Tag Archives: “Acting White

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. Continue reading