Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation

John McWhorter:

In 2000, in a book called Losing the Race, I argued that much of the reason for the gap between the grades and test scores of black students and white students was that black teens often equated doing well in school with “acting white.” I knew that a book which did not focus on racism’s role in this problem would attract bitter criticism. I was hardly surprised to be called a “sell-out” and “not really black” because I grew up middle class and thus had no understanding of black culture. But one of the few criticisms that I had not anticipated was that the “acting white” slam did not even exist.
I was hardly the first to bring up the “acting white” problem. An early description of the phenomenon comes from a paper by John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham in 1986, and their work was less a revelation of the counterintuitive than an airing of dirty laundry. You cannot grow up black in America and avoid the “acting white” notion, unless you by chance grow up around only white kids. Yet in the wake of Losing the Race, a leading scholar/activist on minority education insisted that he had never encountered the “acting white” slander–while shortly thereafter describing his own son doing poorly in school because of precisely what Ogbu, Fordham, myself, and others had written about. Jack White, formerly of Time, roasted me in a review for making up the notion out of whole cloth. Ogbu (with Astrid Davis) published an ethnological survey of Shaker Heights, Ohio describing the “acting white” problem’s effects there in detail, while a documentary on race and education in that town explicitly showed black students attesting to it. Both book and documentary have largely been ignored by the usual suspects.
Stuart Buck at last brings together all of the relevant evidence and puts paid to two myths. The first is that the “acting white” charge is a fiction or just pointless marginal static. The other slain myth, equally important, is that black kids reject school as alien out of some sort of ingrained stupidity; the fear of this conclusion lies at the root of the studious dismissal of the issue by so many black thinkers concerned about black children. Buck conclusively argues that the phenomenon is a recent and understandable outgrowth of a particular facet of black people’s unusual social history in America–and that facet is neither slavery nor Jim Crow.

Clusty Search: Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, by Stuart Buck.
Related: Madison Teachers’ Harlem trip’s aim is to aid ‘culturally relevant’ teaching.

2 thoughts on “Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation”

    See above post regarding “acting white” at East HS. I have always thought a follow-up conversation with students from each of the two groups highlighted would be very interesting. (Anyone know any of them?) I have emailed the social studies teacher a couple of times about the idea, but did not get a reply.
    Donna Ford and Gilman Whiting actually prefer to talk about the problem of “acting Black” and what THAT means, why it’s problematic. Their goal is to cultivate a scholar identity in African American (and Latino) students. Not a bad idea.

  2. I am not trying to put down the importance of considering explanations such as are advanced in this article: trust me! But I noted something interesting in the following quote: “Thomas Sowell has noted that the University of Massachusetts at Amherst admitted thirty-four blacks between 1892 and 1954, and seven (more than a quarter) were Phi Beta Kappas.” When did 7 out of 34 become “more than a quarter”? Is this learned English teacher young enough to have learned his mathematics from the language-rich, arithmetic-poor series most recently required in MMSD middle schools? (note my tongue is in my cheek as I write)
    I have repeatedly been amazed by the number of educated and education-corporation-tied-in African Americans who will deny any evidence of the “acting white” label. I heard it back when I was in school (my friends who did happen to be Black said they heard it all the time), and I have heard it recently in the halls of our local elementary schools from the mouths of fourth and fifth graders. I almost fell over in shock from hearing it from students that young. And people still doubt it happens in our high schools?! Please.

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