The Black Kid's Burden: Black Culture?
A couple of months back a PDF was posted on a website of a working document of a paper from the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University. Apparently, one of the authors, William Darity had given an interview to a publication and gave the address of the paper. The main reason he was interviewed was due to the then recent comments by Bill Cosby, specifically referring to the commonly spoken of issue of black students not wanting to “act white” by doing well in school. The title of the paper is “Breeding Animosity: The ‘Burden of Acting White’ and Other Problems of Status Group Hierarchies in Schools.”
What this paper attempted to do was explore the issue of “Acting white.” The authors came to the general conclusion that such a sentiment did not exist or at least exist to the extent that is generally believed. The problem I had with this was that to my knowledge the accusation was limited to a proportion of the black population and therefore would never be shown to be a “general assumption.” Let’s look at the general conclusion of the authors:
1) There is a general sentiment against high academic achievement among adolescents in North Carolina, regardless of race.
2) There is no evidence of the specific racialized form of opposition to high achievement –the burden of acting white – at the elementary school level. This suggests that it is not an attribute that is a cultural import from a widely held outlook in black America.
3) We do not find limited evidence of racialized peer pressure against academic achievement at the high school level. The context in which is most likely to occur is a school where black students are grossly underrepresented in the most demanding courses, e.g. Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors courses. For example, in a school where 40 –60 percent of students are black but only one or two make their way into AP or Honors classes, those one or two are more likely to be the object of the charge that they are “acting white.” Black students legitimately view those classes as the property of white students; they are overwhelmingly excluded.
Keep these things 3 things in mind because some of the data presented here will present you the reader with some interesting things to consider which this statement does not take in to consideration. Page 5 of the working paper has an interesting paragraph:
The term [acting white] also has come to be used with respect to indicators of academic performance and success (Bergin and Cooks 2002; Neil-Barnett 2001). Using focus groups to understand how black teenagers define “acting white,” Neal-Barnett (2001:82) reported that the list of items the students identified included “being in honors or advanced placement classes.” Incidentally, the list also included Speaking Standard English, dressing in clothes from the Gap or Abercrombie and Fitch rather than Tommy Hilfiger and Fubu, [and] wearing shorts in the winter (Neal-Barnett 2001:82)
What we should note is the issue of Standard English. It is well known that they way one speaks and the way one writes is connected. The less of a grip on language the less well a person does in areas that require reading comprehension. Thus it would be important to track the academic performances. The paper continues:
According to the theory, academic achievement is not valued among [certain] African Americans because it is perceived as conforming to standard norms of success among white Americans. Moreover, it does not pay off for blacks like it does for others.
Therefore, black students are confronted with a choice between representing an authentic “black” self or striving for academic success. Fordham and Ogbu claimed that this dilemma, this “burden of acting white,” that contributes [but not necessarily causes] to the relatively low academic performance of black students…faced with this dilemma, the authors believe, many black students choose to stifle their academic ability and achievement in order to stay true to the race and avoid charges of “acting white” and other ridicule and ostracism from their black peers. _-writers interspersed commentary and emphasis.
What is critical in this section is to remember that we are talking about a portion of the black population and that such attitudes are not necessarily causative of poor academic performance. What is also important to ask here, which is a question I will continue to ask during this analysis is: Who are these “peers?”
Something else to be considered from the paper:
Another more recent analysis of survey data from schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio, also found very little evidence of a peer culture that is oppositional to achievement among black adolescents (Ferguson 2001). Ferguson found that black and white students with similar family background characteristics were not very different in respect to their satisfaction with school, interests in their studies or opposition to achievement -writers emphasis
Shaker Heights, Ohio, is not a poor area. In fact, ABC recently did a news piece on Shaker Heights Ohio where the black families that first moved into that area conspired with the whites in that neighborhood to keep the area at a specific racial mix by denying opportunities to certain black families to move into the neighborhood. I would suppose in an effort to keep the neighborhood from going down hill. I could say that the parents in this particular instance were acting quite white but I would be digressing. The point here is that the finding of that study is not surprising given the attitude of the parents and perhaps the current inhabitants of Shaker Heights.
