Accused of 'acting white'

Friday, May 23, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Brandon Stewart poses with other graduate students at the GPC Happy Hour at Bengal's on Sixth Street on May 2.

SEDALIA — Smith-Cotton High School junior Ceci Perez and senior Cecilia Sotelo shouldn’t have any trouble coming up with a list of extracurricular activities to include on their high school resumes.

Perez could include the A+ program, which offers scholarships to students who serve as teaching assistants; foreign language club; pep club; student council; class secretary; Future Teachers of America; and soccer. She was recently elected to be a senior class officer.


Related Media

Sotelo would probably list pep club, foreign language club, student council and National Honors Society on her resume. She is also Battalion Commander of the Army’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which she said is kind of like being president of the program.

But the two girls are unusual at Smith-Cotton. Any Hispanic student can join any school club, but not many participate, the girls say.

“I see major group separation,” Perez said.

Sotelo said she sees this happen in all groups, not just among Spanish speakers. But many Hispanics, she said, go to school and are content just to get their diploma and call it a day.

Perez and Sotelo could leave it at that, but there’s more to it. They say they’re subjected to a kind of pressure for being involved in clubs that have “too many whites, too many preps.” Sotelo notices the funny looks she gets.

The girls say they’re being judged for “acting white,” a social offense that minority students are sometimes accused of committing when they try hard to get good grades, read books for fun or join clubs.

The charge of “acting white” is also leveled at students for making the wrong kind of friends. If a student has a lot of friends of a different race, then he or she may be said to be trying to act like that race.

Perez and Sotelo attempt to ignore their peers’ disapproval.

“I really try not to care a lot,” Sotelo said. “I’m just trying to get an education and go to college.”

Perez said she sometimes feels like other Hispanic students think she’s stuck up.

“They might think I’m trying to be a white girl, but I’m just trying to get involved, go to college,” Perez said.

“Acting white”

There is no formal definition of “acting white,” but it has been the subject of research at Harvard and other universities and has been discussed on Web sites such as It’s been the subject of articles in The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Not even presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has escaped the accusation.

Last year, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Obama was “acting like he’s white,” based on the senator’s reaction (or lack thereof) to the arrest of six black students in the “Jena 6” incident, according to news reports at the time.

Jackson later denied making such statements and reaffirmed his prior endorsement of Obama.

Roland Fryer, assistant professor of economics at Harvard, has researched “acting white.” In his 2006 study by the same name, he defines it as “a set of social interactions in which minority adolescents who get good grades in school enjoy less social popularity than white students who do well academically.”

Plotting grade point average on a 4.0 scale and popularity on two axes, Fryer found that white, black and Hispanic students became more popular as their GPA increased until it reached 2.5, roughly an even mix of Bs and Cs. At that point, differences emerged.

White students’ popularity continued to increase with their GPAs, meaning the most popular white students were those with a 4.0. The popularity of black students increased with their GPAs until the 3.5 mark. Once they passed this level, they began to have fewer and fewer friends, according to Fryer’s study.

“A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer friends of the same ethnicity than a white student with the same GPA,” according to the study. “Put differently, a black student with straight As is no more popular than a black student with a 2.9 GPA, but high-achieving whites are at the top of the popularity pyramid.”

Hispanics’ popularity began to decrease as soon as their GPAs hit 2.5. Those with a 4.0 were the least popular of all Hispanic students, according to the study.

In addition, “the social costs of a high GPA are most pronounced for adolescent males,” according to the study. This means that black male high achievers have fewer friends than do female ones. The differences between male and female Hispanics were not statistically significant.

Fryer also looked at private and segregated schools and said “the evidence indicates that the social disease (of ‘acting white’), whatever its cause, is most prevalent in racially integrated public schools.”

“It’s less of a problem in the private sector and in predominantly black schools,” according to the study.

“It’s not a ‘black thing’”

Even though the idea of “acting white” has been around for a long time, it has not always been connected with academic behaviors, such as grades or class choices, said Karolyn Tyson, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1970 after desegregation, black students became concerned that they would begin to act white, but the focus was on how they spoke, what clothes they wore and how they styled their hair, she said. It wasn’t until 1986 that two researchers applied the concept of “acting white” to academics.

Tyson said as she studied education and race, she could not find any evidence that black students were disengaging or downplaying their ability or achievement. In fact, when she studied black elementary schools, she met students who cried if they didn’t get a star on the board or do well on a test. The finding is the opposite of what she would expect to find if blacks didn’t value education, she said.

