You might think any kid who can excel in school would have a few fans cheering him on, but for many black students across the country, academic achievement is equivalent to community betrayal. “[Other students] feel they’re supposed to be cool, and cool is not supposed to be making good grades in school,” reports a Norfolk, Virginia newspaper article from 2006, quoting Courtney Smith, who became a journalism major at Norfolk State. She didn’t care that the other students said she thought she was white and better than them. She just wanted to excel, but what does “acting white” have to do with that?
This idea, that some black students believe they have better things to do than to study hard, is the subject of Stuart Buck’s book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, released this week from Yale University Press. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, and studies back it up. The idea of “acting white” abounds within evenly integrated schools. Where students are mostly white or mostly black, Buck says they are more-or-less forced to get along, but in schools with black vs. white student ratios that are close to even, black students tend to define themselves against the academic achievers.
Buck’s presentation of the groupthink dynamic makes the book for me. It’s fascinating to read how group psychology can emerge wherever young people can be divided, regardless the meaning of the groups. Instinctively, people will favor their group over other groups, even when there’s no intrinsic strength in their group. It’s us vs. them, whoever they are. That’s the dynamic at play when black students accuse other black students of “acting white.” Humans are tribal, Buck observes, and homophily or friendship with those like you is strong within races and ethnicity groups. I think it’s fairly strong among political parties too. Continue reading Is Black Achievement in School “Acting White”?