On odd addition to the study was a group of females who were members of the Nation Of Islam. I would not have expected any “oppositional” attitudes because of the ideology of the NOI do not foster that kind of attitude regardless of socio-economic placement.
However; a nice twist in the paper gives us a nice frame of reference:
But students in virtually all racial and ethnic groups confront similar dilemmas with respect to high academic achievement, and they also tend to employ similar strategies.
The question that should be asked here is what are the results of this? If Asians are exhibiting the same strategies, as claimed in this work, then why are their particular academic rankings so far ahead of blacks? In fact the only other group that exhibits similar academic issues as African-Americans are Hispanics, who in many urban areas live in similar neighborhoods and involve themselves in the same sub-cultures. We also must take into account the very specific phenomenon that blacks found themselves in regard to schools where there were told explicitly that certain types of academic achievement was “not for them.” Furthermore; we must look at the phenomenon of the “uppity nigger” and it’s affect of defining “black “ behavior.
Getting further into the paper we find the following:
We would expect to find evidence of a ‘burden of acting white” wherever we find black students, whether high or low achieving, for we assume that people carry their culture with them wherever they go.
Now I disagree with this statement. I do not expect to see such a burden in high achieving students because they are not susceptible to such ideas as they are not susceptible to the pressure of those who would accuse of “acting white.” The statement above assumes a monolithic “black culture” which does not exist. There are very distinct groupings of African-Americans of which only a few of them that actually get any real media or even academic attention. The next statement is at the heart of my disagreement with this paper:
in 2000-2001 =, we undertook a study for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction examining the under representation of minority students in rigorous courses and programs
As stated before, I believe that asking the folks least susceptible to “acting white” pressure about that pressure really proves nothing. In fact using my own experience as a student in AP classes, the people who had such “acting white” attitudes simply were not my peers and I had very little contact with them. In fact one individual that did have such an attitude about me only stated so about a month before we graduated. I suspect in this experience would be the same for other students in AP classes. But lets get on with the paper:
Both black and white students at the elementary level desired high achievement and to be perceived as “smart” by others…They received only support for their achievements from friends and peers, as long as they did not brag…
This is entirely expected. The American Educator, a UFT publication discussed how reading among students is level up to year 5 and then for some there is a steep drop off. On the issue of bragging, this is a sensitive issue and goes back to my issue of “uppity negroes.” What constitutes “bragging”? I recall having a discussion about my credit and saying how it was 700 and I wanted it to be better. The person I was talking to seemed put off. I then remembered that for many people 700 is the “holy grail.” And saying that I had above 700 credit constituted showing off to them, whereas with my peers, such talk is normal conversation and is a sign of striving and not bragging. So this concept of bragging is very much determined by people’s station in life and their mentality towards life. In fact such aversion to “bragging” may well be a manifestation of ‘acting white” regardless of how illogical it may seem. Let us look at the following statement:
None of the thirteen black of three biracial (with on black parent) elementary school students interviewed ever mentioned the term “acting white” in any context (although on white student at Georgetown did mention that black students accused her of “trying to act black” when she used slang) or gave indication of attitudes oppositional to school achievement. We believe as others have suggested, that race may not be salient a category for grade school children.
Umm how is it that race is not a salient category for grade schoolers, yet it is salient enough that black students felt confident enough to accuse a white student of acting black for using what could be described as racialize language patterns? They didn’t say she was trying to be “cool.” They specifically racialized her speech patterns. In fact the paper makes passing reference to this recognition:
For instance, a few teachers interviewed at Georgetown mentioned that students, even as early as kindergarten, recognized that many of the “smart” children were white, and the teachers expressed concerns about the impact this pattern had on the self-esteem of minority children
Indeed! I had asked to see this data but was unable to obtain it, but it would be very interesting to know how white students were so consistently recognized as “smart.”
