“Acting Black” — A Factor in Achievement Gap?

From The Madison Times
by Nisa Islam Muhammad – Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
(NNPA) — For too many Black students going to high school means fitting a stereotype of what it means to be “Black” developed by images in music, movies and media. It means “acting Black” to fit in a peer group or in response to social pressures.
According to researchers, “acting Black” is contributing to the education and achievement gap between Black and White students. They also believe it is one reason why Black students are underrepresented in gifted programs.
“If you are a Black student and are doing well in school you are accused of “acting White.” Black students performance then begins to suffer,” study author Donna Ford, professor of special education and Betts chair of education and human development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, told The Final Call.
“Part of the achievement gap, particularly for gifted Black students, is due to the poor images these students have of themselves as learners. Our research shows that prevention and intervention programs that focus on improving students’ achievement ethic and self-image are essential to closing the achievement gap.”
The research, one of the first to examine the concept of “acting Black,” was published in the March 2008 issue of Urban Education.

“A quarter of a million Black students are missing out on the opportunity of being in gifted programs. They just don’t see themselves in the class. Being successful is seen as being White,” said Dr. Ford.
The study found that 40 percent of Black girls and 60 percent of Black boys were underrepresented in gifted and talented programs.
When Nina Washington was in the 10th grade teachers recommended her for Advanced Placement (AP) classes.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she told The Final Call. “I thought those classes would be too hard. None of my friends were in them and I would rather be with them.”
That was before she told her mother, Sandra Washington.
“I was shocked. I couldn’t understand why she would want to diminish her skill and talent to be with friends. I told her she was definitely taking the AP classes and if they were hard we would get a tutor or whatever she needed to be successful. She could be with her friends between classes, during lunch and after school,” Sandra Washington told The Final Call.
Several AP classes later, Nina will graduate with honors this June.
There is also double standard for Black and White students who act out or demonstrate youthful exuberance.
“White students can be hippies, have long hair, dress differently and still go on to become president, while Black students who wear baggy pants and have long hair will find their social security numbers in a database,” explained report co-author Gilman Whiting, assistant professor of African American and Diaspora studies at Vanderbilt, to The Final Call.
“Acting Black is not about acquiescing to Whites, but rebelling. It’s more indicative of their thought pattern. It’s their way of rebelling to the White power struggle by their dress, music and language. However, it’s looked at as negative aspects of Black life by Whites. It’s an outlaw culture.”
According to a 2004 document by the National Education Association, 90 percent of public school teachers are White and 40 percent of public schools have no teachers of color.
The new report encourages teachers to be as quick to recommend Black students to gifted and talented programs as they are to recommend them special education program.
The researchers surveyed 166 Black 5th-through 12th-graders identified as gifted in two Ohio school districts.
They described “acting White” as speaking properly, being smart or too smart, doing well in school, taking advanced courses, being stuck up, and not acting your race. Terms used to describe “acting Black” were having a “don’t care” attitude, being laid back, being dumb or uneducated and pretending not to be smart.
The authors also found that while Black students agree that hard work in school leads to success, they do not necessarily believe that this holds true for Black people.
“This doubt and second-guessing may result in the child believing that an education benefits or pays off for some groups, but not others, namely Blacks,” the authors wrote. “Some of these students, specifically if discouraged, believe that hard work is a waste of time and energy given the reality of social injustices.”
Without saying the words these students see the dual reality of Black life in America: More educated Blacks than ever, more unemployed than and under employed Blacks than Whites, more educational opportunities and more Black men going to jail.
“Our children are taught every day that they can’t do the work in school. Public schools are warehouses for our children,” said Lateefah Muhammad, an education consultant in Fredericksburg, Va.
“Acting Black is a mind-set today. The AP classes and gifted programs are the public school systems last attempt to keep their children preserved to rule this global society. We are assessing programs that are not designed for us to achieve. There is a systems gap in America. If we just focus on the Black gap we miss the American education gap with the rest of the world which is greater,” she said.
What can educators and parents do to help Black children?
“There must be aggressive and proactive leadership by educators in diversifying the teaching force. We have to hold teachers responsible for where they refer Black students,” said Dr. Ford. “Peer pressure is real for all students. They are called nerds, sissies and more. The difference is that Black students take it to heart … The achievement gap is real, the achievement gap is complex, the achievement gap is stubborn; we — educators and families — must be just as stubborn and diligent in our efforts to eliminate the gap.”

Donna Ford, Ph.D.

Gilman Whiting, Ph.D.
The Vanderbilt Achievement Gap Project
“Acting White” at East High School
Summer Scholar Identity Institute