The myth about smart black kids and “acting white” that won’t die

By Jenée Jan 5, 2017

You’ve probably heard it before: Too many black students don’t do well in school because they think being smart means “acting white.”

Just last week, Columbia University English professor John McWhorter mentioned it in a piece for Vox to support his critique of elements of the Black Lives Matter platform. Key to his argument was the assertion that the similar goals of the 1960s “war on poverty failed,” in part, due to black people’s “cultural traits and behaviors.”

While the “acting white” theory used to be pretty popular to bring up in debates about black academic achievement there’s a catch: It’s not true.

At best, it’s a very creative interpretation of inadequate research and anecdotal evidence. At worst, it’s a messy attempt to transform the near-universal stigma attached to adolescent nerdiness into an indictment of black culture, while often ignoring the systemic inequality that contributes to the country’s racial achievement gap.

Yet McWhorter — despite being a scholar of linguistics, not sociology — has become one of the primary defenders of the “acting white” theory and has dismissed those who debunk it as “pundits” who are “uncomfortable with the possibility that a black problem could not be due to racism.” But the people who challenge it are not pundits — they’re academics who’ve dedicated significant time and scientific scrutiny to this theory. Here’s why they say it’s a myth.

Where the “acting white” theory came from
The “acting white” theory — the idea that African-American kids underachieve academically because they and their peers associate being smart with acting white, and because they’re afraid they’ll be shunned — was born in the 1980s. John Ogbu, an anthropology professor at the University of California Berkeley, introduced it in an ethnographic study of one Washington, DC, high school. He found what he dubbed an “oppositional culture” in which, he said, students saw academic achievement as “white.”

The acting white theory has since become a go-to explanation for the achievement gap between African-American students and their white peers, and is repeated in public conversations as if it’s a fact of life.

Authors such as Ron Christie in Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur and Stuart Buck in Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation have written entire books (heavy on personal observations, anecdotes, and theories) dedicated to the phenomenon.

Even President Barack Obama said in 2004, when he was running for US Senate, “Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”

Perhaps aware of some of the research debunking this as an academic theory in the intervening years, he noted in 2014 remarks related to the My Brother’s Keeper program that it was “sometimes overstated.” But he still offered the theory in the form of a personal observation, saying that in his experience, “there’s an element of truth to it, where, OK, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly?”

It’s no surprise that the “acting white” narrative resonates with a lot of people. After all, it echoes legitimate frustrations with a society that too often presents a narrow, stereotypical image of what it means to be black. It validates the experiences of African-American adults who remember being treated like they were different, or being smart but not popular in school. And for those who are sincerely interested in improving educational equality, it promises a quick fix. (“If they would just stop thinking being smart was ‘acting white,’ they could achieve anything!”)

The “acting white” theory also validates a particular social conservative worldview by placing the blame for disparate academic outcomes squarely on the backward ideas of black children and black cultural pathology, instead of on harder-to-tackle factors like socioeconomic inequality, implicit racial bias on the part of teachers, segregated and underresourced schools, and the school discipline disparities that create what’s been called the school-to-prison pipeline.

The “acting white” research was weak to begin with
“The acting white theory is difficult to assess through research,” Ivory Toldson — a Howard University professor, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities — wrote at the Root in 2013. “Many scholars who claim to find evidence of this theory loosely interpret their data and exploit the expert gap to sell their finding,” he said.

Despite abundant personal anecdotes by African Americans who say they were good students in school and were accused of acting white, there’s no research that explicitly supports a relationship between race, beliefs about “acting white,” social stigma, and academic outcomes.

Even those who claim to have found evidence of the theory, Toldson explained, failed to connect the dots between what students deem “white” and the effect of this belief on academic achievement.

“Observing and/or recording African-American students labeling a high-achieving African-American student as acting white does not warrant a characterization of African-American academic underperformance as a response to the fear of acting white,” he said.

