"Acting White" Isn't a Thing

Every community has its problems. It’s only among African Americans, however, that those problems are pathologized and turned into a symptom of “culture.” Crime against neighbors becomes “black-on-black” crime, the predictable patterns of poor communities becomes a “culture of dependency,” and the usual teasing of grade school—where nerdy kids become targets of ridicule—is used as evidence of an anti-education pathology among African Americans.

With education, the idea is straightforward: Black students reject educational achievement lest they’re accused of “acting white.” Then-Senate candidate Barack Obama referenced it in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech—“Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white”—and it received renewed currency by way of a 2011 book by Stuart Buck, a lawyer and educational fellow at the University of Arkansas.

There are so many stories of this—John McWhorter mentions one in his review of Buck’s book—that its truth is taken for granted. Recent research, however, knocks the idea that “acting white” is a phenomena among African American students. Using data from a CBS News monthly poll, Ivory Toldso, an associate professor at Howard University, challenges the foundation of the “acting white” theory:

In the most pointed question, students were asked, “Thinking about the kids who get good grades in your school, which ONE of these best describes how you see them: 1) cool, 2) normal, 3) weird, 4) boring, or 5) admired?” Response differences between black males, black females, white males and white females were not statistically different; however, at 17 percent, black males were the most likely to consider such students “cool.”

Among the other students, there were 11 to 12 percent who considered students who make good grades “cool.” The vast majority (about 60 percent) of all students, regardless of race or gender, considered kids who make good grades “normal,” and rarely considered them to be “weird” or “boring.”

Insofar that anyone is accused of “acting white,” Toldso notes, it’s almost certainly over “styles of dress, communication nuances, music preferences and a particular swagger that is independent of intellectual aptitude.”

For what it’s worth, this fits my experiences to a T. Relative to surrounding high schools, mine had a small minority of black students, and among them, I was one of the few in honors and advanced placement classes. One of my classmates—who also played football—was on excellent terms with the black kids in our year. And broadly speaking, intelligence didn’t preclude one from being a “popular” kid.

By contrast, the combination of my clothes (lots of chinos, lots of plaid/flannel), my activities (debate, quiz bowl), and my nonexistent accent made me a target. I was accused of “acting white,” but that had everything to do with the fact that I was weird, and little to do with my grades or classes.

My guess is that this is also true for many of the people who say they were accused of “acting white.” But rather than admit they were nerdy, they turn it around—as beleaguered people often do—and accuse their taunters of being jealous.

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