African American Student Mobility through Education: “You sound white…”

D2B's picture

 African American Student Mobility through Education: “You sound white…”

            A current issue within the black community and the current education system is that of a growing population of struggling Black students and the criticism of educated black individuals who are being labeled “white” and/or possessing attributes of “whiteness”. What exactly does this mean? Researchers John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham state, “to ‘act white’ is to give up one’s minority identity” (Fordham & Ogbu, 2). It is a conceived within black communities that academically high achieving, Standard American English speaking, and well-read black individuals are in fact acting “white”. As troublesome as this is, the topic has not sunken in as a credible issue within the current education system despite the fact that it is a major impediment within the Black community and is contributing to the closure of the minority achievement gap.

            Black American students have been the topic of achievement gap debates for years. The achievement gap measured between minorities and their white peers has led to much action on the part of Boards of Education across the country. However this issue lies deeper than what surface incentives and structurally changes have been addressing. Rather than get to the root of infection, the education system continues to bandage up the wound and hope for the best. Expectations are set high for minority students and when they are not met, many students either get lost or lose hope for their achievement and their academic interests slowly dwindle away.

            So what exactly is going on and how does this theory of ‘acting white’ feed into issues with the achievement gap and solving the quandaries concerning minority students, especially black students? To combat this issue within the education of Black Americans, it is very important to understand deeply rooted issues at the base. Black students that make up the low-achieving groups maintain a similar attitude toward learning. They are thoroughly aware of “societal inequity in economic and social mobility for their group [and] may come to feel that education will have little usefulness for future life and occupational pursuits” (Bernat, 1077).

            The previous quote very clearly highlights a conscious move on the part of African American young students. It is not an issue of inability to achieve; it is an awareness of the racial reality of their societies and the choice to follow an alternate route. The article “Racial Identity and Academic Attainment Among African American Adolescents” continues the conversation stating,

…structural and educational barriers in American society have led to African American youths’ development of oppositional identities around academics, where academic achievement is viewed as the domain of Whites. Strong group identification or connectedness, then, is implicitly linked to “cultural values” where education is either not valued or not believed to be a route to mobility for one’s group. (Bernat, 1077)

The value African American students place on schooling is a big issue. It is not that they do not see or acknowledge positive academic achievements. Histories of subjugation and illiteracy have enforced generational mental and consequently emotional handicaps within Black communities. Hence, Black students are capable of high academic achievement but culturally and communally associate that achievement and effort with White groups who have always been afforded such opportunities. Years of this ideal led to the notion that Black students who exceed academic expectations are automatically not acting characteristically Black.

It is important to note some exemplary characteristics and behaviors of Black students who are labeled ‘white’ actors. These behaviors include “Speaking standard English”, “Going to the opera or ballet”, “Spending a lot of time in the library studying”, “Working hard to get good grades in school”, “Getting good grades in school”, “Doing volunteer work”, “Going camping, hiking…” and “Reading and listening to poetry”. To denote such activities and behaviors as characteristically ‘white’ is troublesome. It furthers the notion the opportunities and achievements are privileges of White communities and not Black communities.

It is not rare to hear a statement like ‘I don’t want to go to school and learn big words…I’ll lose myself’ coming from a Black high school student faced with higher education opportunities. Does this mean black students intentionally fail exams and perform poorly? Not necessarily, but it does suggest that these students enter the education system with an already discouraged and disinterested attitude that inhibits their learning capabilities and opportunities right off the bat. To do well within the education system is to be institutionalized by Whites, further removing one from his/her Black identity.

This leaves us at “How?” How can society and the system adjust themselves to allow Black students to change their views of academic excellence as the growth out of the minority (less educated Black community) and movement into the majority (educated White community) and the loss of one’s Black cultural identity and loyalty? Many agents must participate in social and academic renovation. Not only does the system’s approach need to change, but Black communities also need to take action and more ownership of the transfer of negative academic associations, mentally and culturally.

