The 'Acting White' Myth.
December 12, 2004 10:15 AM   Subscribe

The 'Acting White' Myth. When smart black kids try hard and do well, they are picked on by their less successful peers for 'acting white.' But it isn't true.
posted by Lisa S (43 comments total)
What isn't true - that they are acting white, or that they get picked on?

(Sorry, but Bugmenot's login didn't work, and I don't register for those things.)
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:22 AM on December 12, 2004

Kirth Gerson, just tried the "stalin60" bugmenot login and it worked for me.
posted by shepd at 10:24 AM on December 12, 2004

Interesting, but so short I kept looking for the rest of the article. So why are blacks not doing as well as some other racial groups?
posted by Monday at 10:29 AM on December 12, 2004

I am not ready to acdept the notion that Acting White is truly a false idea as suggested by those who studied this issue and recently wrote about it. In Jean Toomer's amazing book CANE, written many years ago, there is the use of the word "dicty" that is used to describe any black person who acts as though a white middle class person. In other cultures, there had been the notion (formerlyh in the Italian community in lower Manhattan) that to try to do better than your father was insulting. That has changed. In some cultures--Jewish for example--the idea was that you should try to do better than your parents have done..this is clearly a part of immigrant mentality.

So unless there is something more convincing than what the article tries to suggest, I am not ready to discard the notion set forth earlier by the guy at Berkeley.
posted by Postroad at 10:33 AM on December 12, 2004

(for NYTimes, indianz/indianz)
posted by faux ami at 10:38 AM on December 12, 2004

When Bill Cosby spoke out publicly in May against dysfunction and irresponsibility in black families, he identified one pervasive symptom: ''boys attacking other boys because the boys are studying and they say, 'You're acting white.''' This idea isn't new; it was first proposed formally in the mid-80's by John Ogbu, a Nigerian professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, and it has since become almost a truism: when smart black kids try hard and do well, they are picked on by their less successful peers for ''acting white.''

The only problem with this theory, according to a research paper released in October, is that for the most part, it isn't true. Karolyn Tyson, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke and U.N.C., coordinated an 18-month ethnographic study at 11 schools in North Carolina. What they found was that black students basically have the same attitudes about achievement as their white counterparts do: they want to succeed, understand that doing well in school has important consequences in later life and feel better about themselves the better they do.

So where does the idea of the burden of ''acting white'' come from? One explanation the authors offer will make sense to anyone who has ever seen a John Hughes movie: there's an ''oppositional peer culture'' in every high school -- the stoners and the jocks making fun of the nerds and the student-government types. When white burnouts give wedgies to white A students, the authors argue, it is seen as inevitable, but when the same dynamic is observed among black students, it is pathologized as a racial neurosis.

More insidiously, the authors say, the idea that failing black kids pull down successful black kids can be used as an excuse by administrators to conceal or justify discrimination in the public-education system. The one school where the researchers did find anxiety about ''acting white'' was the one in which black students were drastically underrepresented in the gifted-and-talented classes. And significantly, at this particular school, the notion of the burden of ''acting white'' was most pervasive not among the black students interviewed by the researchers, but among their teachers and administrators, who told researchers that blacks are ''averse to success'' and ''don't place a high value on education.''

The 'Acting White' Myth via the New York Times Link Generator.

Get a clue, noobs.
posted by y2karl at 10:43 AM on December 12, 2004

i'm not sure is this is an attempt to discredit bill cosby for many of his recent remarks or support for his argument that racism isn't the cause for black underachievement.
posted by three blind mice at 10:51 AM on December 12, 2004

11 schools in North Carolina

This doesn't seem to be anywhere enough quantity or geographic variety from which to draw conclusions.
posted by billsaysthis at 10:54 AM on December 12, 2004

Better link here, and give me a minute, I amy be able to link to the article in question, if it is out yet.
posted by oflinkey at 10:55 AM on December 12, 2004

This link is a section from the NYT's Magazine "Year in Ideas, A-Z": easily digestible tidbits of current interest for those of us who haven't had enough coffee for the real news.