Let’s look at the specific statements made by a student identified as “Marc”:
Most of the time, but a lot of the black people will think that they are better than the white people, or vice versa. Or black people will always pick on the white people about what they do [inaudible] and if you’re black and you act like you’re white, then they would hold it against you. The black people would not like you as much. … Well if your black and you act like your –you do stuff that the white people do, then, then, like skateboarding and stuff like that, then they say that you’re white and that you, I don’t know how you really say it, they just say that you’re really white and that you don’t care about everybody’s else that’s black… Just about everything that black people don’t do. Like if it’s not associated with like –I’m not talking about school –but drugs or shooting or something like that, then it’s considered black.
To quote Black Robb:
Talk about smoking guns here. Marc clearly indicates that he is aware of, if not affected by a mentality that black culture includes as its definition drugs and shooting. Now perhaps he’s just unable to express himself but it seems that from his statement that black behavior has by it’s definition things that are clearly anti-thetical to black achievement. And exactly why is it that black students think they are better than white ones? I would suspect it is a reaction to attitudes from white students. However the interviewer, from what I read did not attempt to discuss this issue with the people actually expressing these ideas to marc. Surely that would have uncovered something more useful. Instead we get:
interviewer: Okay. So does anybody say, “You’re in AG, you’re white. You act white?”
Of course not. If Marc rejected the “black behavior” that he described he could fail all his classes and still catch flack due to his other behavior. The acting white connection to academics is not necessarily a direct link, but rather an insidious inertia of attitudes pertaining to black behavior that manifests itself in poor academics.
Later in the paper the authors state:
In the present study, particular school circumstances gave rise to particular “strategies of action” among students. Rather than blame themselves for persistent academic failure and underperformance, low-achieving black students, such as those at Dalton, relied on their understanding of the history of race in America to make sense of the racial patterns of achievement they observed. Therefore, their attitudes and behavior is high school are not based on cultural values but rather are a response to the particular set of circumstances they encountered in school…
American Blacks are well aware of the history of race relations in America—the position of whites vis-à-vis that of blacks—and that the struggle for equality has traditionally been a collective one. Therefore when some blacks are perceived to be achieving success at the expense of others, or with little concern for fellow blacks, resentment arises
I don’t agree with the assessment. Nothing presented in the paper suggested that a large group of low-achievement students were the subject of the paper. The paper oft quoted students that were in the Advanced Placement courses or for various reasons decided against enrolling in AP classes. These examples cannot and do not address students who are failing, dropping or dropped out or are the sources of class disruption. As I noted before students who are in school and on track to graduate, whether in AP classes or not are not susceptible to the peer pressure to act “black” in the manner that was described by “marc.”
Furthermore, the average knowledge of “racial history” by black students in high school is extremely limited. Most high school students know little more than ‘we were slaves” the “Dream Speech” of Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, Jim Crow and a cursory knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement. And these would be the students that paid attention in history class. At best the documentation provided by the paper only shows that the students recognized that white students were more likely to be labeled “smart” and to be in AP classes. That really does not constitute a real working knowledge or fount of knowledge of “racial history” in America. Also what informs the perception of “some blacks achieving at the expense of others, or with little concern for fellow blacks?” How does a high school student with a very limited knowledge base of racial history in America determine that a black student in an AP class is doing so at the expense of “fellow blacks”? Such a perception must be based on some supposition, some learned experience that has to be a part of some section of black culture. It could randomly occur to so many students. Furthermore why would such attitudes also be seen in blacks that are not necessarily “disadvantaged”?
Let me conclude this commentary by going back to the central issue at hand, which really is: Is there, in general, a perception of what “black behavior” is? If there is can it explain the high drop out rates and poor academic performance that is observed in many black schools? In contrast why is it that poor blacks from other countries do not succumb to such peer pressure despite their poverty? In my mind the existence of blacks outside of the US who do not succumb to such “oppositional attitudes” means that there is a cultural component that may be intertwined with a general American attitude towards “smart” people, but when manifest in black populations can be even more destructive given the intense media programming of “real” black behavior. I believe that this paper would have been better served by focusing not on the people that do achieve but rather the ones that do fall to the wayside and/or under perform and why they did so. Not to ask them what they think of AP students.