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What President Obama gets wrong about ‘acting white’

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 21: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the about My Brother’s Keeper initiative at the Walker Jones Education Campus on July 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke to area youth during a town hall meeting about the initiaive that is intended to help young men and boys of color. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama speak to an audience of African Americans, particularly students, they invariably mention the trope of  “acting white.”  That is the notion that one impediment to black students’ success is the belief in some black communities that academic achievement is synonymous with whiteness, and therefore devalued.

In a commencement speech at Bowie State in 2013, Michelle Obama said to an audience of new graduates and their families and friends:  “And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white.”

The first lady is right, the president has mentioned the idea of “acting white” quite often. (And, yes, the Obamas also express pride in and offer praise for black students, especially when they speak at commencement ceremonies.)

As recently as Monday, while speaking to a room full of students at the Walker Jones Education Campus, where he announced a new round of investments for the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, Obama mentioned it again.

In response to a question posed by a young Native American man about what the U.S. government is doing to help American Indians revitalize their language and culture, Obama talked about the importance of “knowing your culture — the traditional cultures out of which your families come, but also being part of the larger culture.”

He then went into a riff on “acting white”:

Sometimes African Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of “acting white” — which sometimes is overstated, but there’s an element of truth to it, where, okay, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go. Because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African American men to be authentic.

Obama is right when he says that the notion of acting white is sometimes overstated. Perhaps, it’s overstated by Obama himself.

The concept of “acting white” gained traction with a 1986 research paper called “Black students school success: Coping with the “burden of  acting white'”  by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu that was based on the study of a predominantly black Washington, D.C. public school.

Fordham and Ogbu concluded that blacks created an “oppositional cultural identity,” because of their historical oppression at the hands of white Americans, and thereby had come to devalue whatever they associated with whiteness, including social markers like academic achievement and speech patterns.

Apparently, Black children’s perception that academic pursuit is “acting White” is learned in the Black community. The ideology of the community in regard to the cultural meaning of schooling, is therefore, implicated and needs to be re-examined.

In their speeches, both Obama and and the first lady call for that same re-examination, and locate anti-intellectualism squarely within the black community,  implicitly arguing that it is linked to  statistics that show black students lagging behind white students by almost every measure.

For Michelle Obama, the idea apparently comes from her personal experience–growing up in the South Side of Chicago, she was teased for talking “like a white girl.” And President Obama’s knowledge of the “acting white” phenomena seems based on his wife’s accounts, as well as his own work in Chicago as a community organizer.

But is there a problem with the Obamas’ focus on “acting white” as an explanation for how black student’s perceive academic success and the achievements of their peers?

Over the last 20 years, in several studies, the original theory has been largely debunked.

A 2005 study called “It’s Not a Black thing: Understanding the burden of acting white and other dilemmas of high achievement,” argues that the “empirical foundation underlying the burden of acting white thesis is fragile at best.”

The North Carolina based study showed black students, some in predominantly black schools, and others in predominantly white schools, negotiating peer pressure and class selection in much the same way that their white peers did.  The study suggests a common strain that sometimes has poor white kids dealing with the burden of being seen as “uppity” and “snobbish,” and black kids in predominantly white school settings, on occasion grappling with that same notion, with a racialized overlay.  It’s essentially nerds versus jocks, yet it plays out in very nuanced ways depending on the school setting and is complicated by class, race and in-group versus out-group pressures.

A cascade of studies shows a much more complex portrait of black students than the Obamas allow for:

Harvard economist, Roland G. Fryer, finds evidence that the most high achieving blacks students at predominantly white schools taking a hit on the popularity front, but finds no evidence of the same trend at predominantly black schools. He also finds that “variants on acting white have been spotted by ethnographers among the Buraku outcasts of Japan, Italian immigrants in Boston’s West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and the British working class, among others.”

One study shows black students linking high self esteem and academic achievement with Afrocentricity.

Another study shows that while some black students might grapple with peer pressure around taking hard classes, there is very often a balancing peer group that encourages academic achievement.  In other words, a black student might have black friends who rib them about taking an AP class, but they also have black friends who encourage it.

And that’s the part that the Obamas leave out in their constant rehashing of the idea of “acting white.”  Their rhetoric, while seen as refreshing and bold by some, actually seems to confirm a stereotype, that somehow African Americans don’t value academic achievement, even though history and the Obamas’ own lives, not to mention the millions of other black kids who will go off to college in the fall, suggest just the opposite.

A personal aside:  I mentor a young woman who recently graduated from an all-black D.C. charter high school, in which almost every graduate goes off to college. The valedictorian of her class is a young man who wrangled with his parents as graduation approached over a problem–whether to accept a full ride to Yale or Stanford.

During the commencement ceremony, each student who got a scholarship stood up as a list of the awards and the total dollar amount was read out loud.  The valedictorian’s list was by far the longest with the highest total–$1.17 million to be exact.  And as the school official read that long list, the crowd — teachers and administrators, parents and mentors and brothers and sisters and friends of the graduates — began to stand and cheer.  His ovation was by far the loudest and longest.