During my miserable high school experience in racist-ass Lynchburg, Virginia, I remember that my white peers would scorn the black students in our AP classes for "acting white," so I never bought the whole "blacks don't value academic success theory" anyway.
posted by bibliowench at 10:59 AM on December 12, 2004

While I'd certainly like to think that young blacks aren't actually culturally opposed to success (which always struck me as a cop-out argument), this isn't really a very useful study. It was conducted among 11 schools in *North Carolina*.

Not exactly a hotbed of inner-city violence and black rage.

Do the study in LA and NYC and see what you get there. Then we'll talk.
posted by InnocentBystander at 11:00 AM on December 12, 2004

This is not a race issue. Smart kids are picked on. It's levelling behaviour. Exclusion brings you down.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:01 AM on December 12, 2004

I'd like to third the "eleven schools in north carolina" comment.

I've seen this in action in inner-city schools in Illinois (schools shall remain nameless) - no one explicitly says "acting white," but black students sitting in the front of the classroom are made targets. Kids who spend time in libraries get the shit kicked out of them.

Come back when you've done interviews in Chicago and Baltimore and LA Consolidated (among the hispanic kids too) and Queens and I'll believe it. But not until, especially not when I've seen it with my own eyes.
posted by u.n. owen at 11:04 AM on December 12, 2004

The paper does not seem to be online.

I did find this blog entry that attempted to dismiss the study anecdotally, but does prove interesting when the findings in the paper are vigorously debated in the comments.
posted by ursus_comiter at 11:05 AM on December 12, 2004

I'd like to add that I've never seen a white valedictorian get the crap kicked out of them.

Nerds aren't just smart, they're socially inept. That's why they're picked on. But the kids who are social and smart tend to get along fine in most schools.

Inner-city schools? Not a chance. Smart and social gets you taunted until you retreat into your shell.
posted by u.n. owen at 11:07 AM on December 12, 2004

The burden of acting white. entry from a black writer/blogger
posted by vacapinta at 11:10 AM on December 12, 2004

It's also possible, of course, that black attitudes about success have changed since the mid-80s when Ogbu originally published his findings. Which would be a good thing. However, it doesn't mean it was always a myth.

(For me, and possibly for many my age and older, it's easy to think the mid-80s were fairly recent, but it was twenty years ago already.)
posted by kindall at 11:12 AM on December 12, 2004

I call BS. I grew up in Shaker Heights, one of the top performing high schools for African Americans, yet there is still an incredible gap between African American and white students. John Ogbu actually came to our town for about a year and wrote a book on his findings. Ogbu's critized for not using quantifiable data in his book, he uses interviews instead.

Thing is, when I read the book, I could imagine my black friends saying what was in the book. I knew several in advanced classes and most of them felt, at some point in their education, that their peers had looked down on them for "acting white".

Until I see the paper, everything this article claims has been invalidated by other reading and more importantly my own experiences.
posted by Be'lal at 11:13 AM on December 12, 2004

This is not a race issue. Smart kids are picked on. It's levelling behaviour. Exclusion brings you down.

I'd like to second u.n. owens remarks. Its socially awkward kids that are picked on, whether they are smart or not. Intelligence often correlates with social ineptness so they get linked together.

The valedictorian (wasn't me) of my high school class was also one of the cutest and popular girls in school. She was brilliant, beautiful and socially gifted. Nobody made fun of her - they were just in awe.

Also, like others, I find it hard to agree with this study in any way:

When white burnouts give wedgies to white A students, the authors argue, it is seen as inevitable, but when the same dynamic is observed among black students, it is pathologized as a racial neurosis.

