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angelaAngela Davis, the black revolutionary, grew up in the American South in the 1940s and 1950s, in the days of Jim Crow, in black middle-class Birmingham, Alabama.

Her parents were teachers. They were highly educated compared to most blacks of the time – and most whites too. Her father saved his money and later went into business, buying his own service station. Her parents owned their own house.

Growing up she never went without a meal. She had dance and piano lessons. She never knew poverty. She thought all blacks lived that way. At school she was shocked to see that many black children ate nothing for lunch because they were too poor.

But even though she was not poor, she was still black:

  • She had to go to an all-black school in falling-apart buildings with falling-apart schoolbooks – though they did teach Black history and sang the Black National Anthem!
  • She could not go to the library but had to go round back and ask the black librarian for books.
  • She could not go to the shoe store but had to go round back and ask the black salesman for help.
  • She could not go to the amusement park – that was only for white children.
  • She was not allowed in certain hotels and cinemas: they were just for white people.
  • Even though she was middle-class she was still at the mercy of the police.

She dreamed of getting into the amusement park by wearing a white mask.

One day she and her sister went to the shoe store and walked right through the front door like they were white. They got away with it because they acted like they were foreigners. The white salesmen were falling over each other being nice to them. They were no longer “niggers”. Then they spoke in perfect English and left!

She loved books and was not much good at piano or dance – or the round of black middle-class parties.

One time she was caught in the rain and the other girls found out she had “good hair”. She ran home and cried.

Her house was on Center Street. Across the street everyone was white. It was called Dynamite Hill because whenever a black family tried to move across the street their house was blown up.

She and her friends would sometimes yell “cracker” and “peckerwood” as white people passed by in their cars. It was the only way they had to defend their dignity.

Her high school in Birmingham was said to be the largest black high school in the world. It was certainly the only one in hundreds of miles. It had grass in front only on postcards. And it was violent: fights often broke out, sometimes with knives: all the hatred from white people being turned on each other.

In 1959 at age 15 she left Birmingham for New York: she won a scholarship to study at a private high school there. Eleven years later she became one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted.

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actingwhite02“Acting white” (1980s- ) is the idea that acting too much like white people is a bad idea. It is found particularly among Black American teenagers who use it as a put down. It takes in not just clothes and music but even speaking proper English and doing well at school!

It has been the subject of several studies since the 1980s, particularly with a view to how it affects school performance. Black students overall underperform compared to whites to a troubling degree, so maybe this is why. The latest and probably the best study on acting white was done by Harvard professor Roland G. Fryer. It came out in 2006.

In 1999 Fryer asked students what were some of the ways you can act white. Among other things they said:

  • speaking Standard English
  • taking Advanced Placement or honours courses
  • wearing clothes from the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch (instead of Tommy Hilfiger or FUBU)
  • wearing shorts in winter

Who wears shorts in the winter?

Fryer took the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (AdHealth) of 90,000 students and looked at how one’s race, grades, popularity and the sort of school one went to all affected each other.

Past studies asked students to rate their own popularity. Fryer did not trust that. Instead he looked at how many times a student was listed as a friend by other students.

He found that acting white was mainly an issue only at certain kinds of schools: at public (government-run) schools that were less than 80% black and where most people had at least one friend from another race.  At the most integrated schools, inotherwords.

For whites at these schools the better your grades the more popular you were. For Hispanics it was the complete opposite! For blacks it was in the middle: your popularity only suffered if you got top marks. No word on Asian Americans.

Here is the chart that shows that. At the left are the D students, at the right the A students. It shows how your popularity rises and falls according grades for the three races (Hispanics count as a race in this case):

Fryer-Low-Segregation-773136For most people their popularity comes almost completely from within their own race. A drop in popularity is rarely made up by having more friends from other races.

Fryer sees three possible reasons for why acting white becomes such an issue:

  1. Oppositional culture: blacks teenagers, in trying to make sense of who they are as blacks, find the answer in being the opposite of whites.
  2. Crabs in a barrel: black society is so screwed up that it punishes those who try to succeed.
  3. Defence against brain drain: blacks are afraid of losing their best and brightest to white society so they punish those who seem to be moving in that direction.

