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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Hair: When it’s on your head or isn’t.

Standing in front of a mirror in a white t-shirt, I thought I looked really, really white. And shiny. My scalp felt tight and tingly and, when I ran my palm over it, a little raspy. I was fifteen, and I’d just shaved my head for the first time. It was a nice enough head: not lumpy or pointy at all. Everyone told me I looked like Sinead O’Connor, which I didn’t. Over the next few weeks, a waitress mistook me for a boy in a skirt while I was at brunch with my family, and a kid in my class mistook me for his brother. My motives for shaving my head are long-forgotten, probably because they were weird and convoluted motives, but I learned something: I didn’t see the world any differently from inside a bald head.

My mother once said something to me about the way that femininity is tied to hair, something like “A woman without hair isn’t seen as a woman.” She was right, though her statement came from an experience very different from mine. People make assumptions and judgments about your gender identity and your sexuality when you don’t have a “feminine” hairstyle. Inside, I was still me: a mostly straight, mostly cisgendered person.  Outside, I was decidedly queer. For me, this was empowering. I was able to shrug off any negative experiences because they didn’t apply to my real identity, and embrace the escape from female stereotypes. People stopped assuming that I’d be submissive, ditzy, or emotional. I wasn’t objectified.
The positive, if superficial, feedback I had been used to receiving on my looks was missed. Sometimes, I was really self-conscious about my bald head. I’m not immune to social pressure, and I remember feeling hideous and embarrassed. With practice, I learned to see some new kinds of beauty in myself; I found the bunny-soft half-inch stage of growing my hair in and the arch and expression of the thick eyebrows that suddenly dominated my looks. I learned to really notice and appreciate being valued for my intelligence, though not yet for my kindness: I was not a kind teenager.
I wasn’t appropriating a symbol of some counterculture that didn’t apply to me or pretending to be something I wasn’t. My identity is complicated and I wear it in my heart, not on my skull. My skull I reserve for triumphs and mistakes in self-expression, convenience and daring. I’ve rocked a bald head, blue hair, a Mohawk and a buzz-cut. I’ve rocked bangs, spit curls, and long, mermaid hair. Sometimes, in the grow-out phase, I’ve rocked a mullet. There’s something to be said for all of it; Long hair is beautiful, wonderfully feminine and smooth to the touch; when I have short hair, I don’t have to wash or brush it every day, let alone keep track of hairties and bobby pins. I often look like a doofus, but I don’t care much.  My appearance is something I control, and if I feel like making the effort I can be gorgeous, tough, playful, lush, practical, feminine, androgynous, professional, alternative or look like a young Leonardo DiCaprio.