This is a tricky issue. If distinctions are based on race, then that is racism. I've personally heard successful kids being told they are "acting white." Even if that comment does not arise from racial neuroses, it certainly seems capable of inducing it.
posted by vacapinta at 11:20 AM on December 12, 2004

What I don't understand is why nerdism should be considered any less insiduous than racism.
posted by mowglisambo at 11:31 AM on December 12, 2004

For those who want anecdotes: This American Life has a story about a young black man named Cedric who grew up in a poor community and his quest to get into the ivy leagues. It's the last story in the show at about the 33 minute mark.
posted by Alison at 11:38 AM on December 12, 2004

weapons grade pandemonium, thanks for the link to the Paul Graham essay. It's not often I read something and find myself agreeing so completely; this was a near-exact reflection of my high school experience (though I was a "freak" rather than a "nerd"). I think he captured the whole dynamic of popularity and empty activity that characterizes (North American) high school exceptionally well.
posted by jokeefe at 11:48 AM on December 12, 2004

What, exactly, does the accusation of "acting white" mean? Is it just the equivalent of "nerd" or "poindexter," with an edge of race treachery tossed in, or is there really more to it? Or, to put it another way, when a black student seems to be too engaged in scholastic success, in what do his or her peers think he or she should be engaged instead?
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:16 PM on December 12, 2004

I think it very indisidious to equate popularity to not being smart or anything else. Quite simply popularity is a construct to describe the group with the most desirable traits. In high school, since no one works real jobs, and academic performance does not equate to any greater good (whoopee, I get an "A" at the end of the year... that's going to bring me joy at night) -- attractiveness social suave remain the leading factors. Being that such things are for the most part, unchangable by the average person, it creates a very deep sense of hate for those who have it and those who don't. That makes sense doesn't it?
posted by geoff. at 12:20 PM on December 12, 2004

I noticed a lot of resistance to registration pages here. It seems to me that online newspapers are a example of getting something of genuine value for free on the Web, and all the papers ask is that you register. The Times, e.g., pays to keep people in Fallujah and other far-flung points, and then they reporting for free. Seems a bit churlish not to register. Just one man's opinion.
posted by QuietDesperation at 12:27 PM on December 12, 2004

Secondary schools replicate, to a great extent, the status system of the broader world ... at least as it appears to a 15 year old.

In a mostly-white suburban high school, the perceived status system has professional athletes, actors, rockers and rappers at the apex, and so would naturally emulate that putting the athetically adept and the physically good looking and smooth at the top of the local hierarhcy.

Inner city schools are going to have the same perception of who (should be) at the apex, and so they'll do the same thing.

It's the next lower rung that's different. The suburban kids see the next lower rung of society occupied by doctors, lawyers, and successful businessmen, and so it's natural that the academic achievers are going to be able to fit in there.

However, it's that next rung of the broader hierarchy which is absent in the inner city. They simply don't see that as a realistic element of the social structure to emulate. Being all the AP classes simply doesn't have a local community correlate, whereas it has an obvious correlate in the suburb -- the heart surgeon dad who, despite being blantantly geeky, nevertheless shows up at the jazz band recitals driving an S500 and squiring a hot young second wife.

I'd argue that most (successful) ex-high-school nerds aren't really candid with themselves about the relatively high social status they enjoyed, even back them. But, that's natural -- they're ambitious people, and naturally paid no attention to all of the not-good-looking/athletic people struggling to get B-'s, and instead focused their attention on the few people who were superior to them on the pecking order.

(To offer a point I've offered on MeFi before, I'll say that a lot of this trauma is unnecessary, and stems from the simply incorrect supposition of smart parents that there's no need for their smart kids to go out for sports, and to work at it if they're not naturally good at it. A few years of sports can make a lifetime of difference.)
posted by MattD at 12:41 PM on December 12, 2004

I never got that whole 'nerd' experience Paul Graham wrote about in that essay. I was one of the top performers in my high school but I never felt like I was restricted to hanging out with the 'nerds'. Maybe its because my parents encouraged me to be an athlete as well and I did more than just get involved with school activities.
posted by onalark at 12:41 PM on December 12, 2004

*sees his first comment claiming to be a top performer while making two horrendous grammatical errors and cries*
posted by onalark at 12:43 PM on December 12, 2004

This Berkeley professor thinks otherwise. He's a linguistics professor, so he's stepping somewhat outside his area of expertise, but his article is excellent.
posted by painquale at 12:51 PM on December 12, 2004

In high school, I went to both a failing "inner city" (meaning mostly black, even though it was the suburbs) school and one of the wealthiest suburban "white" (although it was very racially mixed) schools. When I went to the mainly black school, I attended mostly "honors" and AP courses and never felt or heard other kids in those classes being accused of "acting white". Indeed, many of the black kids in my classes were part of the social elite at my school - they were social, well-dressed, AND smart.

