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June 09, 2005

Acting White, Acting Not

Roland Fryer is hot news again. He's published a paper about 'Acting White'. I haven't read it but it boils down to this abstract:

There is a debate among social scientists regarding the existence of a peer externality commonly referred to as ‘acting white.’ Using a newly available data set (the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health), which allows one to construct an objective measure of a student’s popularity, we demonstrate that there are large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement; our (albeit narrow) definition of ‘acting white.’ The effect is intensified among high achievers and in schools with more interracial contact, but non-existent among students in predominantly black schools or private schools. The patterns in the data appear most consistent with a twoaudience signaling model in which investments in education are thought to be indicative of an individual’s opportunity costs of peer group loyalty. Other models we consider, such as self-sabotage among black youth or the presence of an oppositional culture, all contradict the data in important ways.

Before I tour the blogosphere and get into this interesting debate, I want to get my fresh thoughts out because I was thinking of this very matter just yesterday.

What I was remembering was how difficult it was to be the smartest kid in my elementary school. I sat down at my desk just after work, and as usual there was a pile of corrected homework, quizzes and tests. I review all of my kids work and I give an accounting of every A. They get a dollar. A+ gets two. B's get nothing. To my surprise, F10 (my middle child) had an A a B and a C. She almost never gets two 'bad' grades. I thought back to myself and I know there were times that I struggled with being called 'brainiac', which was my nickname at Virginia Road School, all black, in 1970 when I was in the fifth grade. (actually I had skipped two grades and was 9 years old in the sixth grade). Still, nobody ever accused me of acting white. It must have been something different.

I then went to Catholic Middle School for a couple years, also all black. I didn't study hard any longer but still got good grades. Little Elaine Takai got straight A's but nobody *ever* played with her. I rode with her in the hammer at the school fair, but I was the only one who would. Landis Balthazar was smarter than me, also genuinely weird (who would name their kid 'Landis'?) and nobody called him white. In fact, we had a whole family of Geechee looking kids called the Wiltzs. Felita Wiltz was in my class, and they were all so pale that they could pass for white, sorta - in that strange Tai Babalonia way. Of course when they opened their mouths, they were black as all get out. We teased them like they were albinos but we didn't say they were acting white.

The reason these ideas stuck in my head was because I went and Google Earthed my growing-up 'hood with my [white] colleagues at work yesterday. One grew up in a damned nice place, real upper middle suburban from the looks of it. One showed that where he lives now is a damned nice place, California upper middle beach. (Nicer than Redondo). This left many questions in my head about what growing up in an upper-middle class suburb is good for. It's probably an excellent preparation for a career as a psychoanalyst, but not worth much if you're going to be a baker. What does America need more, mental health or bread? I know suburban dads deal with problems motivating their kids. What is success or failure in a suburban context? Is it a failure not to get a house bigger than your parents' house? Is it a failure to not be cool?

Then my Tivo'd Charlie Rose started off with a couple do-gooders who accused the public school system of cheating people in the non-white, non-suburban, non-upper-middle state of affairs, in that they are not preparing these American schoolchildren for college. I have a lot to say about that subject, but the abstract is 'of course not'. No country's public school system was designed to get kids into college, and it's a farce to think any amount of reform of the current system will achieve that. Americans may like the idea that all of us should get college degrees and work in product design, marketing and distribution, instead of manufacturing like those lowly Chinese with their 1% profit margins; but that's not our destiny. We all can't afford to be chiefs.

This goes also to the questions about what immigrant children are doing in East LA schools but fighting with black kids. Nobody expects them to go to college, not even their parents, many of whom don't speak english and maybe had no schooling in their whole lives. Just getting into highschool is a big deal for them. And why not? That's the American middle class too, as it ever was.

So if acting black or acting latino means not having college aspirations or having intellectuality as a hallmark of one's personality, it can only be repulsive to dainty folks with multiple degrees after their names. It is not necessarily an injustice. It's simply counter to the wishful thinking that suggests we all need to be *that* literate as a society. I say we become that literate at our peril and it is this nations ability to deliver Constitutional guarantees to its poor huddled masses and internal Third Worlds, that will make us robust enough to survive the challenges of the future and global economy. I say if the Chinese can pay $20 a day, why can't we? I say we need lower class workers to feel just as American as I do without feeling jealous and envious of me. I talk to my gardener like a man. What's the problem?

From this large context, I say dealing with Fryer's import is one of the curiousities of the black intelligencia, myself included. We're wrestling with the fact of class in the shadow of race.

The Vision Circle podcast on this subject is now available.

