The Myth of 'Acting White' and the Achievement Gap

Never mind all the sound and fury over black academic performance. The data aren't so clear-cut.

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Even broaching the topic of "acting white" is the prelude to a fight. Those two small words are imbued with so much meaning within the black community. Is it racial policing and self-sabotage that ultimately lead to underachievement? Or is it just a racialized form of bullying? While what activities lead to the charge vary, the discussions around "acting white" revolve around attitudes that disparage excelling in school. In 2004 Barack Obama spoke against the charge of ''acting white'' at the Democratic National Convention; later, when he ran for president, he was accused of sounding and ''talking white'' by his political peers.

This ongoing debate was pushed back into the spotlight with the publication of Stuart Buck's new book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. Buck, a white adoptive parent of two black children, became interested in the term and used one major question to guide his research: ''How on earth did an instrument of segregationist oppression become transformed into something that many black school-children now say to each other??''

However, outside of personal anecdotes, the actual data linking the idea of "acting white" and academic underachievement are murky at best. Buck's book looks at the term in the context of desegregation; but a better view may come from Harvard's Roland J. Fryer Jr. Fryer, an African-American scholar and academic phenomenon, followed a fairly unorthodox path to Harvard University. (His extended family ran a major crack gang in Florida.) Now in the position to examine social forces that impact African Americans, Fryer brings both intellectual rigor and personal experience to his studies.

In his 2006 empirical study, Acting White: The Social Price Paid by the Best and Brightest Minority Students, Fryer clearly states:

Though not all scholars define acting white in precisely the same way, most definitions include a reference to situations where some minority adolescents ridicule their minority peers for engaging in behaviors perceived to be characteristic of whites. For example, when psychologist Angela Neal-Barnett in 1999 asked some focus-group students to identify acting-white behavior, they listed actions that ranged from speaking standard English and enrolling in an Advanced Placement or honors class to wearing clothes from the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch (instead of Tommy Hilfiger or FUBU) and wearing shorts in winter!

Since many of the discussions around "acting white" refer to academic achievement, Fryer focuses on that particular aspect for his research. After conducting a national study with a complex set of data controls, Fryer explains some major trends. In general, there can be a severe drop-off in popularity once a black or Hispanic youth starts entering a higher GPA level than their peers, particularly once they achieve a 3.5 GPA. This is most pronounced in multiracial environments -- students at predominantly black schools report much less strife around intraracial politics and do not report many allegations of ''acting white.'' Fryer also pokes holes in another theory. For some reason, it isn't just other African Americans or Latinos who shun these high-achieving students: "Black and Hispanic students with a GPA above 3.5 actually have fewer cross-ethnic friendships than those with lower grades, a finding that seems particularly troubling."

Fryer concludes:

The notion that acting white is simply attributable to self-sabotage is even less persuasive. According to its proponents, black and Hispanic cultures are dysfunctional, punishing successful members of their group rather than rewarding their success. That theory is more a judgment than an explanation. A universal, it cannot explain the kinds of variations from one school setting to another that are so apparent in the data I have explored.

This is ultimately the issue in trying to move forward with school reform and policy based on generalizations around acting white. Since the problem changes severity from region to region and from school to school, developing a broad set of standards to address the issue ultimately misses the point. The reasons for the black-white achievement gap are many, and run the gamut from underfunded schools to parental disengagement to rising levels of distraction among children in today's society. Focusing the lion's share of our community's attention on acting white may provide some emotional benefits, but does not speak to the full spectrum of issues.

Latoya Peterson is editor of Racialicious.

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