What is 'Acting White'?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 - 08:39 AM

In this new book, "Acting White," Stuart Buck has the guts to take on an issue that has marred Bill Cosby's reputation and strained relations between Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson. Buck is a white guy who adopted two brown kids, one from Haiti, and in his thoughtful, exhaustively researched book, I hear clearly the voice of a loving father.

This is not just a doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas, not just a graduate from Harvard Law School. Buck's children are 6 and 11. He sends them off to school everyday, as all parents do, knowing that he has no control over what may happen to them in the classroom or the playground. He can't protect them from what other children say to them, or change the way they are seen by teachers. And Buck is concerned; that's clear. He's worried that there are forces working against his kids, forces beyond his control that will make the tough job of achieving in the classroom even tougher.

The idea of "acting white" doesn't have roots in the African-American community. It began in the days after the Civil War and the era of Jim Crow, when successful, educated blacks were criticized by whites for "getting above themselves," "thinking they're white," "thinking they were somebody." In his book, Stuart Buck asks a provocative but totally relevant question: What happened between the 19th century and the 20th centuries? What moved the concept of "acting white" from white clubs to black dinner tables? And how did excelling in school become a sign that blacks were traitors to their race? Buck's answer is desegregation. He says that in our noble effort to desegregate schools, we essentially brought black kids into white schools. They closed black schools, fired black teachers and principals and created separate "honors" courses for white kids. But I'm not writing this to discuss his theory.

I highly recommend the book. Buck describes much more eloquently than I can the various studies that support his point. What I'm interested in is the flak he is already getting for writing the book. Some blacks wonder how this white guy dares spout his opinion about the subject. Bill Cosby got massacred in media for discussing the subject. Michael Eric Dyson called "acting white" the "academic equivalent of an urban legend." This is a myth! many say. Blacks don't associate high grades with white culture, and black kids with GPAs near 4.0 are not less popular than their classmates. You can believe that, but research disagrees. And if you don't like reading scientific studies, go to YouTube and type "acting white" into the search box. See how many video blogs from young black kids come up, most of them complaining that they've been told they aren't "black enough" or are "trying to be white."

So just for a moment, let's set aside the debate over whether or not "acting white" is a valid concern. And let's consider why it's not okay to talk about the issue. Why is Bill Cosby a monster for discussing his ideas, even if people don't agree. How can Barack Obama be a traitor to his race by mentioning the issue at the Democratic Convention in 2004?  traitor to his race? The very idea enrages me. By suggesting that someone has to conform to a certain philosophy in order to be really "black," one also suggests that there is somewhere a definition of "black." And that puts limits on our own the freedom, limits on our expression and individuality. It argues that we can be defined by the color of our skin and not by our character.

There are a number of theories about what causes the racial achievement gap in our schools. There is no end of credible ideas about how segregation and desegregation affected American culture. I don't think Stuart Buck thinks he has the answers to all of the questions about race in education. I also don't think Bill Cosby felt he had the definitive solution either. But they both believed the subject was important enough to talk about nationally. They have both risked their reputations to contribute to the conversation.

For once, leave the personal attacks out of it. For once, let's have a civil discussion. Let's take this opportunity to make children the priority and set our personal prejudices aside.  Even if Buck and Cosby are wrong, something is wrong in our schools and some of it involves race. Can't we calm down and talk about it? Or do we all need to spend a Saturday in detention and think about what we've done.

More in:

Comments [10]


Acting white or ethnics "selling out" isn't about proper "English" speaking or achieving success, it's about forgetting your culture and dignity to achieve this success!

Aug. 06 2010 02:08 PM
Lenny from Sacramento

Talking as if one is educated is not acting white, it is acting green. This is the green of money that goes with upward mobility and the good life. Apparently some people cannot seem to slip the cultural chains of bondage and victim hood and caste of their recent ancestors. You can take a black person out of the 'hood, AND you can take the 'hood out of a black person -- if that's their choice. Leave the self-chained fools behind and save your educated self. You can do it in America. Cosby is right.

Jul. 15 2010 02:31 PM
Tracey from Detroit

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard this epithet hurled my way - heck, if I had a nickel - I'd be rich beyond my wildest dreams. I heard this in grade school from my classmates because I preferred reading a book to playing basketball or dancing. I heard this in hig school because I was on the debate team, worked in the school library, and didn't use slang. I heard this from guys I dated because of the music I listened to, wanting to go to the museum instead of the club, or preferring an old black & white film to the latest throwaway "hood" comedy. I even got it from the Detroit Police Department a few years ago when my car was broken into - when I got a copy of the incident report, they listed me as "white" and got really dismissive when I went to the station and asked them to change it. There are so many facets to being black, so many ways to express ourselves, so many outlets to be authentic and true to ourselves and our race. The way my community is so determined to lock itself into a set, monolithic stereotype and look down on those who dare to step outside of that definition continues to frustrate and confound me. I love opera, reading, sushi, foreign films, a speaking voice with excellent diction, and NPR. I'm not a fan of BET, watermelon, football, weaves, collard greens, or speaking in slang to make someone not used to standard English feel comfortable. That's not acting white, that's me being me. And I'm as black as Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Michelle Obama, Joycelyn Elders, Fanny Lou Hamer, Maggie L. Walker, Dorothy Height, Suzan Lori Parks, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, my mother, grandmother, aunt, and sister - proud, intelligent, authentic, strong women who strived and still strive to be the best they can be.

