Acting White

Let me preface this by making it clear that I’m white and I can’t pretend to fully understand the experiences of the young people of color that I teach. I do, however, consider it worth my time to try to understand the social dynamics that operate in my classroom and that influence my students’ goals and self-efficacy.

I teach in a predominantly white high school in rural Arkansas. Most of the public schools around my district are much less diverse and serve a majority-black population. The numerous private schools in the region are almost exclusively white. Sean teaches in a school that has never been integrated. It was a white school until integration was mandated. That event coincided with the opening of a private school less than a mile away and LHS became a black school.

I had a conversation yesterday with a couple of colleagues about the phrase “acting white” and it’s still turning around in my head. Our black students use the phrase to deride other black students (or themselves) for appearing to put effort into school and for openly seeking success. The phrase associates success, earnestness and goody-two-shoesiness with whiteness, and implies that you can’t be black and successful or black and educated. It turns my colleague’s stomach, and mine, to hear them using this phrase because it’s a slap to the face of the few black kids who don’t fit the mold of “blackness”. Our students self-segregate during their social time. White kids have cliques and they congregate during lunch and before school according to their interests. There’s someone for everyone to talk to, some support system for every kind of weird, as long as you’re white. There aren’t enough black kids to form cliques, so they all hang together. If you are black, at P-W, it is much harder to be different than if you are white.

My colleague compared it to girls in sports, saying that if you’re a girl, you have to overcome a stereotype to play sports, but if you’re a boy, you have to overcome a stereotype to not play. That takes a lot of confidence, which isn’t abundant in teenagers. If you are black, especially if you’re male, you have to overcome a stereotype to even try to succeed in school. You have to reject your friends and your race and “act white” to gain access to the choices and privileges that we teachers work so hard to provide for our kids. One of the endless frustrations of this job is the kid who actively chooses to forego education, throwing everything you value and every bit of work you’ve done back in your face, daily. By demanding that she get an education, maybe we’re trashing her identity and throwing her values back in her face, and maybe the reaction, which seems so out of proportion, actually isn’t.

Though it makes me uncomfortable to hear my kids talk about “acting white” I want to validate them. They’re being accurate. They are describing a real phenomenon. Our society is dominated by white people who promote white values. Achieving success and being yourself requires sacrifice, and for some people it costs more than for others. For youth of color it can demand the sacrifice of a racial identity and a community. However you define success, you must recognize that it isn’t readily available to people of color, especially people of color who embrace black culture.

Because I am limited by my own experience, I’m going to compare this race issue to a gender issue again. As a woman, I’m uncomfortable traveling alone. I will never sleep on the street in Dubai, as a male friend recently recounted to me that he’d done during a long layover. It is absolutely horrible and unfair that I should be afraid to go out alone at night, but I am. I am afraid of strangers doing me physical harm, and that sucks. It’s not right, but it’s right that I should be afraid. My fear is justified. Just so, my students are justified in equating success with whiteness. It sucks. It’s unfair. It’s wrong, but it’s correct.

My colleague brought up the irony that we can’t change this injustice without more black role models, and to become a black role model, you have to act white. I’m not sure, yet, what I think of this statement.

Until yesterday, I don’t think I’d really come to grips with the personal, internal conflict that characterizes the achievement gap. Here I am at the end of my second year of teaching in a school with racial tension out the butt, and I’m just now comprehending, in a really personal way, the pressure that made J drop his Pre-AP classes, telling me he’d done it because “there’s so many white faces in there. I’m too stupid to be in that class.” When I moved here, I knew something about educational inequity, but I didn’t have any sense of the feelings that contribute to an individual’s experience of educational inequity. I do now, so I guess it’s time for some action. Ideas? How can I, in my role as math teacher of all things, empower the kids I work with every day to overcome social pressure and stereotypes?

It’s not an easy question. I’ll have to ask the kids.

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4 thoughts on “Acting White

  1. Really enjoyed reading this post, I found it a really thought-provoking read. As a white woman too, the gender comparison really works – it’s a bit like women having to act in ways associated with masculinity to succeed in the workplace (but are then shot down for being unwomanly. Thanks for the read!

  2. Sounds like you have some interesting conversations ahead of you. First thing you should tell “J” is to stop making excuses because things are getting difficult in his/her class. It’s a cop out, and he/she knows you will feel sympathy and won’t call him/her out for taking the easy way out and blaming it on an inferiority complex.

    You can do a lot as a math teacher. Math is a great equalizer. I just watched Stand & Deliver (80’s movie). Perhaps you can draw some inspiration from it. Another piece of advice coming from an educator as well as a black man – be genuine and go the distance with whatever you decide to do.

    • Thank you for the excellent advice. Genuine is easy for me, but I’ll have to choose a course of action carefully if I’m to go the distance. I have a pretty great relationship with J, though he’s no longer in my class, and I’m eager to talk to him on Monday. He’s very good in math: It’s the one area where he doesn’t hide his shine, and he originally decided to take Pre-AP classes because I pushed him to take mine last year. I think he’ll be honest and constructive with me about how I can support other kids, and maybe I’ll be able to wheedle him into registering for Pre-Calc.

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