Is ‘Acting White’ an ‘Overstated’ Idea?

White House
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?


"Over the last 20 years, in several studies, the original theory has been largely debunked.

"A 2005 study called 'It's Not a Black thing: Understanding the burden of acting white and other dilemmas of high achievement,' [PDF] argues that the 'empirical foundation underlying the burden of acting white thesis is fragile at best.'


"The [North Carolina-based] study showed black students, some in predominantly black schools, and others in predominantly white schools, negotiating peer pressure and class selection in much the same way that their white peers did. The study suggests a common strain that sometimes has poor white kids dealing with the burden of being seen as 'uppity' and 'snobbish,' and black kids in predominantly white school settings, on occasion grappling with that same notion, with a racialized overlay. It's essentially nerds versus jocks, yet it plays out in very nuanced ways depending on the school setting and is complicated by class, race and in-group versus out- group pressures. . . ."

In other ruminations on "acting white," such as a July 10 discussion on Roland Martin's "News One Now" (podcast) on Radio One, some have sought to redefine the term, from calling it spending money outside the black community to casting its meaning as seeking a white-looking physical appearance. Speaking proper English is not a racial attribute, they said. Others raised the issue of "code-switching," or using slang or colloquial language when that is more appropriate.  


The "acting white" notion has a journalistic component. Carl T. Rowan, the preeminent black columnist of his day, wrote in May 1987 that "children caught up in anger and frustration are embracing a new kind of racism that says a black youngster who excels at speaking and writing is 'using Whitey's language,' and proposed that journalists chip in to fund scholarships for the best high school achievers in writing and speaking. The program eventually was funded by foundations and others.

The program awarded about $109.5 million in scholarships, including as much as $700,000 a year in cash grants, to more than 4,200 District of Columbia and suburban high school seniors. Called "Project Excellence," the program lasted 15 years but ended after Rowan died and his son, Jeffrey Rowan, said the economic downtown made it harder to raise funds.


Kayla Ancrum, Media Diversified: Western Neutral: Separating Common Culture From "Whiteness" (March 3)

Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post: Obama goes there on 'acting white'

Lee A. Daniels, National Newspaper Publishers Association: Hank Aaron and the Real 'Acting White' Syndrome (April 21)


Troy W. David, Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.: 'Code of the street' makes it hard to help black males stay straight

Editorial, Wall Street Journal: Obama on 'Acting White'

Ange-Marie Hancock, The Root: Why I Support My Brother's Keeper but Still Signed the Letter Criticizing It (July 7)


Askia Muhammad, Washington Informer: Thinking 'Black' Necessary but not Sufficient

Fred Siegel, City Journal: The Poverty of Benevolence (July 2)

Elizabeth Zalanga, Minnesota Public Radio: Overcoming the insult of 'acting white'


Journalist Confronts History of His Slave-Owning Family

A white Texas journalist has written about his slaveholding ancestors and the black slaves who took the family name — and said he was shocked and taken aback by what he found.


Chris Tomlinson, a former Associated Press foreign correspondent who writes a column on business, energy and economics for the Houston Chronicle, appeared last week on NPR's "Fresh Air" and is scheduled to appear on C-SPAN's "Book TV" on Saturday at 10 p.m., Sunday at 9 p.m., and Monday at midnight, all Eastern time.

In both interviews, Tomlinson is joined by Lavar Tomlinson, younger brother of LaDainian Tomlinson, former NFL running back. "The history of both families, the author argues, demonstrates how the legacy of slavery still affects American society," a C-SPAN announcement says.


Tomlinson's book is titled "Tomlinson Hill," after the plantation his ancestors built. The story was first produced as a public-television documentary.

Tomlinson told Journal-isms by email, "Let me be clear, my research shows that my ancestors murdered, raped and tortured the people they held in slavery, and an important part of this book is to take ownership of that."


"Fresh Air" host Terry Gross asked, "So you've spoken of how you were brought up thinking — you know — hearing people talk about the descendants in their own families who were slave owners as having been, you know, like more, you know, kindly slave owners. And you reprint a couple of letters from your ancestors in this book — not so kindly. So there's a letter I want you to read on page 23 from Churchill Jones and he is again one of the, you know, quote, entrepreneurs who bought a lot of land to build plantations on. Tell us who this letter is to."

