Is “Acting White” a Real Thing?
The British Raj ruled India from 1858 to 1947, but the East India Company had long had its way with the country before that. When India did eventually achieve its independence, it did so by asking nicely even in the wake of British massacres of its people. Today, whites consider Gandhi an unambiguous hero, but in India people openly question whether Gandhi robbed them of the chance to fight for independence more conventionally.
I think Indians have a lot of weird and conflicting views toward white people as a result. There is resentment of them and their meddling in world affairs even as they use skin products look more like them. In movies, a white person might fall in love with an Indian protagonist, but the protagonist doesn’t reciprocate, thus showing his or her bizarrely defined goodness. Audiences considered this a happy ending to one of my favorite Bollywood movies:
After realising that Bhuvan loves Gauri, Elizabeth returns to London. Heartbroken, she remains unmarried for the rest of her life.
In real life, marrying a white person causes some initial consternation, but some people are still willing to label it as “marrying up”.
In a very understandable but moronic decision, India chose Hindi as its national language when the British left. English would have been a better and more practical choice, but you don’t kick out your oppressors but keep their language. I think this is part of the reason India ran to the arms of socialism. Socialism was terrible, but at least it wasn’t British.
All this is to say that I can understand why oppression can lead to weird, contradictory, self-destructive behaviors. One would expect to see these issues even more in the US where the Civil Rights Acts came a good twenty years after Indian independence, and all the white people still hung around afterward.
It would be understandable if minorities eschewed things considered culturally white even if it were to their detriment.
Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t seem to think this is true though. When Charles Barkley and Barack Obama cite cultural factors internal to blacks, Coates counters with:
For if black people are—as I maintain—no part of the problem, if the problem truly is 100 percent explained by white supremacy, then we are presented with a set of unfortunate facts about our home.
For context, here was Obama’s phrasing in the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote:
Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that 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.
I remember that speech, and I remember marveling in awe at how a politician could get on stage in front of a bunch of Democrats and actually say that the problem was not 100 percent explained by white supremacy. That’s what made him president.
There are a lot of things about black culture that are criticized, but “acting white” is a fascinating hypothesis for me (perhaps because I see the parallels in India). Though the notion is far older, “acting white” to my knowledge first entered academic discourse with a [gated] 1986 paper by Signithia Fordham and John U. Ogbu.
Fordham and Ogbu did an ethnographic study of a D.C. high school that described the bind that otherwise-high-performing black students were in. Do too well in classes, and you risk being accused of “acting white”. Students thus self-sabotage to avoid this problem.
Of course, this idea wasn’t going to be accepted without a fight, and it wasn’t. Karolyn Tyson, William Darity Jr., and Domini R. Castellino published this paper [gated] in 2005:
Using interviews and existing data from eight North Carolina secondary public schools, this article shows that black adolescents are generally achievement oriented and that racialized peer pressure against high academic achievement is not prevalent in all schools.
Typically, highachieving students, regardless of race, are to some degree stigmatized as “nerds” or “geeks.”
Though this paper is highly cited (it tells a nice story, after all), it seems an underwhelming counter to Fordham and Ogbu. Fordham and Ogbu didn’t claim that blacks are not “generally achievement oriented”. They said that blacks won’t strive to excel at the top end in a way that could make them seem like they were acting white.
It seems to me that if we want to answer these questions, we need better, more sensitive methods. We can’t really rely on self-reports of what students tell professors they value. What we need is this article [un-gated version!]:
To circumvent some of the problems inherent in self-reported popularity measures, we construct our own index of social status. For each student the index measures the number of same-race friends within her school, weighted by the social status of each friend (results are unaltered if we use all friends). We implement the index using detailed information on friendship networks within schools available in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). Add Health is, in many respects, the ideal data for understanding the existence of ‘acting white.’ To our knowledge, it is the only available data set that contains within-school friendship networks from which it is possible to construct novel, and arguably more objective, measures of social status, along with detailed data on parental characteristics, academic achievement, and so forth. The survey covers a sample of more than 90,000 junior-high and high-school students from 175 schools in 80 communities around the US.
Some problems with this approach come to mind. One is that perhaps it’s the friendless kids that have the time to study and thus unpopularity leads to good grades. Another is that perhaps when your grades go up you run out of people who could be your friends (assuming people self-segregate their friendships based on GPA), but the paper investigated this:
Accounting for the number of students at each GPA level does little to temper the ‘acting white’ effect
substitution towards other-race friendships does not fully explain the stark difference in the social status-achievement gradient.
