Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

“Acting White” Myth: Code Orange Advisory

May 18th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

Algernon Austin

Algernon Austin is director of the Thora Institute. Austin is a 1990 graduate of Wesleyan University. He earned his M.A. (1995) and Ph.D. (2001) in sociology from Northwestern University.

The myth that Black students equate getting good grades in school with “acting white” took a major hit last week. In a piece published on the “The Daily Voice” Black news site, author Algernon Austin took the rising campaign against this dangerous myth one step further in his May 2 post, “Are Black Students Really Afraid of Acting White.”

According to Austin, the “acting white” myth grew out of a single study, published in 1986. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with contemporary debates on Black academic achievement can affirm that, 22 years later, the “acting white” myth continues to figure prominently in discussions of all issues related African American educational attainment. Austin describes the study, it’s limited scope, and the problematic nature of the researchers conclusions:

In 1986, in an Urban Review article, two scholars studying a Washington D.C. high school claimed that black students did not achieve academically because of a fear of being perceived as “acting white.” People pounced so quickly on this idea that they failed to realize that the researchers did not actually present any black students who said they were afraid of being called “white” [emphasis mine].

Of the eight students discussed in the article, four indicated that they were worried about being called “brainiacs.” The other four raised other issues. A fear of “acting white” was the researchers’ highly debatable interpretation of what was going on, but it was not a direct quotation.

Many white students have been called “brainiac,” “nerd,” “geek,” and similar names by other white students. It is unfortunate that students tease and bully each other. But this is not “a black thing.” The real question therefore is whether academically-oriented teasing is more common among black students than among whites. There is no convincing evidence that this is the case. A 2003 study by the Girl Scout Research Institute, for example, found equal levels of concern about school-related teasing among black and white girls.

Austin’s juxtaposes the considerable attention given 1986 Urban Review findings with the limited exposure given to those studies whose findings suggest that African American youth place a high value on education. This throws into relief the sad fact that, when it comes to African Americans, research is rewarded, not for the validity of its conclusions or for the quality of its analysis, but for the degree to which it reinforces familiar stereotypes.

Just below, I have included three of my favorite passages from Algernon Austin’s “Are Black Students Really African of ‘Acting White’” ; or click on THIS link to read the entire piece:

Contrary to the popular stereotype, much of the evidence suggests that black students value education more than whites. The same year the Urban Review article was published, the Monitoring the Future survey found that 74 percent of black high school seniors believed that getting good grades was of “great” or “very great importance,” but only 41 percent of white seniors felt as strongly. Half of black seniors reported that knowing a lot about intellectual matters was of “great” or “very great importance,” but only one-fifth of white seniors felt the same [...] and more recent surveys have had similar results. A 2006 survey by Public Agenda found that black students were more likely than white students to believe that “increasing math and science education would improve high school.” The Higher Education Research Institute’s 2006 survey of college freshmen found that the majority-black students at historically black colleges were more likely to aspire to obtain a Ph.D. than college freshmen generally.

Since the 1970s, the best standardized tests have shown a greater increase in black students’ scores than in white students’ scores. The long-term trend National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math test for eight graders, for example, shows a 14 point gain for white students but a 34 point gain for black students. There remains a large gap in scores on this test, but it was 20 points larger in the 1970s.

What the current academic research shows is that much of the black-white achievement gap exists prior to first-grade, many years before academic teasing begins. This gap is due to broad social and economic disadvantages among black families in comparison to white families. The gap grows during school years because these disadvantaged black students then attend schools of lower quality than white students.

Posted by Ajuan Mance


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