Tomlinson replied, "So after Churchill bought the land, he sent his oldest son and a nephew to start developing the land — to clear it, build homes, to build slave quarters. "And so he managed via letter. And this is what he wrote — on July 25, 1853 — (reading) George, I'm afraid you've got the Negroes to like you and not fear you. If it is the case, you cannot get on nor take care of anything. They must know when you speak they have to obey. And to do this you have to stand square up to them and show yourself master. You cannot coax a Negro to do his duty. You have to force him. And if they only like you and not fear you, they will soon hate you and get tired of you. That is the nature of Negros. But to make them fear you and like you both, you can do anything you want with them."


From the transcript:

"GROSS: What was your reaction when you saw — when you read these letters from one of your own ancestors?


"C. TOMLINSON: It was shocking. I was — I was taken aback. And I was taken back by the brutality that he espouses but even more so by how it was a business for him — that he thought, you know, beating people and whipping them and withholding food and that sort of thing was the same as greasing an engine. It was — it was just part of doing business. And perhaps he's not the sadist that we all think of, but it's almost worse that he does this as a business, as kind of a calculated business proposition. . . ."

In the same interview, Lavar Tomlinson told Gross, "I knew zero about my personal ancestral history until this book. But we learned, you know, slavery in school, you know, in elementary school we learned about it in middle school but it wasn't a lot to really care about, you know, that was a horrible time and one thing I didn't want to think about or find out is that one of my ancestors was hanging from a tree somewhere or, you know, tried to run and got his feet chopped off or, you know, some crazy sadistic thing. . . ."


Chris Tomlinson responded to a question about how his journalism training influenced his work.

He told Journal-isms by email, "When I started working on this project, I promised myself to report and write as if I were in a foreign country reporting on another culture's ethnic troubles. By attempting to do this, I was constantly checking myself and asking, 'Would I write it differently if this happened in Rwanda?' Many times the answer was yes, and I forced myself to detach and write it again. My international experience helped me be more objective in choosing what to leave in and what to leave out, and I think other journalists would benefit from applying the same rigor. When reviewers talk about my unsparing or brutal approach, I think this is what they are picking up on."


Petula Dvorak, Washington Post: Slaves helped build this country. Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge that? (July 17 )

Gaza Crisis Boosts Ratings 30% for Al Jazeera America

"The audience for Al Jazeera America is up 30 percent overall the last two weeks during the Gaza conflict, the channel says," television critic David Zurawik wrote Friday for the Baltimore Sun. "In prime time, it's up 40 percent, compared to the month before.


"What that translates to is the channel reaching 3.0 million unique viewers for the total day, and 1.4 million in prime time, according to an Al Jazeera America spokesperson.

"That's big news for the American brand of Al Jazeera that has been struggling in the ratings since its launch a year ago.


" 'When Al Jazeera America first debuted and was getting very weak ratings, my sense was that they needed a story they could own, that people would have to come to them for,' says Philip Seib, author of 'The Al Jazeera Effect' and journalism professor at the University of Southern California. 'Maybe this is going to be it.' . . ."

Othman M. Atta, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Israel's invasion of Gaza belies its claims of 'restraint'


Tina Griego, Washington Post: A town that blocked child immigrants reflects, with and without regrets

International Federation of Journalists: Israeli Forces Must Be Held accountable for Attacks on Journalists in Gaza, says IFJ


Eugene Robinson, Washington Post: Israel is acting as if it is free of moral responsibilities.

Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR: Is NPR Biased In Its Gaza Coverage?

Erik Wemple, Washington Post: Rula Jebreal deplores MSNBC's 'Palestinian Journalist' label


David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun: Gripping, heartrending Gaza images lead to shift in PR war

Pinterest, Too, Pledges to Do Better on Diversity

"Pinterest, please come forward and share your diversity numbers next," Brian R. Fitzgerald wrote Friday for the Wall Street Journal.


"The photo-pinning site joined Silicon Valley colleagues in releasing statistics that showed its employees are primarily white and male. In a blog post Thursday, Pinterest said 60% of its global workforce comprises men, and that Caucasians make up half the employees. Asians accounted for 42%, while Hispanics were 2% and African-Americans were 1%.