The only person I ever knew accused of acting white was this poor girl with self-image/self-esteem problems. She really did try to "act white" (as weird and dumb as that sounds as I type it). It wasn't her success and intelligence that made her stick out, it was her sense of style and mannerism (all sterotypically "white"/mainstream and seriously affected on her part) that did.

That being said, I think if kids do hurl the "acting white" thing around, it probably comes from less of a place of racism/self-loathing and more from a place of "what can I say that has sting to make this smart person shut up?" Its more of a causal "nerd" thing than anything else, I think.

Oh yeah, for what its worth, I'm white/hispanic, but everyone in both schools just assumed I was white.
posted by Boydrop at 2:04 PM on December 12, 2004

MattD's explanation is really compelling, and not one that I had heard before.
posted by rustcellar at 2:37 PM on December 12, 2004

MattD, good insight about the "next rung" of achievement being available to upper middle class students in a way that it is unavailable in poor inner cities.

I'll say that a lot of this trauma is unnecessary, and stems from the simply incorrect supposition of smart parents that there's no need for their smart kids to go out for sports, and to work at it if they're not naturally good at it.

Part of this, I would argue is that among high-achieving/smart parents, the concept of a "hobby" that does not in some way serve academic/professional success is really anathema to them and is thus seen as a distraction. Along with this is the parental concern that peer influence in these areas will be a net negative for their child's academic success, and thus those sorts of pursuits are not really valued-- those pursuits are the domain of the idle upper classes for whom professional achievement is already a given and the middle classes with enough time on their hands to pursue non-professional/non-academic concerns in their copious free time. The "achievers" attempting to join the upper-middle classes are thus going to be underrepresented there.

On the other hand, one might feel the need to wonder why students have enough free time that they can attend sports games as spectators, thus turning participation in sports into an event of public display for one's peers, rather than a personal/team athletic pursuit.
posted by deanc at 3:06 PM on December 12, 2004

By the way, Heather Havrilesky back in her days, had an amusing take on the penchant of those to underplay their social status in high school.
posted by deanc at 3:13 PM on December 12, 2004

All of the studies I've read besides two researchers (Fordham and the aforementioned Ogbu's) reach the opposite conclusion (PDF):
Contemporary empirical studies also refute Fordham and Ogbu's (1986) assumption that Black Americans do not value education. Using data from the 1990 National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS), a nationally representative sample of 17,544 tenth grade students, Cook and Ludwig (1998) report several findings that stand in contrast to Fordham and Ogbu. Their results indicate no differences in the number of Black and White tenth graders who expect to attend college, and after controlling for socioeconomic status, Blacks expect to stay in school longer than Whites. Also, when adjusting for family characteristics, Blacks are absent from school for fewer days than Whites. According to Cook and Ludwig, Black students in the NELS sample were more likely to report parental involvement in their schools, in the form of contacts with teachers or attendance at school meetings. After controlling for socioeconomic status, Black parents were also more likely to check their children's homework. Additionally, Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey (1998) also use the 1990 NELS data set to reach similar conclusions that contradict Fordham and Ogbu's assumptions. According to their data, Black students were significantly more likely than White students to report that education was important for occupational attainment, and also to have optimistic occupational expectations. Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey also found that Black students had more positive attitudes toward school than White students.

Data also indicate a positive relationship between academic success and peer popularity among Black students. Cook and Ludwig (1998) found that Black honor society members were significantly more popular than their classmates, and that academic success had a more positive impact on social status in predominantly Black schools than in predominantly White schools. Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey (1998) reach similar conclusions. All of these lines of evidence contradict Fordham and Ogbu's "acting White" hypothesis.
If blacks did pressure each other to fail academically, you would think that one would also find that they also study less, care less about schooling, have lower attendance, etc.

