Is ‘Acting White’ an ‘Overstated’ Idea?

President Obama is right when he says the notion is sometimes overstated, Nia-Malika Henderson wrote Thursday in a Washington Post blog—maybe even by the president himself.

President Barack Obama speaks at the My Brother's Keeper town hall Monday at the Walker Jones Education Campus in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama speaks at the My Brother's Keeper town hall Monday at the Walker Jones Education Campus in Washington, D.C. White House

In Last 20 Years, Writer Says, Theory Has Been Debunked

“When President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama speak to an audience of African Americans, particularly students, they invariably mention the trope of ‘acting white,’Nia-Malika Henderson wrote Thursday for the Washington Post’s “She the People” blog. “That is the notion that one impediment to black students’ success is the belief in some black communities that academic achievement is synonymous with whiteness, and therefore devalued.”

Henderson also wrote, “As recently as Monday, while speaking to a room full of students at the Walker Jones Education Campus, where he announced a new round of investments for the ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative, Obama mentioned it again.

“In response to a question posed by a young Native American man about what the U.S. government is doing to help American Indians revitalize their language and culture, Obama talked about the importance of ‘knowing your culture — the traditional cultures out of which your families come, but also being part of the larger culture.’

“He then went into a riff on ‘acting white’:

” ‘Sometimes African Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of ‘acting white’ — which sometimes is overstated, but there’s an element of truth to it, where, okay, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go. Because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African American men to be authentic.’

“Obama is right when he says that the notion of acting white is sometimes overstated,” Henderson continued. “Perhaps, it’s overstated by Obama himself.

“The concept of ‘acting white’ gained traction with a 1986 research paper called ‘Black students school success: Coping with the “burden of acting white” ‘ by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu that was based on the study [PDF] of a predominantly black Washington, D.C. public school.

“Fordham and Ogbu concluded that blacks created an ‘oppositional cultural identity,’ because of their historical oppression at the hands of white Americans, and thereby had come to devalue whatever they associated with whiteness, including social markers like academic achievement and speech patterns. . . .

“But is there a problem with the Obamas’ focus on ‘acting white’ as an explanation for how black [students] perceive academic success and the achievements of their peers?