More on "Acting White."

In a recent Bloggingheads episode, John McWhorter and Richard Thompson Ford spend a few minutes discussing the "acting white" charge as described in Stuart Buck's book and their respective reviews:

I've written on the "acting white" phenomenon before, but it's worth commenting on this exchange, since it sums up my main problem with the discussion about the phenomenon. By and large, this exchange is almost entirely anecdotal; if you set aside personal childhood memories, there simply isn't much broad empirical evidence for the claim that black students in integrated settings have a racialized antipathy toward educational achievement. Even Buck, whose book is the focus of the discussion, leaves room for alternative explanations. From the beginning, he concedes that the evidence for his claim isn't conclusive and that to some degree, he is relying on the "absence of evidence" against it.

It's frustrating too that proponents of the "acting white" thesis use anecdotes to assert that the problem would disappear if we had allowed schools to stay segregated.  In their view, black students in racially homogeneous schools wouldn't be accused of "acting white" for achieving academically. But this is something of a tautology. If "acting white" depends on there being white people around, then of course it would disappear in a segregated setting. It's not that black students suddenly become more enlightened or value achievement any more or less when they're exclusively around other black students; it's that the accusation loses its strength when there aren't any students with obviously close relationships to white people.

Don't get me wrong, I sympathize with McWhorter and Buck. As a kid, my black classmates regularly teased me for "dressing white," "talking white," and "acting white." And it hurt, a lot. It's tempting to think that I was teased out of jealousy or disdain, but in retrospect, it's obvious that those kids were simply being kids and teasing me because I stood out in the most glaring ways: I spoke differently, I dressed differently, and I spent my extracurricular time in the library on the debate team. I was a nerd, and those kids responded accordingly.

Was this unpleasant? Absolutely. Was it evidence of a debilitating black pathology? Not at all.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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