Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
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.