At Vox, Jenée Desmond-Harris has a really great piece debunking the “acting white” myth, the widespread belief that racial disparities in school achievement are due to black people shaming each other for doing well than due to disparities in education access. You can find no end of people who swear they’ve seen this phenomenon, but attempts to study it show that it’s probably not a thing. Instead, you see a lot of people massaging data to try to prove it, even when the data actually shows the opposite. Desmond-Harris writes:
A prime example of a shaky study on this topic, according to Toldson, was Roland G. Fryer’s 2006 research paper “Acting White: The Social Price Paid by the Best and the Brightest Minority Students.” Published by Education Next, the Harvard economist purported to affirm Ogbu’s findings by using Add Health data to demonstrate that the highest-achieving black students in the schools he studied had few friends. “ My analysis confirms that acting white is a vexing reality within a subset of American schools,” Fryer wrote.
But the numbers didn’t actually add up to support the “acting white” theory, Toldson said. To start, the most popular black students in his study were the ones with 3.5 GPAs, and students with 4.0s had about as many friends as those with 3.0s. The least popular students? Those with less than a 2.5 GPA.
Further research shows that black students are more likely than their white counterparts to put a high value on good education, which makes sense, as white students have more assurance that they can fuck off during high school and still have a chance at a good career. She has an interesting examination of “nerd stigma” and how it affects all kids, regardless of race, and how it’s weird to pathologize it when it’s black students.
Anyway, you should read her piece. It’s really good! But the “nerd” part really got me to thinking about how selective the hand-wringing is over this supposed “acting white” phenomenon. Because a lot of what is going on when it comes to nerd stigma may not be racial, but what if it is, in fact, gendered? Being “weird” or having geeky interests are stigmatized for both boys and girls, but simply being bookish or interested in your studies seems like it draws less negative attention for girls than boys. There is definitely less pressure on girls to prove their “masculinity” by acting out and showing contempt for authority in class, as anyone who has spent a day in a high school classroom could tell you. “Acting white” might not be a thing, but what about boys and their fear of “acting girly”?
Clearly, it’s a question that deserves research attention. It may be a factor or not, and I’m not trying to take a stand either way on the question. But it’s worth pointing out that the same conservatives who are supposedly so worried that black kids are stigmatized for sitting still and paying attention suddenly have a very different view when it comes to gender’s effect on education. When it comes to boys falling behind girls, no one on the right is wailing about how the problem comes down to boys bullying each other for being nerds. On the contrary, schools are chastised and told to start, well, grading boys on a curve. They don’t put it that way, instead using euphemisms about how boys’ “style” is more boisterous and needs more accommodation, blah blah. But you get the picture: They want schools to continue giving boys good grades even when boys don’t follow the rules as well as girls. Unless said boys are black, apparently.
Just an observation on how transparent this is. When black students fall behind white students, the blame is assigned to the students themselves for supposedly not working hard enough. When the axis is gender, however, and boys fall behind girls, now it’s the fault of the schools themselves and the schools need to bend to meet boy culture. (Obviously, people who make this argument are largely picturing white boys, because if the students in question are students of color, then the responsibility for making sure they get good grades goes back to the students.) Whether or not an authoritarian style of teaching is best shifts depending on whether or not it preserves white male privilege or not. Fascinating, that.