Monday, August 10, 2009

You Don't Say

"Why you acting white?"

If you talk to a large enough number of black folks with college degrees and professional jobs, you're likely to find that many of them have been accused of "acting white" at some point in their lives. Folks have stories of being ostracized because of the way they spoke, or the movies they liked, or the clothes they wore.

Personally, I don't have any of those stories, and I've always been skeptical of them. I'm not saying these things don't happen, but I'm leery of blaming a lack of social status on the fact that black folks equate achievement with whiteness. My personal experience has shown that things are typically much more complicated, and often people are outcasts for a variety of reasons.

Well, it turns out, I might have been right.

According to Burstion-Young, both black and white students were dedicated to academic excellence and there were no differences in academic standards. Contrary to previous studies which state that high achieving blacks are viewed as "acting white," Burstion-Young says the black students identified with black culture through association with consumer culture, such as fashion and music, as well as slang and social circles. The students who did not connect to black culture on these levels were viewed as "acting white" – academic achievement (or lack thereof) had little to do with it. In at least one case in this study, an African-American student became so integrated into the white community that she lost her connectedness to her own family and culture, greatly upsetting the family and, Burstion-Young says, eliminating the spirit of integration in creating a generation of bridge-builders across cultures, identifying with each other but accepting and respecting cultural differences


That quotation comes from this post over at Prometheus 6, a wonderful blog I check out for lots of great news clippings. It's taken from a study looking at how black kids attending predominantly white schools deal with their situations, and what are the driving forces in their decision making.

Honestly, the study doesn't break any new ground in my mind because most of the theories espoused were things I'd already learned on my own. Basically, children thrust into situations where they are "onlys" develop complicated coping mechanisms and social structures that are much too nuanced to be reduced to "acting white" alone.

The thing is, this myth that black kids attack anybody who tries to do well in school for "acting white" is a popular one in mainstream society. And it's not just passed along by white folks, it's something that well-educated black folks love to repeat at gatherings as they lament the idiocy of youth. In their minds, this whole "acting white" thing is something young folks trotted out just to ruin the black community.

Not only does this theory about "acting white" ignore the fact that there have always been battles over authenticity in the black community, it provides cover for racists who would like the world to believe that the real reason black folks have problems is because of their own pathologies. The idea that black school children lob insults and abuse towards those individuals who value academic achievement and force them to be dumb, makes it much easier to deny education grants to improve the quality of inner city schools.

Sadly, this ignores that in all cultures, school children often punish those individuals who are overly concerned with scholastic success and lack certain social skills. This state of affairs crosses color and class lines. Unfortunately, when black communities display the same behavior that is considered "normal" in other areas, it's a sign of our inherent flaws.

In addition, what the study fleshes out is that the problem for black school children isn't succeeding in school, it's when that success is coupled with an attempt to assimilate completely into white society. The sin isn't being smart, the sin is believing that academic achievement can only occur after you reject all aspects of black culture.

But, I already knew that.




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13 comments:

Big Man said...

I miss you all, I really do.

Deacon Blue said...

I'm still reading, man, I really am. Just didn't have anything pithy to say about recent posts. Particularly this one, since, well, I'm SUPPOSED to act white.

My wife had some experiences with being accused of acting white at times, but it wouldn't probably be best for me to relate those things second-hand, with my hazy memory.

Marcus said...

I couldn't have said it better, great post.

I grew up in the hood surrounded by gangs, I was the nerdy black dude who did well in school. Everyone respected me and had my back.
I never got picked on, wasn't told I was acting white because I did my homework lol.

In my experience only the rabidly assimilationist type blacks relate stories of being accused of acting white because they did their homework. Usually they use this excuse for why they date/marry white or to further pacify whites so they could be accepted into white circles. In my opinion whites like to hear this type of disfunctional crap about black people.

I love my people and showed them love whenever I could therefore to this day the hood has love for me.

G said...

I never got accused of 'acting white' because I did my homework. Well, that's probably because I didn't do all that much homework. I DID get accused of acting white because of the way I spoke, my love of theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular and the fact that I was friends with kids of different races.

It hurt then and it hurts now. There seems to have have always been soem kind of litmus test for Blackness that changes depending on time, place and the group of people you are with.

I don't discount the stories.

I also don't think that there is anyone out there who doesn't want to be smart or be educated. I think there are tons of kids who think they aren't smart and can't be educated and that is OUR fault. We have let our children down and we continually let our children down when we are not involved in the school systems in our communities. Whether you have kids or not this is everyone's problem. I think that the two issues need to be separated so that they don't provide cover for racists and others who have simply given up on our children.

I just helped my Dad polish and op-ed for our hometown paper on a related subject - I'll email it to you.

The ways in which we, as a community have and are failing a great and growing segment of our children are both astounding and disgusting. Blaming them, or some behaviour of theirs is nothing new, but I appreciate you highlighting the study. We need to keep raising the issue - but we also need to take ownership of our schools and our future.

And I will now climb down from my soap box...

G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G said...

I never got accused of 'acting white' because I did my homework. Well, that's probably because I didn't do all that much homework. I DID get accused of acting white because of the way I spoke, my love of theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular and the fact that I was friends with kids of different races.

