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

Nerds come in all colors.

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.”

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The Origins of ‘Acting White’

Ever wonder why exactly African-American students who do well in school are seen by some of their peers as “acting white” (as Michelle Obama among others has testified to)? According to Stuart Buck, an author and University of Arkansas doctoral candidate, the disparagement actually derives from the school-desegregation movement in the 1960s:

Although desegregation arose from noble and necessary impulses, and although desegregation was to the overall benefit of the nation, it was often implemented in a way that was devastating to black communities. It destroyed black schools, reduced the numbers of black principals and teachers who could serve as role models, and brought many black schoolchildren into daily contact with whites who made school a strange and uncomfortable environment that was viewed as quintessentially “white.”

The occasionally less-than sensitive white teachers and tracking systems that came with desegration added to the problem, Buck notes.

It’s an interesting theory. The question is, what’s an educator to do about the problem 40-some years later? How do you make African-American students, in the face of possible cultural pressures, feel pride in academic effort and success?