"When it came to Pinterest's leadership positions, the gender statistics tilted significantly away from women — 81% were male. Similarly, 79% of employees in tech positions like engineering were men. Women had the larger share only in business positions: 66%. Pinterest has more than 60 million monthly active users, according to comScore, and most are women.


" 'We're not close to where we want to be, but we're working on it,' Tracy Chou, an engineer and tech lead, said in the Pinterest post. . . ."

In disclosing Twitter's diversity figures on Wednesday, Janet Van Huysse, vice president, diversity and inclusion, added, "After leading HR at Twitter for four years, I am now honored to focus specifically on these efforts. And we have a number of employee-led groups putting a ton of effort into the cause: WomEng (women in engineering), SWAT (super women at Twitter), TwUX (Twitter women in design), Blackbird (Tweeps of color), TwitterOpen (LGBTQ folks) and Alas (Latino and Latina employees). These affinity groups are inclusive of anyone passionate about their mission, and they have done tremendous work to make Twitter a more awesome place to work.


"We know the critical importance of actively recruiting from under-represented communities such as women's colleges and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). And to continue improving our diversity standing, we have partnered with many organizations to move the needle at Twitter. . . ."

Manjula Martin, Scratch: Interactive Graphic: Diversity in Journalism

Tim Worstall, Forbes: Twitter's Diversity Numbers And The Mystery Of Black Twitter


To a Boomer, Digital Jet Magazine Doesn't Feel Like Progress

"Derek Jeter's impending retirement from Major League Baseball after 20 years, marked by emotional tributes during the All Star Game last week, is not the only reason this New York Yankees fan has been unsettled by the passage of time," E.R. Shipp wrote July 19 for the Baltimore Sun.


The commentary by Shipp, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist at the Daily News in New York and is now an associate professor and journalist in residence at Morgan State University, is one of the first evaluations of the new product.

"JET magazine, the pocket-sized source of news about blacks since 1951, has bowed to the ages and gone digital with a new app," Shipp continued. "But its debut digital issue this month makes clear that JET is no longer the magazine for anyone who claims to be at least middle-aged. I'm on the cusp of 60 — old enough to remember when Mr. Jeter was a rookie and so old that, until she graced the cover of Digital issue No. 1, I had no idea who the 'digital diva' Keke Palmer is or that the 20-year-old has a new daily talk show on the BET network.


"Years ago someone — maybe Maya Angelou — came up with the line its publisher still uses: 'If it wasn't in JET, it didn't happen.' Well, a lot did happen during the decades JET could be found in mailboxes or on newsstands. JET depicted struggle, and it depicted progress. Its early claim to fame was its unflinching coverage of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. I was in it as a law student working on death penalty cases in Georgia in 1977 and again in 1996 as a Pulitzer Prize winner. My hometown was in it in the 1950s when a group of blacks said they were not interested in integrating the public schools and again in the 1980s when the black coach of the formerly white high school did the honorable thing after he discovered that a minor player on his championship basketball team had been ineligible. He voluntarily forfeited the title. Oh, the memories.

"Maybe the message here is not just that digital trumps print in the 21st century but also that blacks no longer require that little magazine to validate our presence. Maybe this is what progress is supposed to look like: a digital journal heavy on celebrities with great pictures and videos. But this does not feel like progress. . . ."


Jet launched its digital app on June 30, closing its print edition. Johnson Publishing Co. promised, "The new digital magazine app will add fresh content on a weekly basis, every Friday. Readers will be entertained by 3D images, video interviews, enhanced digital maps, audio content and photography from the JPC archives. . . ."

Stanley Nelson Plans Film on Historically Black Colleges

A company founded and led by documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson has received $600,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities [PDF] to produce a two-hour film on historically black colleges and universities, the agency announced on Monday.


Firelight Media's "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities" is to explore the history and legacy of HBCUs. Nelson's documentaries frequently air on PBS. He is known for such projects as "Freedom Riders" [video], which aired in June on PBS' "American Experience," and the enduring "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," which is often repeated.

