You’ve probably heard it before: too many black students don’t do well in school because they think being smart means “acting white.”
It’s a popular thing to say, but it’s not true. At best, it’s a very creative interpretation of inadequate research and anecdotal evidence. At worst, it’s a messy attempt to transform the near-universal stigma attached to adolescent nerdiness into an indictment of black culture, while often ignoring the systemic inequality that contributes to the country’s racial achievement gap.
It’s no surprise that the “acting white” narrative resonates with a lot of people. After all, it echoes legitimate frustrations with a society that too often presents a narrow, stereotypical image of what it means to be black. It validates the experiences of African-American adults who remember being treated like they were different, or being smart but not popular in school. And for those who are sincerely interested in improving educational equality, it promises a quick fix. (“If they would just stop thinking being smart was ‘acting white,’ they could achieve anything!”)
The “acting white” theory also validates a particular social conservative worldview by placing the blame for disparate academic outcomes squarely on the backward ideas of black children and black cultural pathology, instead of harder-to-tackles factors like on socioeconomic inequality, implicit racial bias on the part of teachers, segregated and under-resourced schools, and the school discipline disparities that create what’s been called the school-to-prison pipeline.
So very high-achieving kids of all races experience social isolation at times. This is why there are plenty of high-achieving black kids to provide anecdotes about being socially shunned (and there are probably plenty of white kids who could do the same, but there isn’t the same appetite for collecting these stories to explain the white experience). And there are also plenty of black kids — many of whom are also smart —who have been accused of “acting white.” But there doesn’t appear to be much of a basis to connect the two experiences.
The “acting white” theory is tempting to believe because it does contains pieces of truth: Yes, there’s a racial academic achievement gap. Yes, there are plenty of African-American adults eager to tell stories about how they were shunned because they dared to be different. And yes, some super high-achieving black kids — like kids of all races — suffer social stigma. These individual facts are each painful, and they each resonate with people in a way that makes it easy to blur what’s missing from the “acting white” equation: an actual, causal connection between the accusations of acting white, social stigma, and lower academic outcomes. There isn’t one.
It’s particularly troubling that this myth persists, because stories about the sources of educational inequality can shape public attitudes and policy. A continued willingness to believe that solutions lie in simply repairing backward attitudes about getting good grades will continue to distract from the real problems: poverty, segregation, discipline disparities, teacher biases and other structural factors. Unfortunately, none of these issues is as easy to fix as simply changing the beliefs of black students.