“Acting White” isn’t really a racial issue

If you want to blame a downtrodden group for their own disadvantages, here’s a handy trick: Take a broad social problem, see how it intersects with that group, and then talk about that intersection as if it were a unique problem located in that group.

Tricks like this are easier to spot in retrospect. So, for example, years ago when the gay-rights discussion was about whether public schools should allow gay teachers — already in 2004 that issue was an embarrassment to Jim DeMint and has since been removed even from far-right documents like the South Carolina Republican Platform — we used to hear a lot about gay teachers having sex with their students, as if this were some special gay problem totally unrelated to straight teachers having sex with their students. (Something similar is still going on in the Catholic priest scandal; rather than talk about the larger problem of the clergy sexual abuse that occurs in all denominations and victimizes both genders, some people want the issue to be about gay priests.)

Muslim terrorism and Islamic extremism are good present-day examples, because they’re usually discussed as if they had no similarity to Christian terrorism or extremism.

This trick is easy to fall for. I used to think that every incompetent black or female I ran into was an indictment of affirmative action, until somebody asked me: “How many incompetent white men do you know?”

Never mind.

Anyway, we’re supposedly having a national conversation on race. So far, the conservative half of that has largely been an indictment of black culture: Since racism is mythical and the ladder to success climbed by white ethnic groups — Irish, Italians, Poles — is still there, all blacks would have to do is clean up their act, get educated, and work hard. They’d all be CEOs in no time.

What supposedly stops this from happening is the unique inferiority of black culture. They take drugs, commit crimes, have illegitimate children — nobody forces them to do this stuff, Bill O’Reilly reminds us, “That’s a personal decision.”

And they’re actively hostile to education. “young black men often reject education and gravitate towards the street culture, drugs, hustling, gangs”. Bill came back to that point in a later broadcast:

Even if there were plenty of jobs, most employers are not going to hire people who can’t read well and speak proper English. Right now the unemployment rate among black males age 16 to 19, 57 percent; 57 percent. It’s 25 percent for white males that age. Overall, black unemployment, 14 percent; white unemployment, 6.6 percent. The reason, in many poor neighborhoods there’s chaos, violence and little discipline in the public schools. Kids aren’t learning.

CNN’s Don Lemon said O’Reilly “didn’t go far enough” and told his fellow blacks:

Want to break the cycle of poverty? Stop telling kids they’re acting white because they go to school or they speak proper English.

Even President Obama has hit that theme, most notably in the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that launched him onto the national stage:

children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.

Telling kids who succeed in school that they’re “acting white” — for an educated white audience, that’s just beyond the pale. It’s a conscious rebellion against knowledge. What more proof do you need that black culture is horribly sick?

You know where else you see that phenomenon? Working class whites. In Reading Classes, Barbara Jensen writes both about her own white-working-class childhood and her adult experience as a counselor to working class white students.

She describes school as an extension of professional-class culture. Kids who grow up in the professional class live at home with the same communication patterns they’ll meet at school, while kids growing up in the working class have to learn special ways to act and talk in the classroom. (Simple example: Adults quizzing kids by asking questions they already know the answer to. It’s an obvious school thing, and professional-class parents do it all the time, beginning at a very early age. “What’s the cow say?” When parents question kids in a working-class household, it’s more like, “Who knocked that glass of water over?” So when those kids arrive at school and the teacher starts asking them questions, their instinctive reaction is that they’re being accused of something. And if you can’t see where a line of questioning is going, the safest thing is just to dummy up.)

Once working-class kids get past the basic foreignness of the school environment, they are taught that the way they speak at home is wrong. (I grew up putting an r-sound into the name of our nation’s capital — Worshington — and taking one out of the second month — Febuary. School taught me that was wrong.) Jensen has no problem with teaching Standard English, but …

How kids should be taught these skills is my concern. Is it really necessary to learn that everything a child knew before school about language is nothing more than bad English and ignorance?

