “math gap” between black and white students has steadily closed:

school data

This isn’t a direct rebuttal of Buck, McWhorter, or Thompson, but it should cast doubt on the idea that desegregation has somehow been worse for black educational achievement.

Now, this doesn’t excuse any of the intra-racial bullying that can occur, or that many kids do receive the “acting white” charge at some point in their school careers. But how prevalent are these attitudes, and how do they impact scholastic achievement? Over on Very Smart Brothas, the Champ holds court on the idea, ultimately concluding the acting white myth was overblown.

one of the most ridiculously realistic scenes in movie history occurs about an hour into akeelah and the bee. if you recall, akeelah gets clowned and dismissed by her brother, namond brice, who also assumes that the neighborhood dopeboy he hopes to work for would find akeelah’s spelling bee competition as simple and stupid as he does. instead, the dopeboy gives akeelah encouragement, tells akeelah about the poems he used to write, and even orders namond to help his little sister study.

this scene is ridiculous because the neighborhood dopeboy is played by the rubberband man, a guy who screams “thug” about as loudly as donnie mcclurkin screams “straight”. but, it’s realistic because this actually does happen. as anyone who’s actually lived in or taught at an inner-city school district will tell you, the school and neighborhood thugs are usually either indifferent towards or encouraging of kids that seem to have a bit of “talent”, whether it’s academic or athletic (as long as they don’t snitch, of course).

2. smart kids don’t get picked on just because they’re smart, but…

…nerdy kids do. and, this happens everywhere, not just in the inner-city. regardless of their socioeconomic or racial background, nerds get teased because, well, they’re nerds, and socially awkward kids are easy targets.

i know this seems obvious, but it just annoys me when people act as if nerdy kids are “allowed” to be nerds everywhere else except the hood. i’m amazed at how easily we’ve allowed this context-less meme to spread, especially since it basically calls us a nation full of crabs. sh*t, there’s a reason revenge of the nerds is such a cult-classic. it’s a vicarious revenge fantasy for nerds, their opportunity to reverse the sh*t that happens to nerds everywhere, and it’s filled with gratuitous boob shots.

that’s actually two reasons, but you get my point.

3. some young adults actually do act “white”…and they do deserve to be picked on

by acting “white” i’m not referring to using proper english, listening to weezer instead of weezy, not using washcloths, or even dating outside of your race. but, there are people who do their absolute best to rid themselves of any apparent trace of black culture, and those people deserve to be admonished.

i won’t go into too much detail about how exactly “doing your absolute best to rid yourself of any trace of black culture” is defined, but i will say that its definition is somewhat similar to porn’s: you know it when you see it.

I’ll raise the Champ one – having the perspective of being nearly a decade out of high school and even farther from middle school, I’ll even say that most kids experience some kind of alienation over their natural talents or interests. In school, these types of experiences cut a bit deeper, since our identities are still being formed. Hence why these stings last so long (and in the case of John McWhorter, the emotional scarring he received from childhood taunts will inform his writing for a lifetime.)

One of the VSB commenters, Jen, has my favorite response to the entire situation:

CAN YOU READ??

This girl has said that Black children made fun of her for being high-achieving BECAUSE SHE LIVED IN A WHITE NEIGHBORHOOD AND PLAYED THE F*CKING OBOE.

This doesn’t make sense in any context. I am not “reframing” her experiences–she is reframing her experiences. Living in a white neighborhood and playing the oboe are not markers of high achievement. So, if somebody tells you that you are “acting white” because you live in white neighborhood and play the oboe, they are not telling you that you are “acting white” because you are a high achiever.

As a kid with non-traditional interests and a race-neutral accent, I was told on more than one occasion that I “spoke like a white girl” or was doing “white people sh!t” or other such foolishness. But never–ever–did anybody Black ever mock me for being intelligent OR for being successful at what I did. I have never experienced it. So I didn’t bring up these experiences. Why? Because they are about as relevant to the topic as being told you were acting white for playing the oboe is. IF YOU HAVE PURPLE HAIR OR PLAY THE GUITAR OR SPEAK “THE QUEEN’S ENGLISH” OR DRESS LIKE A PREP GROWING UP, LITTLE BLACK KIDS ARE GONNA TELL YOU YOU’RE ACTING WHITE. But once again, THIS IS IRRELEVANT BECAUSE IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BEING HIGH-ACHIEVING.

Also, while you are trying to be snarky, you seemed to have missed the fact that multiple people have described Black children in white-dominated environments, who are taught that every pathology under the sun is Black. THIS is where this intelligence = acting white foolishness DOES come into play. It is a feature of Black children’s dumbass parents thinking that they have done their children a service by sending them to the wolves to be educated.

So why are Barack Obama, Bill Cosby and other such out-of-touch folks all on the television telling God and everybody that this is something coming out of our community? It isn’t. THIS is my point. The Black community has enough problems. Thinking that intelligence is a marker of whiteness is NOT one of them. While you are running around trying to embrace this bullsh!t, you need to be trying to discredit it so that when you stick your unfortunate kids in a school wherein s/he will be “one of two” the other one won’t be telling her she “ain’t Black” because she doesn’t push crack like Jeezy-from-the-BET claims he does.

I could really relate to Jen’s comment, partially because she called out my high school life.

As a kid with non-traditional interests and a race-neutral accent
– check
I was told on more than one occasion that I “spoke like a white girl” or was doing “white people sh!t” or other such foolishness. – check
But never–ever–did anybody Black ever mock me for being intelligent OR for being successful at what I did. I have never experienced it. – Agreed. I got teased for a bunch of random things, from wearing JNCO jeans to general strangeness. But being smart wasn’t a liability, even in the many occasions where I was tracked into regular classes after a move and had to wait a few weeks to enter the gifted track again. Intelligence is a positive quality, and most people recognize that on at least a basic level.
IF YOU HAVE PURPLE HAIR – check. Sally’s Rose Red hair tint turns purple with sun exposure; they may have stopped making this hair tint.
OR PLAY THE GUITAR - check. They gave guitar as a class, which was my first exposure to Prince.
OR SPEAK “THE QUEEN’S ENGLISH” -check, kinda. I;ve been told I sound white on the phone about as often as I’ve been told I have a slight Southern drawl.
OR DRESS LIKE A PREP GROWING UP – check. I was never preppy (just not our area), but there was definitely a divide between suburban style and urban style.

But all that aside, again, I don’t see a lot of compelling evidence for the “Acting white” charge actually lowering academic achievement, especially when there are so many compelling reasons why students begin falling behind at earlier and earlier ages that have less to do with culture and more do with with how our societal structures around class and access. There’s a whole other discussion about the changes in how we educate children, and for what purpose, but that will have to wait for another post.