Here endeth the rant. I have to go and buy this book. I may even give a few copies as presents.

Jul. 15 2010 01:33 PM
Patrick Harrington from work

The comment was made this morning comparing Zsa Zsa Gabor's and Governor Schwarzenegger's accents to ebonix. These accents are the result of a foreigner learning a new language. Ebonix is the reluctance to learn one's own language. This is an unfair comparison. There is a correct way to speak the English language. I didn't write the dictionary, and my feelings regarding the rules of the language are inconsequential as it concerns others perceptions made based on my ability to express myself correctly. People are free to express themselves however they choose but they are also responsible for how they speak.The intelligent person will see that if he/she is willing to accept the consequences of his/her choices, he/she may speak however (s)he wants. I am judged by the way I speak, so I choose to adhere to the English language rules.

Jul. 15 2010 10:45 AM
Stuart Buck from Arkansas

Thanks for a great interview and a thoughtful blog post here! Much appreciated.

Stuart Buck

Jul. 15 2010 09:39 AM
Esteban Castro from Detroit Mi

All of us as humans are victims of our separation. It gets worse as time passes. Once prosperous areas start to decline which leads to a flight as the most able of us move to "greener pastures". What is the big deal If our children embrace the ways of a different demographic segment? We now have lines between urban / suburban, suburban / exurban & even exurban / rural ! Each of these groups see America from a different perspective. The rural people don' want their kids to embrace the ways of the exurban kids who recently appeared in their township during the last housing boom. As the new economy hits all of us in some way we might be able to learn what really matters. MTV & VH1 are in charge of most teens behavior patterns. Is anything in one of those " Reality " shows actually real in any of our communities? What can be learned by someone who watches this type of programming ? It has removed true individualism. I notice that only our bad traits are celebrated on television. This includes all of us & we need to stop connecting color to behavior.

Jul. 15 2010 09:28 AM
Greg G from Georgia

As an African American I don't understand the argument about acting white. It is not about acting white or speaking white, it's should about speaking right. If you look up the pronounciation for the word ask, it does not put emphasis on any part of the word to pronounce it "ax", which is an entirely different word. When I was young I pronounced the word ask as ax and was asked by some white guys what I was talking about. After that I made it a point to pronounce words as they were supposed to be as spelled out in the dictionary. I don't think it is improper to point out to someone that they are mispronouncing a word, you just need to do it in a polite and proper way. Dialects and accents are one thing, but mispronouncing a word is something entirely different. I am not an english major or anything like that, I just believe that we should at least attempt to pronounce the english language correctly. We should want our young black kids to use proper english. It just might be the difference between getting hired for a job or not getting hired.

Jul. 15 2010 08:15 AM
Maria Elena from Detroit, Michigan

I must remind everyone that it is not exclusive to the Black experience in this country. I witness this issue in my community and in my family.
As a proud Motown Mejicana I embrace my culture, language and history. This has helped me navigate in the world we live. But that doesn't make me any more Latina than my friends and relatives who did not have the experiences I did. I realize that we all have different experiences that should be respected and at the least acknowledged. We are usually are worst enemies and need to get over it.
There is nothing wrong with achieving success.
Isn't that what the American Dream is all about?

Jul. 14 2010 06:09 PM
Pamela Lewis from Elmhurst

As an African American (born in the U.S. but of Guyanese heritage), I can very much identify with the topic on this morning's Takeaway. It is interesting to me noting the connection between speech pattern and the perception of "acting white," which I don't believe had been touched on during the discussion. Growing up, I was often "accused" of "speaking different/funny/like white" by my other black peers. Another possible contributor to this phenomenon might also be the influence of hip-hop and gangsta culture that has come to represent, for some, "authentic" blackness.

Jul. 14 2010 10:55 AM
Boris DeLaine from Durham,NC

This notion of "Acting White" has been present for at least thirty years in my personal experience. I face some of these comments from other Black Americans while in high school and college. The problem is most acute among Black American Men. It was not a problem for me, because I come from a very educated family. I have been mentoring several Black high school students and this is something that I have worked to turned their mind around. I am not certain of the origin of this notion, but I have seen to consequences of it. Great topic.

Jul. 14 2010 10:05 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.