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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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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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