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The Achievement Gap: Doing Well Means "Acting White"?
What does it mean to "look black" and "act white"? And how does this relate to the persistent achievement gap between black students and their white counterparts? Boston 9th-grader Paige Carruthers believes too many young blacks are getting the virulent message that they are "acting white" when they do well in school. This attitude is spread, and given an edge of intimidation, through the common use of racial slurs like "Oreo" (black on the outside, white on the inside). In her article, "Crumbling the 'Oreo' Stereotype," Ms. Carruthers writes, "Terms like these equate being articulate and smart to being white, and because of this, many African-Americans, afraid of being seen as 'betraying their roots' or being deemed a 'sell-out' don't strive to excel in school."
Ms. Carruthers isn't the first to observe the "acting white" phenomenon; John Ogbu, the late UC Berkeley professor of anthropology, wrote extensively on the subject. Residents of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a mixed-race town of mostly middle to upper-middle class families, hired Ogbu to help explain their persistent achievement gap, but the answer his study provided was a bitter pill to swallow.
Acting White and the Achievement Gap: Ogbu argued that black students in Shaker Heights were failing because of their own attitudes. In the East Bay Express article, "Rich, Black, Flunking," Ogbu explains that the average black students in Shaker Heights committed little effort in school, mostly because of a peer culture that equated academic success with "acting white," or a "renouncement of black identity." Ogbu concluded that "the African-American peer culture, by and large, put pressure on students not to do well in school, as if it were an affront to blackness." In a sad twist of irony, Ogbu himself was labeled by many as a sell-out who blamed the victim, a man with "no heart for his people." In effect, because he exposed the "acting white" phenomenon, Ogbu was accused of "acting white." Furthermore, most of the people in Shaker Heights continued to look for other answers to the achievement gap problem, discounting Ogbu's findings as irrelevant.
There is more than one influence behind the achievement gap, not least racism and unequal funding in our schools. But the "acting white" phenomenon within black youth culture is a critical factor, and one we can do something about. To ignore it does our children a disservice. The idea that you can be either black or smart, but not both, forces young people to make a false choice, and a dangerously unfair one. It is essential for adults to step up and take responsibility, as Ms. Carruthers suggests in a closing call to action: "The responsibility falls on the African-American community, which needs to celebrate achievement, rather than shun it."
In the complex, dangerous world we are sending our children into, only developed people can be truly free. As The Efficacy Institute's Vision/Mission statement puts it: "Developed people [are the only ones who] are free to find meaning, to build quality lives, and to leave a legacy of wisdom and humanity." Black students should grow up knowing it is educated people who are the greatest messengers of their heritage, not the other way around.
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