Here's what I said over at Vision Circle:

If Fryer is an ass-clown, some of us sure are quick to find out what's coming out of his ass. But that's because he's black and we're black.

YOU KNOW HOW WE DO is an encoded message to everyone, blacks and white alike, to keep an ongoing dialog about what is black behavior and what is white behavior. Richard Pryor was the first to air this conversation and it has continued ever since.

If you don't go the the Boogie Down, where everybody keeps it pegged to Hot 97 and BET, then you get out of touch with the common dialog of the continuous invention of vulgar blackness. You could very well, as conservatives such as myself do, immerse onself in the relatively dead culture of classical jazz and old school black literature, but you wouldn't be fresh or have an urban contemporary context. You wouldn't be 'ackin white' nor 'doin how we do'. And the only people who are going to even think about calling you a Tom, are those in the Boogie Down whose vulgar dialog and limited experience have put old school achievement out of their 'black' context.

Fryer's context, although I haven't read the piece, is probably too narrow to include this insight. I know that blackness is being reinvented all the time, so when blackness can be flying American Airlines just after the days when only TWA was cool to blacks, some blacks who ride the bus will still say that flying American is acting white.

What I would like to remind everyone (and I'm so deep that I should have posted this independently, aha!!) is that when Malcolm X said 'by any means necessary' I believe that meant *any*. So why are we checking back with the Boogie Down to see if Fryer is OK? Harvard is one of the means. Afrocentrism is one of the means. But you cannot doubt that there is some continuously neological dissonance in style if not substance that perpetuates the gap between 'black' and 'white'. It's what people want to do.

Posted by mbowen at June 9, 2005 08:14 AM

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Cobb, I have been blogging about this very concept non-stop ever since I've been blogging. The people who assert that [insert color here] is a way of Being have been drinking the cultural Kool-Aid for way too long. I've baptized this cultral notion and I've named it the "aesthetic disease". "Data" has nothing to do with it. Check it: http://www.skepdic.com/confirmbias.html

Posted by: negrorage at June 9, 2005 01:37 PM

I haven't read the subject study either, but remember the "why you actin' so white" and "why you talkin' so white" questions I sometimes heard leveled at my friends in a Southern public High School. Both this experience (interracial public school) and yours (all-black and/or private schools) support what the study says regarding the prevalence of the term.

But experience also tells me that any smart kid in a public school (at least back when I was there) got grief from those with either lesser ability or ambition. God, how I hated "Movin' On" and "B. J. and the Bear" and all the kids who thought anyone with higher goals than the bare necessity to get their big-rig license just thought they were better than them. I think the "actin' white" accusations are probably mostly rooted in this same basic mistrust/envy of someone doing better. Basically, mediocrity loves company, even if you gotta drag someone down to get it.

The disturbing aspect to this particular taunt, though, is the implied assumption by the ones using it that "poor performance = blackness." I would imagine that successive generations of racial stereotypes and overt racism has helped establish this thought pattern, but I also think the easy identification of "black" and strong presence of "black culture" in a way allows those within to more easilly coopt various traits or aspects as a "black thing." This also includes the lower achievers to hold forth their standards as a matter of racial identification.

Posted by: submandave at June 9, 2005 05:06 PM

Fryer is a fin d'siecle Thomas Sowell - the only difference being that Fryer gets published in the peer-reviewed literature and Sowell only gets published in white-identity political rags..., both are ass-clowns of the first magnitude, unworthy of notice save for the fact that they're cooning at a more elevated stratum of public discourse than Jesse Lee Peterson.

All three are pernicious moths sorely deprived of nurturing interpersonal communion with black folks..., if only they'd stop taking those white-identity political $$$, you know, the $TD's, and actually do something, anything with organic utility for black folks..., but nah, you just gotta let a ho be a ho....,

Posted by: cnulan [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 9, 2005 05:22 PM

There is an extended point to be made that part of this tension is found in other parts of America, as cultures more or less adapt and assimilate. It's different than, say, the Irish migration, but there should be lessons to adapt in it somewhere, right?

Posted by: Chap at June 9, 2005 05:30 PM

"Acting white" -- I'm too old, and too white, to really viscerally get inner city teen culture.

I agree that 16 years of education isn't for every body, and shouldn't be so advocated. But "college for all" is also code for "make a high school diploma worth something, cause it sure as hell isn't today."

California's high school exit exam may do (some of) the worth-something job. Kids are starting to brag about how early they can pass out of the exit exam. If you are really smart (and have good k-8 teaching) well-- you can probably pass most of it by the end of 10th grade. We will see.

But let's leave off high school and look at 3rd grade. Here's a quote:


"More than any other subject or skill, our children’s futures are all but determined by how well they learn to read.