For example, a recent study conducted by the Minority Student Achievement Network looked at 40,000 students in grades seven through 11; it found little if any evidence that blacks placed lesser value on education than their white peers. Instead, they found that black males are more likely than white, Hispanic or Asian males to say that it is "very important" to study hard and get good grades; white males are the least likely to make this claim. The researchers also found that blacks were just as likely to study and work on homework as their white counterparts.

Even in high-poverty schools, disproportionately attended by inner-city students of color, attitudes towards schooling are far more positive than generally believed. Students in high-poverty schools are four-and-a-half times more likely to say they have a "very positive" attitude toward academic achievement than to say they have a "very negative" attitude, and 94% of all students in such schools report a generally positive attitude toward academics.
posted by Critical_Beatdown at 3:21 PM on December 12, 2004

This sounds like so much bunk. Some more detail here on my blog, but the gist is that black America has a SERIOUS problem with tearing down those within its ranks who aspire to something beyond being entertainers or atheletes. I've seen it in action for years now, and it ain't pretty.
posted by owillis at 3:56 PM on December 12, 2004

Who in their right mind is going to tell a researcher, "I have a very negative attitude towards academics"? Well, obviously some of these kids did, but I suspect there are substantial methodological issues here. (On the other hand, some of the questions did refer to concrete things like studying and homework).
posted by Jeanne at 4:04 PM on December 12, 2004

Posted two years ago, this is still one of my favorite MeFi discussions.

Having stayed engaged with the issue since that discussion, I think it's a matter of framing. In that previous MetaFilter discussion, I posted a link to a fresh study that had corroborated the essence Ogbu and Fordham's thesis, by reframing it.

What this second study found was that black students were much likelier to reject a plethora of signal behaviors that typically correlate with academic achievement. It's not the achievement itself. It's the act of cultural treachery that comes with it. From the study:
Another young man, now a record producer and rap recording artist, had gone away to Exeter, the elite private preparatory school, and come back dressing and speaking differently from when he left. He was accused of acting white. His interpretation of why former friends in the community were a little “put off” or “taken aback,” was not that they resented his success. Instead, his interpretation was sensitive to their concern that he might be trying to escape the stigma. He said they wondered if he had “sold out” to the Other part of society that looked down on people like themselves. He responded by finding ways to share his success and, “By letting them know that I’m not ashamed. I can still speak slang. I can still rap, even.”
Looking at it from this perspective, you can begin to understand why, for example, in that prior thread, tyro_urge's experience as a young black man had differed so much from mine. I've never grown up within hip-hop culture. I've been surrounded by whites my whole life. I talk "white," I dress "white." I definitely "act white," and I heard that charge over and over growing up, from other black folks, especially cousins. At the same time, I felt no real pressure to focus on adopting any typically black signal behaviors, because there was no black population at my high school to attempt to fit in with.

I attended an Ivy League university, but even there, the black community was somewhat stratified between those who had achieved academic success while appropriating the signal behaviors of "hip-hop culture," and those who had achieved it while appropriating those of "white culture." There was little ostracism between these members of the black community at my college, but we didn't always hang out, by default.

So there's the disparity. If you try to find blacks who are against the idea of academic achievement or professional success, as in the New York Times article and the study Critical_Beatdown cites, you're going to fail. I mean, that's just stupid. But look for black youths who insist that those in their peer groups have to, essentially, be down with hip-hop culture above all else, and Ogbu's findings start to make sense.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 4:07 PM on December 12, 2004

Also, the authors of the corroborative study specifically address the notion that those charges of acting white are no more or less insidious than the nerd-baiting in any ethnic group.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 4:21 PM on December 12, 2004

Funny how they say acting white. Surely it should be acting Asian or Jewish.

Actually, my father, who emigrated to Australia from central Europe and did well at school in the 1950s and 1960s was, on a number of occasions, called a 'Dirty Jew'. Does this indicate a great failing in white culture to bring down those who do better at school?
posted by sien at 8:33 PM on December 12, 2004

From the study grrarrgh00 cites: "He said they wondered if he had “sold out” to the Other part of society that looked down on people like themselves."

