John McWhorter, in a recent BloggingHeads episode, talks to Richard Thompson Ford about the "acting white" phenomenon.
The joy of a school where nobody can be called white because nobody can be called white, because nobody's white, nobody white is around. And obviously the idea is not the kind of school that Jonathan Kozol doesn't like, but to see say a KIPP Academy in New York, where all the kids are brown of some kind, there will be like Bosnian kid or something, but everybody's black or they might as well be. They're doing everything right, and it's not like they don't have some problems but it's not like anyone's telling them they're white. It seems to me that when someone looks at that and says, "oh dear, i'ts segregated" and they're taking the overlay of that world segregated where we're thinking of Orville Faubus and firehoses, rather than thinking about the fact that those kids may be better poised to take their place in the world as smart, and we might say racially untortured people than they would otherwise. Sometimes we misuse this word "segregation" as an emotional battering ram rather than thinking what can be good for kids. Sometimes I wish I had gone to a "segregated school" it would have been interesting.
My sister went to a segregated school, she went to Spelman, to college, and the experience she had there where everyone's black some people are [...] some people aren't, some people are in between, but the idea that when you're working hard you're white couldn't exist because there isn't a white person you'd need to take a bus to meet one. I really saw that as something valuable...But the fact of the matter is the segregated school idea has a resonance.
"It's the black kids who know white kids who take this on," McWhorter says, and he and Ford discuss elsewhere in the segment whether the "acting white" thing is a middle-class phenomenon.
First thing, I know McWhorter is using "segregated" in quotes above, but this argument seems to be something of a straw man. Is there anyone really objecting to blacks voluntarily going to HBCU or KIPP schools on the grounds that they're segregated the same way Kozol objects to the kind of de facto segregation that occurs in black school districts where there are no other real choices but the dilapidated local public school?
Second, I'd agree with McWhorter and Ford that for some people, going to an HBCU or mostly black schools in general can be grounding. Lots of people in my family went to Howard, Spelman, or Morehouse, but I felt like I had already had enough of that grounding experience going to my somewhat Afrocentric public charter school in Washington, D.C., so I went to Vassar. What I found there was that it was often other black kids who had gone to private schools who arrived at Vassar somewhat anxious about their identities and eager to evaluate everyone else's "blackness." But they weren't the only ones. Over the years I watched plenty of white students tell their black "friends" they weren't "really black" because they were middle class or didn't talk like their favorite emcee. I don't know that their academic performances suffered as a result. Whether students were white or black, who stayed and who left seemed entirely dependent on whether or not their families had the resources to support them. As we saw with the 2008 election, there are a lot of white people out
there who consider themselves experts
on the boundaries of blackness and what categories of behavior falls
While Ford and McWhorter observe that the "acting white phenomenon" as they see it seems to happen in integrated, rather than mostly black schools, it never seems to occurs to them the degree that the phenomenon might be fed by black people internalizing white perceptions of who black people are supposed to be (maybe they said that, but I missed it). I think Claude Steele has made a compelling case that internalization -- rather than how we generally understand the "acting white" phenomenon -- seriously does impact performance.
It's also striking to me how
much the "acting white" thing has been presented as a black phenomenon
that exists independently of the kind of broadly shared American
anti-intellectualism that characterizes academic achievement
fact as "elitist" and lauds the cultural authenticity
of out-of-wedlock births in white families if not black ones. Personally, I think the whole thing is overblown -- my own personal experience mirrors that of Jamelle Bouie in that being smart won't get you called white, but an inability to code-switch, an unusual taste in clothes, or an affinity for nerdy stuff like comic books and skateboards (pre-Lupe Fiasco) -- in a word, being "different" -- gave you a pretty good shot. I haven't written about this too much because so much of it seems like a projection of one's own personal experience, and being biracial and as light as I am means that my experience is necessarily very different from many other people's. But that's how I see it.