Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

McWhorter Watch: Black Political Writers Square Off Over Obama’s Effect on Black Kids

February 3rd, 2009 by Ajuan Mance

Ta-Nehisi Coates (left) and John McWhorter heated up November with an online war of words.


Whenever a black nerd gets teased for thinking he’s white, all he has to say is four words: “Is Barack Obama white?”

–John McWhorter, “Revenge of the Black Nerd,” November 9, 2008

Did anyone catch the minor dust-up between quasi-conservative contrarian John McWhorter and Atlantic Monthly contributor Ta-Nehisi Coates? Here’s the short version: In the quote at the top of this page, McWhorter proclaims that the election of Barack Obama, an African American overachiever, has provided nerdy Black kids with the ultimate rejoinder to accusations that they are “acting white.” Coates disagrees. He believes that, “this is the sort of retort that will get you slapped-up, beat-down and snapped-on for like a week straight..” In a November 11, 2008 blogpost, Coates offers his own alternative advice to “nascent black nerds”:

One thing I learned as a black nerd in West Baltimore: Get your tips on how to defend yourself from kids who know how to defend themselves, not from other black nerds….unless said nerds have figured out how to defend themselves.

There is something almost comical about the fact that these prominent African American writers are debating each other over the best way for school kids to tell each other off. After all, the question really isn’t which strategy is a more effective way of dealing with narrow-minded taunts; the real question is where this particular taunt, that Black kids who do well in school are somehow less Black than their schoolmates, came from in the first place.

Between the two, McWhorter’s strategy comes closer to challenging the underlying issue that might lead a child to characterize his more academic peers as sorta kinda “white” acting. If a nerdy Black kid is accused of acting/thinking/talking “white” it might be indeed be useful to remind the accuser of the people he or she admires who act/think/talk the same way. Coates suggestion that nerdy Black kids who don’t wish to be teased need simply need to learn how to fight doesn’t really do much to challenge the convoluted logic of kids who think Black kids who read and do well in school are appropriating white behaviors.

Also, though I tend to agree more with Coates on those political issues that don’t involve the schoolyard, his response to McWhorter has one glaring problem that not even McWhorter addressed directly. The flaw in Coates’s thinking is evident in his “dramatization” of the interaction between a Black nerd and a kid who accuses him of talking about about a television show that only a white people would watch:

Nascent Black Nerd: [References some obscure episode of Battlestar Gallatica] (sic)

Daytwon: Son, why you always watching that white shit?

Nascent Black Nerd: Is Barack Obama white??

Daytwon: Baracka-these-nuts nigga!!!

Did you see it? The error in Coates’s thinking? It seems fairly clear to me (and to most readers, I imagine), that Daytown, the antagonist in this dramatization, is supposed to be African American. This suggests, then, that the classmate who is most likely to accuse the Black nerd of acting white is Black himself. Although this is the stereotype, it is not always or even most often the case. I can use my own experience as a case in point. As a Black nerd at an overwhelmingly white high school, and as the only one of the Black students in my grade who was enrolled in the honors track, I was never accused of acting white by any my Black compatriots. I was, however, accused of not really being Black by one white classmate, and more than once. The popular perception that the Black nerd is targeted for ridicule by his or her Black classmates certainly doesn’t hold in my case.

And it doesn’t hold in McWhorter’s case either. In his November 24, 2008 response to Coates’s blogpost, he admits that, “I did not get called ‘white’ for liking school. But I do recall one Asian kid who gave me a hard time for being ‘smart’ once in eighth grade.” Not even Coates, whose imaginary “Daytwon” comes to represent that much maligned Black underachiever that haunts our popular imagination, can recall ever having had his Blackness questioned, despite his love of all thinks geeky. He explains:

D&D and my interest in fantasy was the one thing that really marked me as different. None of my friends told me I was acting white for playing D&D, they just thought it was weird.

In the end, the battle between McWhorter and Coates over the best way to answer back at those imaginary legions of African American bullies amounts to little more than those beloved D&D battles of Coates’s high school days. Roll that 12-sided die my friend, Daytwon’s about to get his comeuppance.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Black Students, Current Events, John McWhorter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Uncategorized

6 Responses

  1. Clnmike

    Yes it is comical this arguement, but there is truth to both sides I think.

    Obama’s election has given black students who excel in class a shield against taunting from the “cool kids”.

    At the same time kids who are different and in the minority will always get picked on and the best way to end that is to put foot to butt.

  2. Ajuan Mance

    It’s true. Kids who are different in any way will usually get teased by their classmates unless they somehow manage to make their difference seem cool. I sometimes wonder why this is considered a Black problem when it happens in all ethnic groups. After all, that’s why the movie revenge of the nerds was so compelling to so many people. A lot of people could relate to being teased for whatever reason.

  3. sarala

    I’ve heard recently from a couple of black kids who’ve been called “oreos.” It seems to be because they are from educated families who value learning. The name is painful to the kids and truly they don’t know how to fight back.
    Glad you brought up the debate.

  4. Ajuan Mance

    I think that the saddest thing about this type of teasing (calling young Black kids “oreo” or telling them they’re “acting white”) its that the young people on the receiving end often experience it as a rejection by the very people with whom they would like to seek community.

  5. Arwyn

    Hey Ajuan,

    I just had to weigh in on this one. I also agree there is truth to both sides. I went to a pretty mixed high school for 3 years and was told by some white friends on several occasions that I didn’t “act black.” I went to a predominently black high school my senior year and got asked things like, “Are you from England or something because you don’t sound American.” I also got the requisite Oreo comment. It’s tough both ways, but if I had to go through it again I would ask the white kids why they thought blacks had to act “ghetto” to act black and the black kids why I had to sound “ghetto” to sound black.

  6. Ajuan Mance

    Hi Arwyn! Thanks for sharing your experience. I often wonder why so much of the discussion of the “acting white” myth portrays the phenomenon in such a one-sided manner (as though Black students are the only ones who believe that certain interests and ways of speaking constitute “acting white”).

    And I feel the same way that you do. If I had it to do over, I would ask my peers why they believed that there was only one real way to “act Black.” I would love to have been able to see/hear the response.