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Acting white, also known as “fear of acting white,” “burden of acting white,” “oppositional culture,” and “the cultural ecology model,” was coined by the anthropologists Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu in 1986. Often credited to the latter scholar, the theory emerged from research among black American high school students in Washington, D.C. Under its original constellation, Fordham and Ogbu argued that black students were ambivalent about or sometimes rejected high academic achievement because success in school was identified as a white domain. In an attempt to remain connected to their racial peers, black youth avoided being perceived as “acting white.” Despite the theories popular in American culture, however, there is little empirical evidence to prove that black youth disengage from school and that their underperformance is driven by cultural self-sabotage.
The acting white theory is rooted in perceived racial and ethnic differences. Ogbu distinguishes between involuntary minorities (minorities who were colonized or enslaved and migrated to the United States by force) and voluntary minorities (minorities who migrated to the United States by choice in search of better opportunities). Ogbu argued that involuntary minorities accumulated negative experiences with education and the labor market and experienced blockages to mobility. In response, the descendants of involuntary minorities came to reject the domains in which whites excelled, like school. They, thus, disengaged from schooling and resisted mainstream American values such as studying hard. The rejected mainstream American values were replaced with a set of oppositional cultural tastes. These “cultural inversions” resulted in negative relationships to skill development as well as to formal institutions like schools.
The acting white theory remains a popular theory in American culture and in lay explanations of educational inequality. In 2004, the then senator candidate Barack Obama invoked the theory as a fact and a cause of the educational underperformance of black students. Black youth deploy the epithet “You act white” when other black youth put in full effort around school, wear clothes that are not in vogue among their peer group, or listen to nonblack music. Ultimately, black youth who are accused of “acting white” are socially ostracized by other black students, while the majority of black students who are socially accepted are found to falter in academics.
Despite the popularity of acting white as a lay theory, empirical scrutiny of the formal theory and its lay alternatives has revealed thin evidence of the phenomenon. Part of the theory suggests that the oppositional cultural tastes of black youth lead them away from academic engagement. However, a careful study of low-income black and Latino/a youth reveals a balancing act between social acceptance along racial lines and academic lines. Whereas, Fordham and Ogbu posit discrete lines between racial peer group acceptance and academic achievement, ethnographic data suggest that black and Latino/a youth straddle multiple worlds to achieve social comfort and academic rigor. Even students who demonstrated having cultural tastes that conflicted with the mainstream culture still valued school as an institution helping them achieve social mobility.
The acting white hypothesis suggests that black students value education less than their white peers. It is important to note that the original study and the follow-up studies by the authors did not assess white attitudes toward school; they simply assumed that the above-average academic performance of whites was indicative of whites valuing school. In exploration of the relationship between attitudes toward school and academic achievement, some scholars have argued that black students suffer from an attitude-achievement paradox. The attitude-achievement paradox argues that students profess an abstract belief in the value of education but have few concrete practices that demonstrate commitment to education. This attitude-achievement paradox has however been observed across races and does not appear to be unique among black youth. Since the late 1990s, social scientists have used larger quantitative data sets in an attempt to parse out if there are meaningful differences in the valuation of education among races. Most of these quantitative studies have found little differences between black and white adolescents in valuation of school, with multiple studies finding greater proschool attitudes among black students than among whites. These analyses have also found that prior skills gaps, poverty, and other nonattitudinal factors drive the black-white test score gap, rather than cultural resistance.
The original acting white theory emerged from a predominantly black, high-poverty school, which may have influenced its findings. The structure of schools, who attends them, and how academic and social spaces are organized are consequential for building (or failing to build) human capital. Analysis of multiple school types revealed that “fear of acting white” is not a common phenomenon and that where it is present, the identification of academic success as a white domain was associated with within-school segregation of advanced placement courses. Some analysts have found that black students with very high grade point averages who attend schools with few black students may be socially penalized by their racial peers; however, these students and these schools are a minority within the national educational landscape and far removed from the population and the school type from which the theory was derived.
The theory of acting white has been a popular explanation for poor educational performance among black American youth. However, this popular explanation has not stood up to most qualitative and quantitative assessments of the theory. Where the phenomenon is present, it is small in scale and likely not the cause of academic underperformance. Instead, social science research has found that all high-achieving students experience forms of social penalty and that black youth, like all ethno-racial groups, have diverse responses to the cultural and structural conditions of the schools they attend.
- Carter, Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White. New York: Oxford University Press (2005).
- Fordham, Signithia and John Ogbu. “Black Students’ School Success: Coping With the ‘Burden of Acting White.’” The Urban Review, 18 (1986).
- Harris, Angel L. The Kids Don’t Want to Fail: Oppositional Culture and the Black-White Achievement Gap. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
- Lewis-McCoy, L’Heureux. Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press (2014).
- Tyson, Karolyn, William S. Darrity , and Domini R. Castellino. “It’s Not a ‘Black Thing’: Understanding the Burden of Acting White and Other Dilemmas of High Achievement.” American Sociological Review, v.70/4 (2005).