“Why do you talk so white?” This question is one that I’ve been asked too many times to count, and the origin of the attitude behind the question is one that Stuart Buck studies in his new book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation.
The author, a white man, first took notice of the subject when his adopted black children faced the comment at school; and began studying the phenomenon in earnest as the teasing continued. Buck’s book was released this summer, and in it he attempts to explain how a fear of “acting white” may be the cause of the achievement gap.
If Buck is right and black students are, to use the old phrase, crabs in a bucket using peer pressure to pull each other down, then at least part of the ever-growing gap in the performance of black and white students would be our own fault.
There’s no consensus on whether or not Buck is right—there are studies that dispute his conclusion that peer pressure makes a difference, and there are others that support it.
Anecdotal personal experience leads me to two conclusions. The first is that the accusation of “acting white” is pretty common and is definitely intended to hurt the recipient. The second is that a fear of “acting white” can only be as influential as we let it be.
When I was in high school, (and my memories are foggy, as it has been two years), my desire to be popular never impacted my academic pursuits. This is not that convincing for someone looking to “act white” and not be teased – I was not that popular.
But now, in my very integrated university, I’ve found little of the negative associations between focusing on academics and popularity. And not one black student has ever tried to get me to work less.
No one has tried to convince me that going to see a professor during office hours or doing the reading was a “white” thing to do. If anything, we push each other to achieve, and expect, more.
I don’t think that self-sabotage can be solely to blame for the achievement gap. There are many other factors at play in creating differences in performance between kids of different races. The disparities in school funding and resources, as well as differences in the support at home for students are also factors.
The idea that the fault for these problems does not lie in the way we structure and fund our schools but rather in the minds of the victims is tempting for both progressives and conservatives frustrated with the absence of a 100 percent turnaround in black student performance since Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that integrated the schools.
But it clearly is not enough to just put students in the same classrooms. Integration has its own complications, as Buck explores in his book.
I think that the persistency of the taboo against “acting white” is proof not of our self-victimization, but of the persistent and troubling attitudes we still hold in the black community. If speaking proper English and enjoying school work are “white,” what do we consider black?
We need to stop underestimating ourselves this way. Combating negative attitudes about who we are and what we are capable of is just as important as examining our education system, and if Acting White has any truth to it, we could close the gap this way, if only by a little.
Alison Thurston, a South Florida Times summer reporting intern, will enter her junior year at Princeton this fall.