I grew up in Dallas, Texas in a racially diverse (Black, White, Latino) neighborhood and was bussed to high school. One day at the bus stop one of my friends was being taunted and ridiculed for 'acting white' but only after his parents showed up to bring him a textbook he had forgotten. His parents were driving a BMW and wearing expensive clothes: upper middle class folks in a working class neighborhood.

My buddy got picked on not because of his academic prowess but because he had more money than we did and was seen as buying his way into a White Suburban Leave-It-To-Beaver sort of existence, the Other part of society that sometimes does indeed look down on those farther down the socioeconomic ladder.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:53 PM on December 12, 2004

I split my high school years between a mostly black school in a suburb of Atlanta and a very diverse one in Seattle. I recall Jr. High School being much tougher for smart kids, but there were other reasons. My seventh grade year was the year they instituted mandatory bussing, thus I was shipped from my mixed neighborhood in southeast Seattle (working class, black, chinese, samoan, filipino, white) to a mostly white, most upper middle class school in north Seattle. During the first couple of years, there were lots of clashes as two cultures mixed and learned to get on with one another. "Acting White" was an insult perhaps brought to bear on those who were seen as having too much in common with the "other side" (ie liking rock music and skiing), not necessarily a result of good grades.
By the time I started my 10th grade year in GA. I could see that smart kids were regarded as something different, but you could get a sense of who was going to make it, and who was gonna wind up working at a gas station even back then. There were a lot more affluent black kids in GA, whose parents were doctors, lawyers, etc. Attitudes toward education have a lot to do with having available role models and most importantly, support.
Like most things -- the truth lies somewhere in between. Personally, I was most successful with teachers who didn't treat me like a criminal in training, who told me exactly what they wanted from me and wouldn't let me slack off.
posted by black8 at 12:53 AM on December 13, 2004

I never got that whole 'nerd' experience Paul Graham wrote about in that essay. I was one of the top performers in my high school but I never felt like I was restricted to hanging out with the 'nerds'.

Yeah me neither. At all the schools I attended the smart kids had pretty much the same ratio of cool: not cool kids as anyone other group. The nerdy kids were just as dismissive of people they regarded as burnouts as they now claim others were of them. The valedictorian at my last HS was a stoner, acid-head jock. A really smart one. The nerdy clique loathed him and accused him of not really being as smart as them, just better at English which didn't even count. Even at the time it was funny.

I think attitudes to education are difficult to measure. Some people are going to regard educaiton as a way to acquire technical skills and become rich or famous, others regard it as a chance to become well-rounded. I think without seeing the actual survey it is hard to draw any kind of conclusion from this article.

In a way in the US inner city issues automatically become "black" issues, yet when I go to the at-risk youth groups some friends of mine friends work at there is a whole range of races represented. A lack of family support or learning difficulties or bullying or plain bad luck seem to be the things getting these kids into trouble, not the colour of their skin.

But look for black youths who insist that those in their peer groups have to, essentially, be down with hip-hop culture above all else, and Ogbu's findings start to make sense.

That's not exclusive to black youths though. I am probably one of the only ones of my friends from HS in LA to finish and to graduate college. Everyone else was too counter-cultural (or too high) and half of them still live hand to mouth 10 years later. A lot of smart people who never felt that society had any place for them and attached more importance to being punk or whatever, than to anything else. You see the same thing in the UK where I now live amongst working class kids. even at the university level the pressure to stay visibly working class is enormous.

Well, that was quite rambly. I think I'm done now.
posted by fshgrl at 4:28 AM on December 13, 2004

" I would argue is that among high-achieving/smart parents, the concept of a "hobby" that does not in some way serve academic/professional success is really anathema to them ..."

I'd describe those as high-achieving/fucking stupid parents. The smart ones recognize that children completely focused on academic performance to the exclusion of all so-called distraction aren't going to be well-rounded or well-socialized. I agree, though, that this is common -- idiots abound.
posted by majick at 6:54 AM on December 13, 2004

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