“No other skill taught in school and learned by school children is more important than reading. It is the gateway to all other knowledge. Teaching students to read by the end of third grade is the single most important task assigned to elementary schools. Those who learn to read with ease in the early grades have a foundation on which to build new knowledge. Those who do not are doomed to repeated cycles of frustration and failure."--American Federation of Teachers

So how are America's teachers doing?



African American
4th grade 60%
12th grade 46%


African American
4th grade 87%
12th grade 84%

So why isn't there a mass uprising yelling about the quality of teaching in k-3 for African-American kids?

That's where the "acting white" is falling down, not later in high school. High school is too late. The kids have missed too many years of learning from poor reading.

If we had the national will, we could eradicate this shame in a year. We could be graduating all kids at "basic" level in 3rd grade. There's a giant disconnect between what is known about teaching reading and what happens in the classroom.

Posted by: Elizabeth Ditz [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 9, 2005 05:32 PM

I agree with subman and rage that this is not a problem worthy of dealing with. Fryer marginalizes it and I think rightly so. But let me take the opposite angle and try to illuminate what I think is real about class.

The African cat who studied black Americans in Shaker Heights and gave some scholarly cred to the 'acting white' theory was purposefully hitting the homes of upper middle class blacks. Now they may not be upper middle class in American terms, but certainly in black terms. Shaker Heights is good living. The point is that those parents, like I suspect many overachieving blacks, recognized that their competition wasn't quite as daunting as they imagined. Blackfolks (watch me generalize) percieve that The Man casts a longer shadow than he actually does. And climbing up out of the working class to the next plateau of American life can be disappointing. In that regard, people who have 'made it' relative to their starting point must recognize how much wealth and mainstreaming makes a difference.

If you never expected to fly first class in your life, when your kid flies, it must seem that they really don't need to work so hard as work smart. Book learning doesn't guarantee a thing.

I don't think this is a phenomenon which is restricted to blackfolks, just ask the jewish girl who wishes she was blonde. Nobody is likely to do this study on second-generation Armenian Americans. Nobody cares. This is the result of the fact that lots of blackfolks are academics and this is the kind of research we're interested in.

Let's see how far the political legs walk it. In the end, this is the answer folks like me wanted to hear - to the extent it's real, it's isolated in some highschools.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 9, 2005 09:02 PM

Liz I hear you, but nobody wants to talk about hillbillies Appalachian Americans until the subject turns to who deserves Affirmative Action. So I'm one of those people who is very suspicious of one dimensional statistics. You know and I know that the unstated baggage on 'African American' is inner-city, poor people whose parents have no college education. I'm tired of it not being stated.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 9, 2005 09:26 PM

Regarding the comment by cnulan, that is so typical of too many black people. No reasoned discussion, no rational rebuttal, just insults, accusations of being a tom, obscenities, and the white man did it all. We are responsible for nothing. Only the white man is responsible.

Posted by: Anita at June 10, 2005 07:36 AM

Craig's just not putting his best work here on Cobb, but I assure you he's got some very sophisticated, if not convoluted, reasoning behind his assertions.

I'm not mad at him, I just think he struggles mightily to give street credibility to his overwrought theories by siding with his vision of the oppressed and downtrodden. Blacks at Harvard need not apply.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 10, 2005 07:58 AM

You know that my vision of the oppressed and downtrodden is buttressed by routine interaction with the self-selected best and brightest of the same - these are after all my people. Being in and of the world of our chirrens all the time, I know very well whereof I speak.

Out of respect for the obligations of a guest in your house Cobb, I won't directly disparage any of your other guests, but I must say, you have your hands full keeping common ground with folks who don't know the difference between blackness and the media-fueled psychological garment called "blackness"...,

If "overwrought" is the chief flaw you've found to date with my theories, I'm very flattered indeed brah..., (:

Posted by: cnulan [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 10, 2005 09:25 AM

Well, I grew up a smart white girl in a small town in Mississippi. I had a few friends, not many, and took a certain amount of flak for my good grades and general nerdiness (although I don't think we used that term then). I remember complaining to my mother of being lonely, and she told me that it was because in my small high school there weren't many people like me. College would be different. And it was, I made lots of friends there and felt very much at home. It's funny that high schoolers feel compelled to try to force each other into acceptable forms. Maybe it's harder for black kids to fight that don't-act-like-you're-better-than-me crap than for white kids, I don't know. Are black kids more monolithic in their group norms? Don't know.

Posted by: Laura at June 10, 2005 11:18 AM

Hey. The Vision Circle podcast on this is ready. Check it out here.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2005 07:33 PM