Study: ‘Acting White’ Accusation
Has Damaging Legacy For Black Students
By David Pluviose
For many Black students, academic success often means eventually coming face-to-face with the “acting White” accusation. Though in many cases the accusation is laughed off and forgotten almost immediately, a recent study by Kent State University psychology professor Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett suggests that the psychological effects can follow a student into higher education.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study concludes that “acting White” really has little to do with White society. Instead, the accusation reflects the search for identity among Black youths. According to the study, the accusation generally comes into play when Black subcultures collide.
“Acting White can be one of the most hurtful accusations that one African-American adolescent hurls against another,” Neal-Barnett says. “When the accusation is made, what is being said is that your definition of being Black does not meet my definition of being Black. Indeed, your definition is wrong.”
Neal-Barnett and her research team surveyed almost 200 African-American adolescents enrolled in three types of high schools — predominantly White, predominantly Black and integrated — using the Acting White Experiences Scale®. The scale, developed by Neal-Barnett, contains 18 items that students rate on three dimensions: has the accusation happened in the past year; has it happened in my life and how bothered was I by the incident.
As opposed to past “acting White” studies that focused on academics, this study focused on social, peer, speech and academic comments.
“To lay the entire problem of academic achievement at the feet of the acting White accusation is incorrect. ‘Acting White’ is not ‘value academic success,’ although academic success may place some adolescents at risk to receive the acting White accusation,” Neal-Barnett says.
The study finds that adolescents make the accusation either as a joke or as a put-down. Though not everyone accused of acting White is affected by the charge, those who are experience the most psychological stress when the accusation is directed against social activities. Also, most adolescents accused of acting White spend some time exploring what it is to be Black, known as the “acting White trap,” and some alter their behavior to be “more Black.”
“Some adolescents realize relatively early that this behavior ‘is not who they are’ and abandon the effort. But for others, being what they think other kids want them to be rather then being themselves is preferable to having the accusation,” says Neal-Barnett.
The identity crisis that potentially results from the accusations “absolutely” extends to college, she says. “Coming to college is a time when you begin to question or to enhance your identity. We see this very clearly in the college population, particularly in freshmen and sophomores.”
Dr. Ben Reese, vice president for institutional equity at Duke University, says race is less of a factor than stereotypical “nerd” or “athletic” classifications in terms of impact on social development in grade school.
“There’s some questioning of whether ‘acting White’ is a model that is appropriate and as pervasive as we once thought. It may be more related to the ways in which students are grouped and categorized, at least the way students perceive different groups. And some of that may be correlated with race, but some of it may not be,” Reese says.
Dr. Jens Ludwig, assistant professor of public policy at Georgetown University, says the fear of “acting White” doesn’t affect educational outcomes for the vast majority of Blacks. But he points out research by Harvard economics professor Dr. Roland Fryer which suggests that the phenomenon may have some impact on high-achieving Blacks.
“What Roland finds is that there might be some social penalty to getting a GPA above 3.5 for African-Americans. And what we don’t know is the degree to which that affects how hard those relatively high-achieving kids try in school,” Ludwig says.
“For the majority of African-American kids, my own view is that this ‘acting White’ thing doesn’t matter very much,” he says. “In thinking about college admission and minority faculty, I would say the evidence is a bit more ambiguous right now.”
Nevertheless, Neal-Barnett says it’s crucial that educators, parents and psychologists not dismiss this phenomenon, because for the Blacks facing the accusation, it’s no laughing matter.
“Some kids who end up being fantastically successful spend some time in this ‘acting White trap’ — they’ll talk about how they didn’t seem to care, they started to act what the kids call ‘hardcore’ or ‘ghetto Black.’ … For some of these kids, it only lasted for a very short time. For other of these adolescents, it continued,” Neal-Barnett says. “For some of them, they choose an identity that is not truly them, but serves a protective function.”
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