Friday, August 13, 2004

Acting White

UPDATE:

After wondering about "acting white" in the original post back in 2004, I spent the subsequent several years writing a book on "acting white." It has just been published by Yale University Press. Go here to purchase it.

ORIGINAL POST FROM 2004:
I've been wondering where the whole idea of criticizing academic success as "acting white" came from in the first place. I'm particular curious, because having read several books on black education under segregation, I can't find a single trace of black schoolchildren anywhere taking that attitude towards education in, say, 1920 or 1950. Whereas it is now commonplace to read about such criticisms. I asked my old professor and mentor Randy Kennedy at Harvard what he thought about the origins of this phrase, but he didn't have any leads.

I was therefore somewhat surprised to read this account of the phrase being used by whites. Here's a quote from a book I just read, discussing white attitudes toward black education under Jim Crow:
Some White southerners suggests that schools for African Americans were dangerous because they created hot-beds of arrogance and aggression, and tended to make African Americans idle and vicious and enabled them to compete with Whites. Furthermore, when African Americans insisted on establishing classical liberal courses of study in their schools, they were hungry for prestige and merely "imitating Whites" or "acting White" (Anderson 1988).
Vivian Gunn Morris & Curtis L. Morris, The Price They Paid: Desegregation in an African American Community 21 (2002) (citing J.D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South: 1860-1935 (1988)).

Of course, that makes perfect sense: Southern whites commonly forbade blacks to become educated, to learn to read, etc., etc. It is entirely consistent that some of them would criticize academic achievement as trying to "act white." So that may be where the phrase came from after all.

But if that is indeed the phrase's origin, the real question is this: How on earth did an instrument of segregationist oppression become transformed into something that many black school-children now say to each other??

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What, like "nigger"? It's hardly a unique phenomenon.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

When blacks call each other "nigger," the intent (so I understand) is far different than if a white racist used that word. The word "nigger" simply has a different connotation in that context.

But when some blacks say that academic success is "acting white," the meaning is the same as when white segregationists used that phrase: "Academic achievement is inconsistent with your race." That's what needs to be explained.

1:24 PM  
Blogger ATW said...

In the South African experience I'd certainly concur that the phrase's origin was that of "an instrument of segregationist oppression" and that it originated from white criticism of any attempts by black people to advance socially, financially or academically.

I heard it used most often in a threatening manner: "You are becoming too white..", much as one would admonish a petulant child. Ironically I have also heard it used in a very similar context between white schoolchildren of different seniority where the older child has used it too indicate to a junior that the junior is acting in a manner to which he is not entitled too act. This implying that the phrase had it's origins in race but had meaning beyond it.

Hearteningly I must report however that the widespread use of this phrase in both English and Afrikaans now appears to have been assigned to history as I have not heard it in the last 10 years or so.

The prize of academic success among black South African schoolchildren at this stage is such (and I can only hope) that the phrase is unlikely to be revived between black schoolchildren.

5:38 AM  
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