Studies suggest that the highest-achieving black students are actually more popular than the lowest-achieving ones
A prime example of a shaky study on this topic, according to Toldson, was Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer’s 2006 research paper “Acting White: The Social Price Paid by the Best and the Brightest Minority Students.” Published by Education Next, the paper purported to affirm Ogbu’s findings by using Add Health data to demonstrate that the highest-achieving black students in the schools Fryer studied had few friends. “My analysis confirms that acting white is a vexing reality within a subset of American schools,” he wrote.

But the numbers didn’t actually add up to support the “acting white” theory, Toldson said. To start, the most popular black students in his study were the ones with 3.5 GPAs, and students with 4.0s had about as many friends as those with 3.0s. The least popular students? Those with less than a 2.5 GPA.

It seemed that the “social price” paid by the lowest-achieving black students was actually far greater than the price in popularity paid by the highest academic achievers.

Fryer conceded this. He said there was “no evidence of a trade-off between popularity and achievement” for black students at private schools, poking another hole in the theory.

Plus, Toldson pointed out, even if the results had shown that the highest-achieving students at all schools had the fewest friends, that would have indicated a connection between grades and popularity, but wouldn’t have supported the core of the “acting white” theory itself. “Methodologically, the study has to make the ostensible leap that the number of friends a black student has is a direct measure and a consequence of acting white,” he explained.

In 2009, the authors of an American Sociological Review article, “The Search For Oppositional Culture Among Black Students,” concluded that high-achieving black students were in fact especially popular among their peers, and that being a good student increased popularity among black students even more so than for white students.

McWhorter has dismissed this study as one that “encourages us to pretend,” because he says that black kids may be dishonest when asked if they value school. It’s unclear why the suspicion of dishonesty only applies to black students and not the white students who were also studied. He’s also written the self-reports can’t be trusted because, according to reasoning he attributes to Fryer, “[a]sking teenagers whether they’re popular is like asking them if they’re having sex.” That may be fair, but it doesn’t explain the stronger link between being a good student and self-reports about popularity for black teens than for white teens.

In 2011, Smith College’s Tina Wildhagen, in the Journal of Negro Education, tested the “entire causal process tested by the ‘acting white’ theory,” using the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, and found that “the results lend no support to the process predicted by the acting white hypothesis for African-American students.”

Research suggests that black students have more positive attitudes about education than white students
There is an established phenomenon called the attitude-achievement paradox, which refers to the way positive attitudes about school can fail to translate to successful academic outcomes among black students. Originated by Roslyn Mickelson in 1990, it’s been the subject of extensive sociological research.

For example, in a study published in the American Sociological Review in 1998, James Ainsworth-Darnell and Douglas Downey, using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, found that black students offered more optimistic responses than their white counterparts to questions about the following: 1) the kind of occupation they expected to have at age 30, 2) the importance of education to success, 3) whether they felt teachers treated them well, 4) whether the teachers were good, 5) whether it was okay to break rules, 6) whether it was okay to cheat, 7) whether other students viewed them as a “good student,” 8) whether other students viewed them as a “troublemaker,” and 9) whether they tried as hard as they could in class.

Findings like these fly in the face of the idea that black students think academic achievement is “white” or negative, or that it’s something they must actively shun for acceptance and popularity.

When Toldson analyzed raw data from a 2005 CBS News monthly poll of 1,000 high school students who were asked their opinions on being smart and other smart students, he saw this reflected again.

Students were asked, “Thinking about the kids who get good grades in your school, which one of these best describes how you see them: 1) cool, 2) normal, 3) weird, 4) boring, or 5) admired?” The responses of black boys, black girls, white boys, and white girls were around the same. But black boys were the most likely (17 percent) to consider such students “cool.”

Students also answered this question: “In general, if you really did well in school, is that something you would be proud of and tell all your friends about, or something you would be embarrassed about and keep to yourself?” Eighty-nine percent of all students said they would be “proud and tell all.” Black girls were top among this group, with 95 percent saying they’d be proud. Meanwhile, white boys, at 17 percent, were the most likely to say they would be “embarrassed or keep to self” or report that they “did not know” how they would handle the news that they were doing very well academically.