In 2005, Tyson, William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy studies and African-American studies and economics at Duke University, and Domini Castellino, a research scientist at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke, published a study called “It’s Not a ‘Black Thing’: Understanding the Burden of Acting White and Other Dilemmas of High Achievement.”

They interviewed students at eight different middle schools and high schools in North Carolina and found that “a burden of acting white exists for some black students, but that it is not prevalent among the group,” according to the study.

So while “acting white” does exist, neither culture nor anti-achievement is an accurate explanation. It’s not even that black students don’t care about the things that white students value — in this case, education.

Instead, it’s a result of schooling, Tyson said. The real problem is tracking, which is the practice of putting students in different levels of classes, whether regular, honors or advanced placement.

While the racial composition of schools may differ, Tyson said the research generally found white and Asian students in upper-level courses and black, Hispanic and American-Indian students in the lower-level ones.

This “racial hierarchy” only exists in schools with racially diverse populations. If a school is predominately black, for example, the AP and honors classes will have a majority of black students, so “you don’t get the same perception of academic achievement and race,” Tyson said.

Shirley Tucker, teacher of English for speakers of other languages at Smith-Cotton, said that although there are overachievers and students who don’t do as well in school, that’s determined by how much parents emphasize education.

“I don’t think it’s cultural; I don’t think it’s racial,” Tucker said. “With the kids, it depends on what their parents have taught them.”

Another factor that may contribute to the achievement gap between whites and blacks is racism and discrimination by teachers and administrators, although that doesn’t account for everything, Tyson said.

“When you construct that problem (of ‘acting white’) as a problem of the attitudes of the students, it allows the schools to say there’s nothing we can do about that,” Tyson said.

An everyday struggle

Brandon Stewart, a second-year graduate student in international business at MU, said he has received a lot of criticism, mainly within the black community, for “acting white.”

“I struggle with it every day,” he said.

In high school, Stewart was teased because he did not the fit the image of being black. He played volleyball, not basketball or football. He showed his intelligence in the way he spoke and carried himself when he should have been quiet and low-key with a thug-like mentality and athletic ability, he said.

Stewart also said he was picked on because he didn’t fit the stereotype of an intimidating black man who was ready to fight somebody.

“People would mess with me, thinking I was weak or something,” he said.

Stewart was also criticized for taking a lot of advanced placement classes.

His classmates would say, “You’re the whitest black boy that I ever met,” and label him an “Oreo” — black on the outside, white on the inside.

“There were days that it hurt like hell,” Stewart said. “There are still images that I remember that I’d like to forget.”

He said he also caught flak as an undergraduate at MU for not wearing the newest clothes and for being too verbal and outspoken.

He was asked a lot of questions that seemed focused not on understanding him, but on figuring him out, “like I’m a math problem to be solved, not a person to get to know,” he said.

He said he feels more empowered as a graduate student and the experience has solidified his sense of self. While there is pressure at the undergraduate level to fit into a box, he said, he now feels like he exists above the rat race.

Unfortunately, “acting white” is a problem that most likely won’t easily go away.

“I think the issue is too complex and too extensive that it’s not something that you can deal with,” Stewart said. “My grandkids are going to be dealing with this — elements of this — long after I’m gone.”

Avoiding the ‘sellout’ label

Samuel Martin, a Rock Bridge High School guidance counselor, acknowledges he doesn’t know what goes on in classroom conversations. But he has heard students, specifically black students, speak positively about their peers who succeed. He hears respect.

“I think they’re proud of kids who are successful,” Martin said.

Martin said this respect is not like anything he experienced when he was in high school.

He grew up in St. Louis and went to a predominantly black high school, as opposed to Rock Bridge, where 81 percent of students are white. His high school was a completely different environment.

Even there, students were still teased for their achievements, though some were spared.

For example, Martin’s godbrother scored a 32 on his ACT but was not considered a “sellout.”

“I think he did it with little effort, is probably what saved him the most,” Martin said.

Martin says his godbrother didn’t study and his GPA was in the low 2s. He also exhibited “black behavior,” such as rapping, which kept people from questioning his “blackness,” Martin said.

He had another friend who fit the stereotype of what people from the “hood” were supposed to look like, he said. The friend had tattoos and a gold tooth. He was also a straight-A student. He went to college on an academic scholarship, and Martin said people considered him a hero.

“If you look at him, you wouldn’t look at him and say, ‘Oh, this dude’s a sellout,’” Martin said. “You look at him and you say, ‘Oh, he’s just like me.’”

Who do you hang with?