It hurt then and it hurts now. There seems to have have always been soem kind of litmus test for Blackness that changes depending on time, place and the group of people you are with.

I don't discount the stories.

I also don't think that there is anyone out there who doesn't want to be smart or be educated. I think there are tons of kids who think they aren't smart and can't be educated and that is OUR fault. We have let our children down and we continually let our children down when we are not involved in the school systems in our communities. Whether you have kids or not this is everyone's problem. I think that the two issues need to be separated so that they don't provide cover for racists and others who have simply given up on our children.

I just helped my Dad polish and op-ed for our hometown paper on a related subject - I'll email it to you.

The ways in which we, as a community have and are failing a great and growing segment of our children are both astounding and disgusting. Blaming them, or some behaviour of theirs is nothing new, but I appreciate you highlighting the study. We need to keep raising the issue - but we also need to take ownership of our schools and our future.

And I will now climb down from my soap box...

G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Big Man said...

Marcus and G

Thanks for relating your two views. I want to make it clear that I don't think that people are lying when they say they were accused of acting white, nor do I think you have to a horrible person to get accused of acting white.

My point was that it's never just about doing well in school. But that's the way the discussion has been simplified, and it only serves to hurt black people.

Deacon Blue said...

I could be wrong about this, and I'm trying to think back to my wife's stories about this early in our relationship, but I also think it might be more of a familial thing in some cases.

That is, you may be more likely to get accused of "acting white" by Cousin George than by one of your classmates.

I'm thinking that in the school, there is enough diversity that you can make friends with people are aren't as academically applied and still be respected. But within the family, your sibling or cousin or whatever isn't doing well, and other relatives are saying, "Why can't you be more like..."

And in those cases, that, added to the already myriad pressures, influences, and complications in Black America, may lead to peer-level family members really riding a person about "acting white" simply because of something as simple as academic competence or academic overachievement.

Just a theory. Feel free to stick pins in it, because I have no personal basis to back it up with, really.

Dark Moon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dark Moon said...

I have to agree that I have never experienced the acting white phenomena either and I have a very eclectic palate. I believe that social acuity plays a big part in how you are viewed and treated. If you are for the most part less likely to being presumptuous and needlessly arrogant then of course you are less likely to be treated with disdain. But that phenomena is not specific to just Black people. The acting White is a misnomer precisely because the whites that I saw and interacted with were—well pretty Average. There was no hustle and bustle to be the best intellectually and to wax poetic on particle Physics or Proust’s Swann’s Way.

The supposed anti-intellectualism that is the hallmark of Black failure is directly proportional to America’s uneasiness and resentment to intelligence and academic excellence in general which explains why Bush II and Palin were so highly regarded for their lack of academic or intellectual pretense—to put it mildly. And the Health and Palin rallies should dispel the notion that being willfully ignorant and stupid is the sole province of Black people.

Sports (just visit Houston or Dallas TX or just peruse the South) and Business acumen is praised far more then whether then Academic supremacy in American society. Naturally the trend of White families pushing their kids in TAG programs and prepping for SAT’s and the Golden road to Harvard I believe only occupies a fairly small portion of White families. But somehow this subset is extrapolated to illustrate that all White families value and showcase academic and intellectual capital above Blacks who only care about music and sports.

The pathetic part is that the work force in which Technology, Science, math, etc is saturated from foreigners. American intellecutal capital is failing precisly because America has not invested in its population to man the mentally demaning jobs and unless it has a business application that will result in huge profits I don’t see how White Americans values education any more than Blacks. Black symptoms are usually the barometer for the rest of the nation and thus by and large America is anti-intellectual—so acting White should, I believe, appropriately be called acting above your class status.

KST said...

I get your point Big Man, and I have to agree with you. I grew up in a neighborhood and attended a school that where the races (black and white) were pretty evenly distributed. The most popular kids were intelligent and involved in a lot of activities. Personally, I took some heat for some of the things I liked, but no one ever accused me of acting white. Talking white? Sometimes...

Now, when I attended an HBCU - oh hell. I acted like myself. My holey-jean wearing, Nirvana, Public Enemmy, Xclan listening self, and got called half-breed bitch, and a host of other names. I was not haughty or any other BS. I just didn't care for the fashion show, gotta get a man attitude that the other girls were into.

The funny thing was/is that disappointing experience taught me a lot of black people. It made me want to understand why we treat each other so poorly.

chris.alexander said...

yea. dope post. just found your blog today. i must say that, growing up in Virginia, in a fairly diverse city (Hampton), i never got this growing up. It wasn't until I moved to Brooklyn, NY as a young adult and began interacting with native NYers, often from poorer backgrounds, that I encountered the "did you grow up around white people?" and "you talk different. like you went to school..." remarks.
always baffling. sometimes painful. not for me, for THEM. theses statements speak volumes.

there've been no rejections of black culture. my race is a beautiful one. i am just not overly concerned with the things my contemporaries too-often deem most important. if "acting white" means that your top 40 rappers and latest "hood fashions" don't hold my attention, then call me what you will...

no elaborate revelations on my part here, i just had to chime in. great post.

alex
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