Little by little, what you do at school starts to seem disloyal to your home life, because you’re being taught to look down on where you come from. It gets worse in middle school, where even professional-class kids have issues with peer pressure versus submission to authority. In the early grades, the clash was mainly between the influence of the parents and the influence of the teacher. But middle school is likely to be a larger school of mixed social classes. In addition to the teachers wanting to civilize you, you have to deal with the born-civilized professional-class kids and the teachers’ implicit why-can’t-you-be-more-like-them. Result? a culture of resistance that punishes collaborators.

Working class kids who are into academics get shunned and teased by other kids because they care about impressing their teachers. … My friends and I came to excel at rebelling — not as solitary rebels, like actor James Dean in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, but as a community of resistance to the authority of school.

This is a white author talking about white kids. She tells a sad story about quitting choir — even though she loved it — because she was too embarrassed to be up on stage with all the goody-goody professional-class kids in front of her working-class friends. (Jensen herself eventually got a Ph.D., but not until after a long strange trip that had little to do with her early schooling.)

So in short, I’m not claiming that “acting white” isn’t a problem, or that it doesn’t get in the way of black kids making a better life for themselves. I’m just saying it’s not a racial problem. It’s a thing that happens when the culture of school is alien to the culture of a neighborhood, and it happens to whites as well as blacks.

Because of their place in society, blacks are more likely to be in the path of this storm than whites, just as more blacks than whites were left behind in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. But just as we don’t have a “black hurricane problem”, we don’t have a black resistance-to-education problem.

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  • SamChevre  On August 12, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Ta-Nehisi Coates has a good post on “acting white” here.

    As you do, he notes an example from working-class white culture of the same phenomenon.

  • Amelia  On August 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Great article (as usual), but I have a small quibble: seeing the word “female” used as a noun when referring to women drives me crazy! It feels dehumanizing.

  • Liz S  On August 12, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    An interesting variant on the working-class culture you speak of is what happens if a professional-class kid is marooned in an island of working-class kids: that pc kid may be better off eventually, if he makes it to college with his self-respect intact, but in some ways it’s just as difficult for a kid who wants to read when he’s surrounded by kids who think that his reading is a putdown of them, and bully him for it. He’s not “acting white,” but acting uppity, or snooty, or whatever they want to call it. Perhaps the larger problem is the disdain American culture has developed in the last decades for education, science, and learning of all kinds: no longer are they seen as things delightful and rewarding in themselves, but, at best, a means to an end (i.e., material success), and, at worst, a symptom of “intellectual elitism” that is deeply suspicious, rooted in snobbery, and both impractical and inauthentic.

    • weeklysift  On August 12, 2013 at 2:03 pm

      The issue complicated by the way education is used to pass class advantages down the generations. The elite status of the professional-class kid isn’t just something the working-class kids imagined.

  • Kimc  On August 13, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    I’m confused. I went to an all-white, upper-middle class grade-and-middle school, and a mostly white middle to upper middle class high school, and I still got teased for getting good grades and reading a lot, etc. Is this a related phenomenon? Or just a coincidence?

    • weeklysift  On August 17, 2013 at 10:23 am

      Degree, I’d guess. But in some ways you’re reinforcing my point: “acting white” is making a special category when blacks do something that happens much more broadly.

  • Gregs  On August 14, 2013 at 11:16 am

    “No one suggested the court was over-staffed when Bush was president.” Yeah, but the democratic controlled congress only approved 67% of his nominees. The repubs, you know, the ones you say aren’t working with the pres, approved more than that…so what’s up?

    • weeklysift  On August 17, 2013 at 10:20 am

      What’s new is the refusal to consider anyone for particular jobs, independent of their personal qualifications.


  • By Word and deed | The Weekly Sift on August 12, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    […] “Acting white isn’t really a racial issue“. In some settings, black students who succeed in school are accused (mainly by other black […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2013 | The Weekly Sift on December 30, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    […] weeks later (after CNN’s Don Lemon continued the black-culture bashing), “Acting White isn’t Really a Racial Issue” addressed the criticism that working hard in school is “acting white” by […]

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