NEH also granted $75,000 to GWETA, Inc., to begin work on a four-hour documentary film series about Asian Americans from the mid-19th century to the present. A spokeswoman for WETA-TV in Washington, which is developing the series, told Journal-isms that the money would go toward writing the script and that it was too early to project completion or an air date.


Short Takes

"Bring your sports, news and investigative reporting experience to one of the most challenging reporting jobs in the country, covering the sports performance, business dealings and community leadership of basketball star LeBron James," the Northeast Ohio Media Group, which publishes the Plain Dealer of Cleveland, advertises. "You'll cover all aspects of his roles in Northeast Ohio and nationally as he returns to the Cleveland Cavaliers, writing, creating videos, and posting across multiple platforms including all relevant types of social media. You'll also participate in broadcasts where you discuss James, working closely with reporters assigned to cover the Cavaliers and the NBA. . . ." The media group previously posted a job opening covering the Cavs that was not James-specific. "The original one was more of a traditional Cavs basketball beat," Daryl Kannberg, Plain Dealer publications director, told Journal-isms by email. "This new one is totally LeBron focused. On the court, in the community, in business, kind of all things LeBron. It's a fascinating idea to try to cover the complex and busy life he has just being LeBron Inc."


"The issue of domestic violence has overtaken the sports media circuit the past two days, bubbling over Friday with two high-profile ESPN personalities tussling on Twitter," Tim Baysinger reported Friday for Broadcasting & Cable. He also wrote, "On Friday morning, during ESPN2's debate show First Take, cohost Stephen A. Smith broached the topic of domestic violence, and appeared to insinuate that women bear at least some responsibility for 'provoking' the violence. . . . Shortly after First Take aired on the East Coast, fellow ESPN-er Michelle Beadle, who cohosts SportsNation on ESPN2, did not take too kindly to Smith's on-air remarks. . . "

"ESPN anchor Jay Harris picked a great time for his first hole-in-one — an ace at the Michael Woodson Las Vegas Invitational on Tuesday with a 2015 Range Rover Evoque on the line," Kevin Manahan reported Thursday for


"Fallen Xcity," a documentary film directed by Qi Zhao, makes its national broadcast premiere on many PBS stations at 10 p.m. Monday (check local listings). A promotional blurb reads, "In today's go-go China, an old city completely destroyed by a devastating earthquake can be rebuilt — boasting new and improved civic amenities — in an astoundingly quick two years. But, as Fallen City reveals, the journey from the ruined old city of Beichuan to the new Beichuan nearby is long and heartbreaking for the survivors. Three families struggle with loss — most strikingly the loss of children and grandchildren — and feelings of loneliness, fear and dislocation that no amount of propaganda can disguise. . . ." View trailer.

"The hip-hop magazine The Source is celebrating its 25th year with an expo and an anniversary concert," the Associated Press reported Tuesday. " 'The Source 360' [video] at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, is being billed as the place 'where hipsters meet hip-hop,' but will expand to include fashion, fitness, tech and more . . ." The event is Sept. 19-21.


Referring to Saudi Arabia, Reporters Without Borders said Thursday it "condemns the seven-year jail term that a Jeddah criminal court specializing in national security and terrorism passed on independent news photographer Jassim Mekki A’al Safar on 18 June. He was also sentenced to a seven-year ban on foreign travel after his release. Safar was accused of 'posting photos and videos on YouTube that could discredit the kingdom,' 'posting photos of prisoners in public places,' 'creating a terrorist cell,' 'chanting anti-government slogans at protests' and 'meeting with foreign reporters.' . . ."

"Leaders Like Ken Noble Remind Us of the Value of Affirmative Action," proclaimed a headline over a story Thursday in The Root about Kenneth B. Noble, a former New York Times reporter who died Thursday at 60. Raymond T. Diamond, a freshman with Noble at Yale, wrote, "If Yale's admissions policy had not become more inclusive, so as to be open to people like him, perhaps Ken Noble would not have been admitted. And perhaps journalism would have lost his contribution. And as a society, we may have lost the contributions of the many who shared the campus with him who have gone on to achieve mightily. . . ."

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Journal-isms is published on the site of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education ( Reprinted on The Root by permission.