'Acting white my ass': Beyond the myths of Black student underperformance

by Mark Anthony Neal

As a kid growing up in the Bronx, my friends often said that I sounded white—too much Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family in my daily re-run consumption. I have visceral memories of being outed one day for being a fan of 1970s teen-pop idol Andy Gibb—“you listen to that shit?"
I never took such chiding seriously cataloging it with the range of ways that young boys insult each other over the size of their ears and purported lack of size of their sexual organs, as we all tried to manage out outsized egos. As a parent thirty years later, I would have no more imagined a cottage industry on the negative impact of “your momma” jokes, than I would a series of books and news reports on the subject of “acting white” yet this is what is the case as books like the recent Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation by Stuart Buck attempt to explain the reason for what is a very real achievement gap between black students and their peers.

For all unfamiliar with the conversation, the “acting white” thesis, first forwarded by researchers John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham in a 1986, suggests that black students underperform academically in comparison to their white peers, because of fears of being labeled as “acting white” by their dominant peer group of black students. In other words, some black kids get bad grades for continued acceptance in the peer group that matters most to them. Most of the studies that buy into Ogbu and Fordham’s thesis also argue that this is a phenomenon largely relegated to integrated schools.
Putting aside the legitimacy of the “acting white” thesis for a moment, Buck is correct when he suggests that the thesis is controversial, “because of the fear that it lets us off the hook too easily—that suburban whites will, perhaps, regretfully, write off the urban black population as uneducable."
Realizing that effective public policy has never emanated from white guilt, even for a white researcher who has adopted two black children, the “acting white” thesis has been actively used in recent years to demean black intellectual capabilities, pathologize black families and culture and used to turn back the clock on diversity in public schools, as is the case currently in Wake County, N.C.  Buck also suggests, citing a study by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer (the Ivy League’s version of the “magic Negro”), that “smart black students are less popular with peers” as if we don’t live in a society that fundamentally distrusts intellectuals and is actively anti-intellectual.
Read the entire essay @ The Loop21