Fryer says it is the last one: it is the only one that makes sense of why it seems to be an issue mainly at the most integrated schools – because there whites are a bigger threat to keeping blacks together.

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millnerThe following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):

According to Dr Beverly Tatum growing up black in America goes something like this for most:

  1. ages 1 to 5: you know you look different from whites, but you do not think of yourself as “black”. All the racist messages about blacks that American society provides come pouring into your defenceless little brain, completely unquestioned. This lays the groundwork for internalized racism: racism against yourself! You will be fighting against this stuff the rest of your life – either that or give into it.
  2. pre-encounter: you know you are black, at least from about age five if not earlier, but it does not matter that much. It is kind of like being Irish or a NASCAR fan. This is what many white people think being black is like. And what it would be like in a truly post-racial America.
  3. encounter: you experience racism in an unmistakable way. Repeatedly. Anger and confusion follow. Now being black becomes one of the most important things about you.
  4. immersion/emersion: you put yourself into a black world as much as possible. You see your black friends in a new light. You learn everything you can about being black. You read, you take courses maybe. You learn about the history of blacks in America, in Africa, unlearning the lies.
  5. internalization: what you learned in the last stage becomes a part of your identity, your sense of who you are. It helps to undo the internalized racism you unknowingly learned. It makes you feel more secure in yourself. You become less angry, more hopeful.
  6. internalization-commitment: Now you can move beyond yourself, make good friends from other races and want to help other blacks in some way.

After stage 6 you might fall into a period of racelessness where race is not all that important – you are back at stage 2 again! But sooner or later there will be another bad encounter with racism – maybe at work or through your children  – and you will move through the stages all over again, but this time at a higher level of understanding. It is like a spiral staircase, going round and round, up and up.

It is common for the first encounter stage to take place in middle school or high school and the first immersion stage at university (go to one with a good African American studies programme!). And then both again in mid-life.

You can get stuck at any stage. Some do not even make it through all six stages the first time.

You should hang onto the friends you made and the books you bought in one pass through the stages because you will need them again for the next pass!

There are tons of great books about growing up black – which will interest you when you are in the immersion stage. A few are listed below. The best of them is probably “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, a book everyone in America should read.

Tomorrow: Growing up white!

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18_soul_table_69The following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):

At American high schools and even at universities black students often sit together at lunch without any whites. Why is that? Are they being racist?

Both Barack Obama and bell hooks say it was to get a break from white racism. Dr Tatum, a psychologist, says there is more to it than that:

Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 20 blacks at mixed-race schools start to experience racism from whites: from white parents, white teachers and white students. Like racist remarks or having white friends change on them or having no luck with whites of the opposite sex. They no longer feel completely accepted by whites.

They start thinking about their blackness. They knew they were black all along, but before now most people did not make a big deal about it. They got invited to birthday parties like everyone else and all that. Not any more. Why? Puberty. Many white parents do not want blacks dating their sons and daughters. Thus the racism that starts coming their way from whites at this age.

Their white friends play it down and tell them not to be so sensitive. Because whites do not experience the racism, they do not understand it; they do not take it seriously. But guess what: their black friends do! Because they are going through the very same thing!

So who do they sit with at lunch? The people who will listen to them and take them seriously and understand where they are coming from. Which, in this case, are the other black students! It is the shared experience of white racism that brings them together.

Not only do they listen to each other, but they give each other support. Together they try to understand what it means to be black.

Being teenagers they turn to each other for answers instead of to the hard-won wisdom of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. So it becomes the blind leading the blind. And they come up with some of the most brainless ideas of what it means to be black:

  • Like the Wigger Fallacy: that being black comes down to clothes and music and slang and stuff like that, as if it were some sort of youth subculture like the goths.
  • Like not “acting white”, which takes in not just clothes and music but even proper English and doing well at school!
  • Like copying stereotypes from television, not understanding who made those stereotypes and why.

Out of stuff like this they build their “oppositional identity”, as Tatum calls it. Not being accepted by whites, they are trying hard not to be white. But in so doing they are harming their education.

All this is new since the 1960s. Before, in Jim Crow times, getting a good education, for example, was not seen as “acting white”. It was merely sensible. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr certainly thought so.

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