December 12, 2004
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The Myth That Acting White's a Myth
The sociological debate over whether black Americans deprecate academic achievement has been raging for decades now with much heat and little light. The item in today’s NYT Magazine about “The ‘Acting White’ Myth” is no better than any of the other mostly uninformed articles on the topic.
I’ve been following this debate for years. Two years ago, I started a MetaFilter discussion on the topic, and today’s NYT article brought it up again. So I chimed in with my attempt to explain why sociological studies come to different conclusions on the subject of alleged black intellectualism.
The phrase “acting white” was unearthed in the sociological community by professors Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu in 1986. The chief problem with these professors’ findings was one of nuance, and they drew much criticism for their paper on the subject. But in 2002, another pair of researchers attempted to polish Fordham and Ogbu’s thesis with a second study. And here I’ll copy and paste from my comment in today’s MetaFilter thread.
What this second study found was that black students were much likelier to reject a plethora of signal behaviors that typically correlate with academic achievement. It’s not the achievement itself. It’s the act of cultural treachery that comes with it. From the study:
Another young man, now a record producer and rap recording artist, had gone away to Exeter, the elite private preparatory school, and come back dressing and speaking differently from when he left. He was accused of acting white. His interpretation of why former friends in the community were a little “put off” or “taken aback,” was not that they resented his success. Instead, his interpretation was sensitive to their concern that he might be trying to escape the stigma. He said they wondered if he had “sold out” to the Other part of society that looked down on people like themselves. He responded by finding ways to share his success and, “By letting them know that I’m not ashamed. I can still speak slang. I can still rap, even.”
Looking at it from this perspective, you can begin to understand why, for example, in the first MetaFilter thread, tyro_urge’s experience as a young black man had differed so much from mine. I’ve never grown up within hip-hop culture. I’ve been surrounded by whites my whole life. I talk “white,” I dress “white.” I definitely “act white,” and I heard that charge over and over growing up, from other black folks, especially cousins. At the same time, I felt no real pressure to focus on adopting any typically black signal behaviors, because there was no black population at my high school to attempt to fit in with.
Even at my university, the black community was somewhat stratified between those who had achieved academic success while appropriating the signal behaviors of “hip-hop culture,” and those who had achieved it while appropriating those of “white culture.” There was little ostracism between these members of the black community at my college, but we didn’t always hang out, by default.
So there’s the disparity. If you try to find blacks who are against the idea of academic achievement or professional success, as in the New York Times article, you’re going to fail. I mean, that’s just stupid. But look for black youths who insist that those in their peer groups have to, essentially, be down with hip-hop culture above all else, and Ogbu’s findings start to make sense.