Monday, August 8, 2011

The Burden of "Acting White": Fact or Fiction?

One of the most influential publications addressing the black-white achievement gap is the article "Black Students' School Success: Coping with the Burden of Acting White" written by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu in 1986. In it, Fordham and Ogbu claimed that the “burden of acting white” is pervasive in the black community and this partly explains the underachievement of black students (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986). Among black students, the term "acting white" is most often used in reference to other black students who use language or ways of speaking, display attitudes, behaviors or preferences, or engage in activities considered to be more in line with white cultural norms (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005). Though what constitutes acting white varies by region, social class, and age, some constant examples include listening to heavy metal or country music in addition to activities such as surfing. Most significantly, the term has been most used with respect to academic performance and success. One study, which used a focus group for its sample,  revealed the qualities most identified as "acting white" included 'being in honors or advanced placement classes' in addition to other items such as 'dressing clothes from the Gap or Abercrombie and Fitch.'  (Neal-Barrett, 2001). Fordham and Ogbu (1986) asserted that  the negative connotation associated with the term "acting white" was part of a larger oppositional peer culture constructed by black Americans in response to their history of enslavement and the persistent inequality they face. Furthermore, academic achievement was posited to not be valued because it is perceived as conforming to standard norms of success among white Americans and also because it is perceived to not pay off for African Americans the way that it does for other racial or ethnic groups (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986). As a result, African American students striving for success often have their cultural authenticity called into question and are accused of "acting white." The choice between representing an authentic (black) self and striving for academic success is what is purported to create the burden of acting white and contribute to the poor academic achievement among black students (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986).

Although Fordham and Ogbu's (1986) paper was published 25 years ago, there has been little empirical evidence to substantiate the paper's claims; still there is a strong public belief in its assertions (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005).  Studies published since 1986 have discounted the oppositional culture hypothesis while others have found little empirical support for the related "burden of acting white" hypothesis. For example, Ainsworth & Downey (1998) found that blacks actually had more pro-school attitudes than white students. Similarly, Cook and Ludwig (1998) found no significant difference between black and white adolescents in the degree to which they valued academic achievement; this study also found that there were more social benefits than costs for African American students regarding high academic achievement. There are a few studies that have, however, found some evidence of an oppositional culture among black students. Neal-Barnett (2001) found that high-achieving black students are often charged with "acting white" and some respond by undermining their academic performance in order to affirm that they are an authentic member of their racial group. Thus, results are mixed in terms of being able to state definitively that poor academic achievement among African Americans is the result of not wanting to conform to white cultural norms though the literature as a whole indicates that there may be other more significant factors than this contributing to the achievement gap.

In their 2005 study, Tyson, Darity and Castellino (2005) sought to contribute to the debate about the burden of "acting white." Specifically, the study looked at more than one or two school environments (including eight North Carolina schools in its sample), a rarity in this line of research, in order to get a clearer sense of whether an oppositional culture truly exists. This study also looked to distinguish the burden of acting white from other, less racialized dilemmas of high achievement. Overall, Tyson, Darity and Castellino (2005) found an expressed desire among black students to do well academically. In terms of the decision to take an honors or advanced placement class, student responses centered on how they thought they would do in the class with consideration of whether they thought they were academically prepared, how willing they were to take on the workload, and whether they were likely to earn a good grade (Tyson, Darity & Castellino, 2005). A large percentage of students chose not to take advanced courses, but not specifically due to concerns about negative peer reactions to achievement related to race (Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005). Interviews revealed that one student avoided advanced courses because she did not want to take on more school work while another student doubted his ability to master the material. An African American female in her last year of high school, said that black students "could fit in either [honors or regular classes] group, but I think they're more regular classes." When asked why, she says that, "Maybe they feel they can't do it...They wouldn't be able to make the grade in the class to pass (Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005). So, contrary to the burden of acting white hypothesis, many of the African American students who avoided advanced classes did so for fear of not doing well academically (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005). In terms of the motivation to not take honors classes, one must consider that all students, regardless of race, need to feel competent and that they work to preserve a positive self-concept (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005).