“Acting white” doesn’t just apply to academics; it also seeps into the social sphere.

Jasmine Lopez, a Latina sophomore at Hickman High School, said while most of her friends are white or black, she feels pressure from other students of these races, as well as her own, to stay within the Latino community.

She said other Hispanic students think that she’s trying to be white if she hangs out with white students, or that she’s trying to be black when she hangs out with black students.

“And I get really offended by that,” Lopez said. “It doesn’t really matter the race, you know? As long as they’re cool people, I’m okay with that. I don’t like to be singled out by my race.”

She said she sees other people get pressured into being something they’re not, but it’s important to be yourself, regardless of what others say.

“It bothers me because I don’t want them to think, ‘She’s trying not to be Mexican.’ I’m Mexican and you can’t change that,” she said. She’s proud of the fact, she says.

She keeps her goals in mind.

“To me, the most important thing right now is my grades,” Lopez said. “I just want my education and to go to college and graduate.”

Lopez’s friend, Jordan Carter, a sophomore at Hickman High School, says she doesn’t understand why Lopez is treated the way she is. Carter’s biological father is Salvadoran, her biological mother is white, and she was adopted into a white family.

“For me, it’s not a problem, but for my friend, it is,” Carter said. “She’s Mexican, but she doesn’t hang out with all the Mexicans. Actually, I do.

“I hang out with some of them sometimes and they, like, some of them have said, ‘Oh, you try to act white’ and stuff because she doesn’t hang out with them, and that doesn’t make sense to me ’cause they don’t say that to me, and it’s not really any different.”

In-group pressure

Like Lopez, Dolores Obregon, an MU sophomore, said she’s proud of her heritage but tries not to let it define her. She says she hasn’t felt pressure to stay within her own racial group in college. She seeks friends based on common interests instead of a common race.

“I don’t feel like I need to depend on Hispanic students to uplift me,” Obregon said.

Josh Copeland, an MU senior who is black, said there is a pressure at MU to stay within one’s racial group.

He describes MU as a segregated campus: “Black people hang with black people. White people hang with white people.”

Some blacks worry about not being accepted by the black community, Copeland said. They may think: “I’m gonna hang with black people because if black people see me hanging with white people, they’re gonna think, ‘Oh, he’s not one of us.’”

And the black community does sometimes say those people aren’t identifying with their race, that they aren’t identifying with the struggles black people have, he said.

But Copeland said this doesn’t describe him.

“If I’m walking with a group of white people on campus, I don’t worry about what black people think,” he said.

Regardless, he said it is a problem.

“There’s no good reason for judging a person because of who they hang with or the color of their skin, so whenever it happens, it’s gonna be a problem,” Copeland said.

Roots and solutions

Pam Crafton, a Smith-Cotton guidance counselor, thinks few Smith-Cotton students face discrimination. “We have a very tolerant student body,” she said.

She sees the tendency to stay in one’s own cultural group differently.

“Many of our Hispanic students, English is a second language for them, and I think it’s more a comfort, so, you know, it’s something that they’re used to, a language that they’re used to, and it’s more comfortable for them,” Crafton said.

Juan Frausto, an interpreter at Smith-Cotton, has worked at the school for five years and said he also thinks the language barrier is the real problem for students.

“They don’t feel capable of getting involved, even if they are,” Frausto said.

Another reason is lack of motivation.

“They just don’t care. They just want to work,” he said. “They figure, ‘Why waste my time?’”

These students are often shy and not integrated, but it might help if they realized there are other Latino students, such as Perez and Sotelo, who try to get the most out of their school experience, he said.

Perez thinks it would also help if there were more Hispanics whom students could go to for help, people like Frausto.

Martin said schools should give positive role models to students. Then students could see that they can exhibit positive behaviors without selling out or losing themselves culturally and ethnically.

When students are affirmed in their identity, criticisms “don’t exist as much; dare I say they disappear?” he said.

Perez said she wishes she could ask the students who don’t take advantage of school activities what they’re going to do in the future, if they’re content to be like their parents and work in factories.

“I mean, I don’t wanna do that,” she said.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Mike Bellman May 23, 2008 | 10:40 a.m.

According to this article there's very little Columbia Public Schools can do about the achievement gap - one of it's foremost priorities, as long as this social tidepool continues.

It's not the teachers. It's not the 'system'. It's not the standardized tests.

It's an inherent social structure. The schools do a great job offering equal access to all students and celebrating multiculturalism. It's up to brave students like the ones in this article to bridge the achievement gap.

The number one goal for schools should be simply, achievement.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.