As recently as 2009, researchers have revisited the theory and confirmed the findings of pro-school attitudes among black students.

All racial groups have nerds
Fryer’s research found that the very highest-achieving black kids were the least popular — but this likely had much less to do with beliefs about acting white and more to do with the fact that the very smartest kids of any race tend to suffer social stigma.

“In my own research, I have noticed a ‘nerd bend’ among all races, whereby high — but not the highest — achievers receive the most social rewards,” Toldson said. “For instance, the lowest achievers get bullied the most, and bullying continues to decrease as grades increase; however, when grades go from good to great, bullying starts to increase again slightly. Thus, the highest achievers get bullied more than high achievers, but significantly less than the lowest achievers.”

In a 2003 study titled “It’s not a black thing: Understanding the Burden of Acting White and Other Dilemmas of High Achievement,” published in the American Sociological Review, researchers concluded that the smartest black and white students actually had similar experiences and that the stigma was similar across cultures:

Typically, high-achieving students, regardless of race, are to some degree stigmatized as “nerds” or “geeks.” School structures, rather than culture, may help explain when this stigma becomes racialized, producing a burden of acting white for black adolescents, and when it becomes class-based, producing a burden of “acting high and mighty” for low-income whites.
So very high-achieving kids of all races experience social isolation at times. This is why there are plenty of high-achieving black kids to provide anecdotes about being socially shunned (and there are probably plenty of white kids who could do the same, but there isn’t the same appetite for collecting these stories to explain the white experience). There are also plenty of black kids — many of whom are also smart — who have been accused of “acting white.” But there doesn’t appear to be much of a basis to connect the two experiences.

Jamelle Bouie gave his take on the distinction between these two experiences in a 2010 piece for the American Prospect:

As a nerdy black kid who was accused of “acting white” on a fairly regular basis, I feel confident saying that the charge had everything to do with cultural capital, and little to do with academics. If you dressed like other black kids, had the same interests as other black kids, and lived in the same neighborhoods as the other black kids, then you were accepted into the tribe. If you didn’t, you weren’t. In my experience, the “acting white” charge was reserved for black kids, academically successful or otherwise, who didn’t fit in with the main crowd. In other words, this wasn’t some unique black pathology against academic achievement; it was your standard bullying and exclusion, but with a racial tinge.
Why it matters that we get this right
The “acting white” theory is tempting to believe because it does contain pieces of truth. Yes, there’s a racial academic achievement gap. Yes, there are plenty of African-American adults eager to tell stories about how they were shunned because they were brilliant.

(McWhorter has vigorously defended the “acting white” theory against academic critics primarily by citing 125 letters he says he received from people describing their experiences that reflect the theory. While he argues that accounts in these letters should be accepted without question, he disregards data such as the scientific study responses indicating pro-school attitudes among black kids because of his view that “personal feelings are not reachable by direct questioning.”)

And, yes, some high-achieving black kids — like kids of all races — experience social stigma. These individual facts are painful, and they resonate with people in a way that makes it easy to blur what’s missing from the “acting white” equation: an actual, causal connection between the accusations of acting white, social stigma, and lower academic outcomes. There isn’t one.

It’s particularly troubling that this myth persists, because stories about the sources of educational inequality can shape public attitudes and policy. A perfect example is in McWhorter’s recent Vox piece. Readers who believed his assertion about the “acting white” theory may have been more likely to be convinced of his larger argument that “cultural orientations” of black communities are a cause of inequality. That is, of course, a very damning charge that could shape attitudes about black people and perpetuate racism. But the most glaring problem with it is that it’s an outdated theory that has fallen out of favor with actual sociologists.

A continued willingness to believe that solutions lie in simply repairing backward attitudes about getting good grades will continue to distract from the real problems: poverty, segregation, discipline disparities, teacher biases, and other structural factors. Unfortunately, none of these issues are as easy to fix as simply changing the beliefs of black students.

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