Acting White Essay

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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.


  1. Carter, Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White.  New York: Oxford University Press (2005).
  2. Fordham, Signithia and John Ogbu. “Black Students’ School Success: Coping With the ‘Burden of Acting White.’” The Urban Review, 18 (1986).
  3. Harris, Angel L. The Kids Don’t Want to Fail: Oppositional Culture  and the Black-White Achievement Gap. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  4. Lewis-McCoy, L’Heureux.  Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban  Schooling. Stanford,  CA: Stanford  University Press (2014).
  5. 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).

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