Midway through reading Boluwaji Ogunyemi’s New York Times essay “When ‘Black Like Me’ Means ‘White Like Them,’” I needed to find a napkin. I had to wipe the drool from my mouth after falling asleep from reading yet another essay that centered on the age-old myth that black people are betraying their cultural identities when they dare to care about academic achievement. It’s just another sad love song wrecking my brain like crazy. I’m all torn up because that story needs to be taken out back, shot and buried in the backyard.
There are a lot of people who make the unfortunate mistake of using their anecdotes to assess an entire community, and sadly, Ogunyemi is one of them. You get that sense very early into the piece when he writes, “Being the single black student in a school of 600 had been immaterial to me. I had not developed a sense of black identity because, simply, I did not have to.”
Black-red-and-green flag on the play. The problem here is that Ogunyemi’s parents made the mistake of not informing him that no matter where you go—even in Newfoundland, where he attended school—you are black. It doesn’t make you less than, but it doesn’t mean you are eagerly welcomed into the majority, either. The Canadian government may often like to tout its progressive stances in comparison with, say, the United States, but much has been written about the country’s issues with racism with respect to the racial profiling of blacks and its treatment of indigenous people.
When you are raised to know who you are, you develop a confident sense of racial identity—one that can’t be easily dismantled by the ignorance of others.
Case in point: Ogunyemi recalls a moment when he and his classmates eagerly learned the results of an exam. Ogunyemi, who netted the highest score, recalls: “Most of the others donned looks of approval or surprise, while one, an Indo-Canadian business student, was notably shocked. ‘Are you trying to be white, Bolu?!’ he jeered. The others laughed boisterously at the question.”
This moment should not have been as impactful as it was, but because having a black identity was “immaterial to him,” he’s over being a cliché-cliché-cliché. (If you didn’t hear Beyoncé’s voice now, you, like Ogunyemi, ain’t real.)
Ogunyemi does then try to lend credence to his sad story by citing John U. Ogbu, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent far too much time trying to legitimize the notion that black people don’t value education.
Last month, in “The Myth About Smart Black Kids and ‘Acting White’ That Won’t Die,” Jenée Desmond-Harris at Vox took an extensive look at this fairy tale, highlighting in varied ways how thin the research behind “the acting white” theory was to begin with.
For example, in a study published in the American Sociological Review in 1998, James Ainsworth-Darnell and Douglas Downey, using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, found that black students offered more optimistic responses than their white counterparts to questions about the following: 1) the kind of occupation they expected to have at age 30, 2) the importance of education to success, 3) whether they felt teachers treated them well, 4) whether the teachers were good, 5) whether it was okay to break rules, 6) whether it was okay to cheat, 7) whether other students viewed them as a “good student,” 8) whether other students viewed them as a “troublemaker,” and 9) whether they tried as hard as they could in class.
Unsurprisingly, though, we still see pieces like Ogunyemi’s being published. Black identity—notably in mainstream outlets—is so often largely depicted in terms of pathology. Whether or not the white editors handling these pieces are cognizant of that is moot. We know better about ourselves than the narratives we continue to be fed in these mediums. We can even prove it.
Yet they keep going. That is a testament to their own willful ignorance and agenda-pushing. As far as those editors’ ability to find black people so willing to lend their black bylines to such stereotypes, well, some of them literally don’t know any better, while others are very much aware and sell us out anyway.
Black people don’t value education less than white people do. Anyone legitimately concerned about black people and education would spend more time discussing the state of public schooling and talk to the actual black students who want more but don’t have more given to them.
There’s much talk happening about the new administration peddling propaganda, but there is dead silence about others who have been playing a similar game.
To you black folks who got teased about being smart, remember that many kids are assholes. Also, note the following: You’re adults now. And since we’re keeping score, remember that your little anecdotes don’t speak for the rest of us. Not to mention, some of y’all are just cornballs. The sooner you recognize that, the faster you can fix it instead of screwing your people over by playing into white mythology that black people are anti-education, when we are nothing of the sort.
If you’re incapable of doing any of this, do the world a favor and pour bleach on your keyboard. This false narrative is exhausting. Your story is tired. You’re boring the ever-living hell out of us. Move out of the way already. You’re not helping.