Group identification plays a great role in the slandering of higher educational achievements, which suggests that group-driven praise can affect academic attainment and achievement. It follows that “having strong group connection leads to higher academic motivation and, subsequently, better academic development through an awareness of societal inequities” (Bernat, 1077). If the Black community unifies with rather than disown its high achieving members, a group mentality toward academic success and achievement can and should manifest itself within Black culture. Though idealism seems to bolster this idea, the understanding and action of an enlightened education system can make such a movement realistic; “understanding the complexity and heterogeneity among African American youths’ race beliefs systems may help inform educational and intervention efforts focused on increasing African American youth achievement” (Bernat, 1079).

Teachers must also play their part, especially since they represent the system of education in flesh within the classroom. It is the case that a great majority teachers are either not privy to or could care less about understanding the cultural issues throughout the academic careers of Black students. Student attitudes either discourage or disinterest teachers and regimens of instructing the model student, to the pity of the less-achieving students, allows room for less-achieving students to slip into the cracks of a misunderstanding system. It is neglect and misunderstanding that is internalized the most by young students. Therefore, “the teacher’s failure to recognize the varied cultural contexts and plethora of reasons why all students do not necessarily ‘get it’ in the same way demonstrates the long-term and broad consequences of the oversight” (Harpalani, 24). It is necessary for teachers, who are in the classroom one-on-one with the students, to understand their students academic and cultural backgrounds to consequently gain access into their students’ learning capacities.

That being said, the educator’s view of minority, especially Black student, education needs to be adjusted. Systematic academic assistance needs to be seen and offered not as a hand out but as a careful and meaningful pathway to great personal, academic and social opportunity. Understanding will aid in the education efforts synthesized to increase African American student achievement. Why waste the system’s money on ineffective programs and ‘races’ that have proven over time to have no grand effect on struggling Black student learning and retention. Right now students are looking up to “rappers in ghettos as their role models…[and] at entertainers” (Lee, NYT, 1). The institution of programs integrating community and student counseling can prove to get down to the bottom of the issue that lies outside of but manifests inside the classroom, at once, in order to truly “divorce academic pursuit from the idea of acting white” (Fordham and Ogbu, 3)

Educators must “recognize [the] burden of acting white and make it a target of educational policies and remediation efforts” (Fordham and Ogbu, 3). The education system has to detach itself from a culture of visually bolstering and rewarding stereotypical high-achieving students, whether White or Black. If anything, such attempts on the part of the system have only discouraged, frustrated or reclused high-achieving students and schools. Furthermore it has created a competitive environment noxious for an already fragmented cultural group and in the race-to-the-top high achieving Black students are unwillingly being outcast from their cultural communities and seen as adversaries rather than exemplary role models.

Works Cited

Bernat, Debra Hilkene, et al. “Racial Identity and Academic Attainment Among African

American Adolescents.” Child Development 74.4 (2003): 1076-1090. Print.

Fordham, Signithia and John Ogbu. “Black Students’ School Success: Coping

With the ‘Burden of ‘Acting White.’” Urban Review 18.1 (1986): 176-206. Print.

Harpalani, Vinay, et al, “Identity and School Adjustment: Revisiting the “Acting White”

Assumption.” Educational Psychologist 36.1 (2001): 21-30. Print.

Lee, Felicia R. “Why Are Black Students Lagging?” New York Times. New York Times, 20 Nov. 2002. Web. 26 Sept.





David's picture

The study concludes, because

The study concludes, because shifts in student population might lead to shifts in teacher quality.

Paul Grobstein's picture

education as institutionalization or ... ?

"To do well within the education system is to be institutionalized ..."
The point is well made in the context of "Black students" and their culture, and clearly needs to be addressed, as you suggest, at multiple levels.  At the same time, it seems to me that you highlight an issue that actually transcends that context.  My guess is that a variety of students of different sorts and backgrounds similarly feel a disinclination to be "institutionalized," ie to acquire and wear the trappings of a dominant culture that they have, for one reason or another, found oppressive. Maybe this needs to be addressed as well at a level that transcends particular cultures and identities?  By developing educational practices and programs that invite participation in thinking about and reshaping cultures themselves? 

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