Still, this shouldn’t be read as a wholesale endorsement of Fordham and Ogbu’s acting-white theory. In fact, it contradicts the idea of self-sabotage:
We argue that the empirical patterns are most consistent with a simple model of peer pressure. The principal idea is that individuals face a two-audience signaling quandary: signals that beget labor-market success are signals that induce peer rejection. The model’s two distinguishing predictions — racial differences in the relationship between peer-group acceptance and academic achievement will exist and these differences will be exacerbated in arenas that foster more interracial contact or increased mobility — are borne out in the data. Other models we consider, such as self-sabotage among black youth or the presence of an oppositional culture identity, fit much of the data, but are inconsistent with the fact that racial differences in the relationship between social status and academic achievement are larger in predominantly white schools relative to predominantly black ones.
Oh, and here are the results, by the way:
This is an endlessly intriguing graph. To my eye, white popularity monotonically increases with GPA. Maybe the jocks are still most popular, but it’s not the dumb ones who are on top.
By itself, the black popularity line actually seems to bear out most of the results claimed by Tyson et al who sought to discredit the acting-white hypothesis. Blacks are indeed “generally achievement oriented” when it comes to who they elevate as friendship material; the slope of the line is positive. Additionally, they do stigmatize high-achievers beyond a 3.5 GPA, perhaps as being nerds or geeks. What contradicts Tyson et al. is that we don’t see similar evidence of stigmatization of nerds among whites. If you’re a white nerd without any friends, don’t blame your GPA.
For blacks, 4.0 students have the same social status as 2.5 students after controls are included.
I have no idea what’s going on with Hispanic students. The socially best-off Hispanic students have about a 2.2 GPA. Getting a 4.0 while Hispanic will make you slightly less popular than Hitler. For some reason the “acting white” problem is associated in the media with black culture, but in black culture the effects seem moderate and isolated to high-achievers. If you’re black, you don’t have to worry about “acting white” until you hit a 3.5. For Hispanics, anything beyond passing is enough to reduce your popularity.
Regarding the robustness of the results and the friend-substitution hypothesis, the authors have worked this out:
The ‘acting white’ coefficient is also robust to different measures of social status. We include the following three alternative measures of social status: (1) a non-normalized version of our index; (2) same-race friends — measured as how many individuals j put i down as a friend; (3) all-race social status; and (4) other-race social status. Unless otherwise noted, these measures have been normalized such that they have a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one. The sign and magnitude of the ‘acting white’ coefficient for blacks and Hispanics is robust across the first three measures. The positive coefficient on other-race social status suggests that blacks and Hispanics substitute towards other-race friends in the presence of ‘acting white’. The magnitude of the coefficient, however, is significantly smaller so that, on net, ‘acting white’ (race effect minus the substitution effect) still dominates. Blacks and Hispanics with a GPA above 3.5 are actually losing other-race friends, exacerbating the effect of ‘acting white’ among this select group. This result is surprising, as one might expect high-achieving minority students to find refuge among high-achieving whites. [citations removed, emphasis added]
Scoring above a 3.5 while black or Hispanic costs you both same-race and other-race friends. This is unsettling, and I’m at a loss to come up with a ready explanation for it. (From here on, I’m going to conflate “white” with “other-race”; just roll with it.)
Why would white students be more comfortable being friends with a black or Hispanic 3.5 student than a black or Hispanic 4.0 student? White students seem to also be punishing black and Hispanic students for “acting white”.
Let me say that again:
White students seem to also be punishing black and Hispanic students for “acting white”.
So, remember that pernicious aspect of black culture that prevents them from excelling? It’s also a part of white culture, but one it only applies to socializing with blacks.
It’s almost as if whites are supposed to be a certain way and blacks are supposed to be a certain way, and deviating from those ways comes with a cost. It’s OK and even desirable to be a 4.0 white student, and it’s OK and desirable to be a 3.5 black student, but being a 4.0 black student makes you more of an oddity that needs explanation.
To summarize, yes, black culture does seem to punish its members for acting white, but only above a 3.5 GPA. Also, it still generally rewards academic achievement up to that point. Additionally, white (actually other-race) culture also punishes blacks for acting white. This doesn’t appear to be a problem of black culture that whites can scold blacks for without also pointing the finger at themselves.
Edit: One limitation of the Fryer and Torelli study that I forgot to note is that their data set studies white, black, and Hispanic *school* culture. I don’t think they make any attempt to determine how anyone outside of the within-school peer structure regards academic achievement. It does not examine how the communities as a whole might regard students of different races and GPAs.