The accusation of "acting white" may not be extremely prevalent but there are students have been accused of this to some degree. Two high-achieving black female students at rural Dalton High School in Mayodan, NC reported being accused of acting white by their black peers due to their academic achievements. One student in particular was called a "white girl" and an "Oreo" by her black classmates in middle school after being placed in advanced courses (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005). The study also notes that, in some places, the underrepresentation of African Americans in honors and AP classes leaves them vulnerable to the perception that they are arrogant by their peers (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005). One student stated: "The problem comes from society because it is ingrained in us that blacks must act, speak, dress a certain way and if you deviate from those expected norms your blackness is questioned” (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005). Other students reported that "acting white" was again associated with non-academic related behaviors such as skateboarding or surfing. Overall, a burden of "acting white" was found to not be as pervasive in African American peer groups as Fordham and Ogbu (1986) would have one to believe. Black students were found to be teased for being smart, but such teasing was not found to be racialized (i.e. specifically linked to cultural identity); instead, it was found to be no different from the typical teasing that other high-achieving students experience. While the some students like the one called an "Oreo" were hurt by teasing, others found the teasing to be harmless and most downplayed its importance (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005).

Because the allegation of "acting white" overall did not deter students from enrolling in advanced courses, this study found little evidence that this was the primary reason that African American students tend to do poorly in school (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005). Additionally, reports from both African American and white students suggest that the burden of high achievement based on either race or social class may be a common experience in schools in which high-status groups are perceived to be privileged; as a result of their privilege, students in advanced courses may direct hostility toward them. Therefore, when African American students have oppositional attitudes, this orientation may not be the result of having been born black, but may be connected to everyday experiences of inequality in placement and achievement. In this same study, a similar process was found among low-status white students as class distinctions provided a way for them to understand their relative under-achievement while maintaining a positive self-concept. For blacks, academic achievement can become another characteristic delineating the "boundaries of whiteness" while for low-income white students, it can be a marker of social class (the "haves" versus the "have nots") (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005). Thus, most problematic for both blacks and low income whites was the perception that the low-status student was attempting to assume the characteristic of the "other" specifically taking on an air of superiority (Tyson, Darity, & Castelllino, 2005).The actual burden may therefore be more related to high achievement in general as opposed to "acting white." Associating high academic achievement with 'whiteness' may simply be the form that this burden takes in the African American community, making it more an element of a larger issue than an entirely race specific phenomenon.

More research needs to be conducted in to learn more about what role the burden of "acting white" may play in the achievement gap. The study by Tyson, Darity and Castellino (2005), however, reveals the burden may actually be related to actual composition of the advanced courses and how placement is such classes may create divisions and, as a result, animosities at the group level. It is still yet to be determined whether the actual burden of acting white as "real phenomena" is fact or fiction, but preliminary findings indicate that poor academic achievement is a complex, multi-faceted issue.


Ainsworth-Darnell, J.W. and Downey, D.B. (1998). Assessing the oppositional culture explanation for racial/ethnic differences in school performance. American Sociological Review 63:536-53.

Fordham, A. and Ogbu, J.U. (1986). Black students’ school success: coping with the ‘burden of acting white. The Urban Review 18:176-206.

 Cook, Philip J. and Jens Ludwig. (1998). The burden of acting white: do black adolescents disparage academic achievement. Pp. 275-400 in The Black-White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institute Press.

 Neal-Barnett, A. (2001). Being black: new thoughts on the old phenomenon of acting white.” Pp. 75-87 in Forging Links: African American Children: Clinical Developmental Perspectives edited by A. Neal-Barrett, J.M Contreras and K.A. Kerns. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Tyson, K., Darity, W., & Castellino, D.  R. (2005). It’s not “a black thing”: understanding the burden of acting white and other dilemmas of high achievement. American Sociological Review, 582-605.

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