“I’ll be blunt, nobody wants to teach black kids,” asserts Shane, a teacher at a New York school named Bushwick, in an interview for Gothamist. This assertion doesn’t come as a surprise, especially when one considers the negative labels often associated with black students. There are countless articles documenting poor behaviors and low achievement regarding this demographic. Possible solutions have included better teacher engagement, parent involvement, and who could forget good ol’ cultural competency? Nevertheless, there remains the question of whether or not black kids value school in the first place.
As an aside, we will be mostly dealing with elementary to high school-aged children in this post.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have gone on record to purport one roadblock to the success of black students is the belief in some black communities that academic success is synonymous with whiteness, and therefore devalued. This ideology coming from the President and First Lady is nothing novel. In fact, academic success among black students and its association with whiteness was a topic of interest for social scientists John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham in 1980s. According to these two, blacks developed an “oppositional cultural identity” in response to historical oppression inflicted by white authority figures. This development, in turn, led to blacks devaluing characteristics associated with whiteness, such as speech patterns and academic achievement. And thus this idea of black kids “acting white” was brought to light.
In the following years, however, Fordham amd Ogbu’s theory has been highly criticized. Nia-Malika Henderson, a reporter for the Washington Post, highlights several studies in an article speaking against the President and First Lady‘s aforementioned statement. Among those cited by Henderson are Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, whose study found that black students are likely to be ostracized for high achievement at predominantly white schools, but not predominantly black ones. A study by Tyson, Darity, and Castellino (2005), is also mentioned asserting that while black students may face pressures taking certain courses (often advanced), there exists a balancing group of black peers who encourage academic success.
In a separate journal article by Toldson and Owens (2010) it is argued that “for black people, the context of ‘acting white’ could be primarily a function of satire and sarcasm, and have more to do with styles of dress, communication nuances, music preferences and a particular swagger that is independent of intellectual aptitude” (Toldson & Owens, 2010, p. 95). Toldson and Owens (2010) furthermore assert that the “acting white” theory proposed by Fordham and Ogbu promotes the idea that black students poorly perform in schools due to corrupted attitudes when, in fact, academic institutions themselves may be designed to work against black student success.
This final point about unfair treatment of blacks in school settings is mirrored in an article written by John McWhorter on theguardian.com. Unlike the many names mentioned before, however, McWhorter argues that the “acting white” theory holds true. His first charge against critics is that personal feelings cannot be accessed via direct questioning. That is to say, just because you ask an individual about how they feel regarding an issue doesn’t mean they will give you their honest opinion. McWhorter makes note of this through stating “It’s Enlightenment 101, for example, that you can’t figure out whether someone is a racist by just asking them—you have to smoke it out.” In McWhorter’s book Losing the Race he also highlights this idea of black kids being called white because of diction and academic achievement. This, he states, resulted in several hundred appreciative letters from people of color who recounted instances when they were bullied for dressing and talking a certain way or liking school.
So obviously, as we can all see here there are various takes to this “acting white” assertion regarding black students. It should also be noted that this label extends beyond academic settings. One thing we’d like to point out, however, is that if one were to charge a black person with “acting white” they’d have to be consistent across all avenues. For example, hip hop artists are known to associate themselves with white mob bosses (or at least mob bosses who could pass as white; i.e. Pablo Escobar and company…). The late rapper Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace often compared himself to the fictional Frank White, played by actor Christopher Walken in the movie “King of New York”. While this reference was used by Biggie Smalls to assert his dominance over other New York MCs, is it possible to make a case that this too is a black individual associating with white culture?
All in all, education should not be devalued no matter who is giving lectures or providing information. Furthermore, while certain styles of dress can arguably be associated with certain cultures, one should not be chastised for their sense of fashion (as long as it is done respectfully of course…). Lastly, as far as the whole speech thing is concerned, you might want to take a look at Jamelle Bouie’s article for Slate entitled Talking White.
**Feel free to comment and let us know what you think regarding this topic! Thank you!!
Toldson, I. A., & Owens, D. What black kids think about being smart and other school-related experiences Wednesday, October 13, 2010.
Tyson, K., Darity, W., & Castellino, D. R. (2005). It’s not “a black thing”: Understanding the burden of acting white and other dilemmas of high achievement. American Sociological Review, 70(4), 582-605.