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NYT: The 'Acting White' Myth

Sunday, December 12, 2004

This NYT article by Paul Tough is absurd; it postulates that the phenomenon of black kids experiencing grief (claiming one is "acting white") for excelling academically by their underscoring peers is a myth. It's no f*cking myth -- I've experienced it first-hand.. Read this crap, and then my personal encounter with the phenomenon...
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.

My mom (born in NYC to a West Indian father, who was a first gen American from Barbados and a Native American/black woman) was a huge reader and read to us constantly and fostered a lifetime love of reading. By the time I went to kindergarten I was already reading, and my mother always taught us that academics were a priority. I grew up in Durham, NC and I attended Catholic school for K-6 . I had a culture shock when I attended public school for 7th grade (this was in 1975).

My late mom, Shirley (L); and ugh -- it's grade-school Pam.

Boy did I get slammed by the kids for "talking white" and "acting white" because I was doing well in school -- they said so. It was made worse by the fact that I didn't have a southern accent.

The sad truth is, in a school that was at least 75% black, I was pulled over by one of the elderly black teachers one day and she told me that she was so proud of me -- I was the first black student to make the honor roll in that school.

If that isn't a sad reflection of the state of things in the 70s, I cannot imagine what it is like now growing up, with the saturation of anti-intellectualism and materialism foisted upon and soaked up as "culture" by some in the black community.

And I don't even want to begin with the tales about "good hair" vs. "bad hair" and what shade you are -- it was/is an insane obsession for some black folks.

This ad is ridiculous -- straight hair=success?

Maybe someone is going to write that those things don't exist either. Total BS. And the dirty laundry Cosby is airing needs to be out there.

My hair journey
  • Trust me, Pam, I looked worse in grade school. (grin)

    This is a subject where I'm really glad to hear you talking about it. I have empirical evidence of this sort of thing taking place, but I always feel vaguely guilty commenting on it -- like, is it racist to do that?

    If you ask the professional black families who have moved up to north Dallas and the suburbs why they did so, the answers are depressingly universal -- "the school systems". Meanwhile, South Dallas, as the Dallas Morning News is chronicling this week, continues to rot and decay, with only small pockets (ironically, small predominantly-gay pockets) revitalizing what once was the place to live in Dallas.

    One more thing -- do you think your mom's being a second-generation American citizen had something to do with her attitude towards education being so wonderful? I ask because we have several families here, some of whom I work with, that are first-generation immigrants from Africa. They are incredibly diverse in terms of cultures and attitudes, but all, I mean ALL of them, are absolutely emphatic that their children will get a great education. Your story reminded me of one of the ones I work with most closely -- instead of toys for her daughter's first birthday, she asked that we each bring a book that had been very meaningful to us as children and leave our names inside it. I thought it was a wonderful way of doing things.

    Thanks again, Pam.

    By North Dallas Thirty, at 10:24 AM  
  • Hi Jeff. That grade school picture was the best of the lot. You can find much, much worse on my web site. :)

    It's not racist to comment on this subject. It is a sociological/political phenomenon that affects us all. Crap, the problem is that there are black folks that don't want to talk about this, which is the frightening thing. What is needed is more first-hand experience stories to put a human face on this, not just statistics on a page.

    Interestingly, my mom's side of the family straddles both sides, her mom was of Shinnecock ancestry, meaning "her people" were here before the white man came here; her dad was the first gen American from Barbados. Where did the love of learning came from -- I think both sides, actually.

    I was a freak kid anyway. I actually sat in my bedroom closet reading the whole set of the World Book encyclopedia as entertainment. Twice. Perhaps that's why my head is full of useless information (and I'm good at Trivial Pursuit), lol.

    By Pam, at 11:48 AM  
  • LOL....I think I shall prefer to keep my mental image of you that of the front page pic you post.

    As for the "freak kid", you know another "freak kid". I used to read the encyclopedia too, and was also very good at high school Quiz Bowl and Trivial Pursuit. This, of course, was in a place....well,you always have a sentimental attachment to where you grew up, but the nearest town (and school district) to where I did was a railroad junction where parents had two ambitions for their kids -- and neither of them involved college or academic excellence.

    What I would wager made the difference for both of us was that we had two parents who put a very high emphasis on education. It's almost eerie -- I attended private school through 6th grade as well, and was majorly culture-shocked when I jumped to 7th grade in public school. Fortunately, the fact that I was a good athlete helped there....and then my parents scrimped and sent me off to a private high school in another state.

    Kind of interesting how we're so similar, but different, isn't it?

    By North Dallas Thirty, at 8:44 PM  
  • LOL, Jeff. Yep, pretty similar experiences. Getting into Stuyvesant HS in NYC was a big culture shock as well. I was in a graduating class of 800 kids from all over the 5 boroughs, each more eggheaded than the other. I felt positively normal when I saw other kids carrying briefcases and had pocket protectors when going to class. :)

    By Pam, at 9:15 PM  
  • Pam, I'm glad you brought this up, as well. I sent it to my sister (white, married to black, two incredibly intelligent children 6 & 9). They moved to the subs of Chicago to get the boys into a good school, and there was a lot of debate as to 'best school system' -vs- racial diversity they could identify with. As mixed children, they already have a tough time...mommy is a barbie doll, and daddy was a professional football player. My brother-in-laws parents sacrificed a lot to send their children to 'white schools' for the educational benefits. He is very grateful for this, but two of his sister are not. They resent not being able to identify with their peers and feel like cultural outcasts now that they are older (30s). Intelligent women that could give so much back to their community, but wallow in self-pity. Not exactly on topic, I know. But I get into such interesting conversations with them, and have no idea where to go with them, without coming off as racist. They resent the hell out of their brother for getting married to a 'white girl' (they of course, are not married...and there is an intelligent conversation to be had there, considering their education level and their prospects, but bashing their brother is not the way to do it)...oh, I go on and on.
    Anyway, thought the topic was good, timely and helpful for my family :)

    By impeach bush, at 10:18 PM  
  • Impeach (and others reading), I also posted this on DKos and it generated quite a lot of buzz and interesting comments. Check it out. Tempers were flaring. Boy it was a hot topic:'m glad it really did help you on a personal level. It's good to be able to apply real-life insight to some of these seemingly abstract studies.

    By Pam, at 10:23 PM  

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