In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section “Acting White” and Oppositional Culture in Education

  • Introduction
  • Studies and Arguments about “Acting White” and Academic Achievement in K-12 Education
  • On the Oppositional Culture Explanation and Its Debates in Society and Education
  • Competing Conceptual Frameworks and Theories to the “Oppositional Culture” Explanations
  • “Acting White” and Academic Achievement in Higher Education and Greater Society
  • Acting White and Variations in Meaning Across School Contexts
  • Oppositional Culture, “Acting White,” and Immigrant Students’ Achievement
  • “Acting White” on a Global Scale

African American Studies “Acting White” and Oppositional Culture in Education
by
Chinyere Odim, Prudence Carter
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0123

Introduction

In academic discourse, the concept of “acting white” became popular after the 1986 publication of a seminal article in the Urban Review, written by anthropologists of education, Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu. They posited that African American high school students were “burdened” by a need to negotiate their academic achievement with their racial identities. Findings from their empirical study showed that students equated achievement with conformity or “acting white.” Students who worked hard and gained high marks experienced social stigma from their peers. Specifically, Fordham and Ogbu contended that contemporary African American adolescents resist “acting white” by avoiding or rejecting those social behavioral patterns that they associate with whiteness—embracing the school curriculum, speaking standard English, spending much time in the library, or getting good grades, for example. Consequently, they participate in their own academic underachievement. The researchers argued that there is a cultural distrust in schools among African Americans, the result of their precarity within mainstream, white institutions. Primarily, the “burden of acting white” thesis serves as a popularized articulation of the “oppositional culture” explanation. In the 1970s, Ogbu researched why some minority groups, on average, perform better or worse in school. He conjectured that it is the community forces behind these students that illuminate general patterns in school success or failure. Community forces broadly describe how different groups perceive, interpret, and strategically respond to schooling in ways that correspond to their unique histories and adaptations to their minority status. He dubbed one group as involuntary minorities (or “caste-like minorities”), persons either forcibly conquered (indigenous groups) or brought against their will to an alien context (enslaved persons and their descendants). Ogbu posited that owing to a long history of institutional racism, involuntary minorities’ experiences with discrimination lead to a widespread conviction that education will not yield a payoff in the labor market. Thus, they develop oppositional attitudes toward school and, together with similar peers, may even come to see certain markers of identity as the province of the dominant racial group, Whites. In contrast, “voluntary minorities” (or “immigrant minorities”) view US society from a more culturally relativist perspective, comparing the US opportunity structure to their homelands, and thus respond differently to their social, economic, and political circumstances. According to Ogbu, unlike their involuntary minority peers, voluntary minority youth do not tend to embrace oppositional identities and do not reject mainstream achievement ideology. As a result, he argued, they tend to perform better in school and are more inclined for upward mobility.

Studies and Arguments about “Acting White” and Academic Achievement in K-12 Education

Since the publication of the classic article Fordham and Ogbu 1986, scholars across social science disciplines have interrogated the concept of “acting white” as it relates to academic achievement of racially and ethnically minoritized students. Bearing in mind the geographical context, demographics of students, and quantitative versus qualitative merits of the research question, scholars have argued for and against the validity of Fordham and Ogbu’s theory through various methodological approaches. Ogbu and Fordham are anthropologists themselves (Ogbu 2004 and Fordham 1996); Fordham 2008 remained present in the discourse surrounding this topic, responding to critics and fans alike. This section annotates studies that have taken place in elementary, middle, and high school settings. Social scientists across the spectrum have sought to either prove or disprove the “burden of acting white” thesis. In the field of economics, scholars have created and tested models that investigate the validity of the concept through explorations of course enrollment and grades (Fryer and Torelli 2010, cited under On the Oppositional Culture Explanation and Its Debates in Society and Education) and general racial attitudes (Cook and Ludwig 1997). In the human development domain, scholars have contributed to this discourse through studies of emotional impact of the acting white accusation (Davis, et al. 2019; Neal-Barnett, et al. 2010). Numerous studies have contributed to the sociological and educational studies literature on exploring the relationship between “acting white” and academic achievement. Contributing sociological texts include Carter 2005 (cited under Competing Conceptual Frameworks and Theories to the “Oppositional Culture” Explanations; Horvat and Lewis 2003; Madyun, et al. 2010; and Tyson, et al. 2005. Additionally, the field of educational research contributes empirically with Bergin and Cooks 2002.

  • Bergin, David A., and Helen C. Cooks. “High School Students of Color Talk About Accusations of ‘Acting White.’” Urban Review 34 (2002): 113–134.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1015310332639

    Bergin and Cooks present data from a qualitative study investigating thirty-eight relatively high-achieving African American and Mexican American students in various high schools, public and private, in a midwestern city. They report that respondents did not avoid academic achievement in order to avoid accusations of acting white; most of the students reported no loss of ethnic identity and felt strong resentment toward their peers’ accusations of acting white. They also did not seem to be intimidated by the accusations, though they were bothered by them.

  • Cook, Phillip, and Jens Ludwig. “Weighing the “Burden of ‘Acting White’”: Are There Race Differences in Attitudes Toward Education?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16 (1997): 256–278.

    DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6688(199721)16:2<256::AID-PAM4>3.0.CO;2-H

    This article analyzes the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 to understand whether black people experience greater alienation toward school than non-Hispanic whites, if there are social penalties from peers for succeeding academically, and whether this dynamic looks similar across racial groups. The authors’ analysis suggests there is not a significant difference in attitudes toward education across these groups.

  • Davis, M. J., T. Rowell, R. E. Stadulis, and A. Neal-Barnett. “You Sound White: The Emotional Impact of the Acting White Accusation.” In Handbook of Children and Prejudice. Edited by D. Johnson, H. Fitzgerald, D. Qin, F. Villarruel, and J. Norder, 467–476. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-12228-7_26

    This chapter delves into the effects of the “acting white” accusation on young individuals between the ages of ten and seventeen. The authors analyze how this accusation influences adolescents and focus on the psychological concept of “bother” to shed light on its role in the accusation. Additionally, the chapter presents data connecting the accusation of “acting white” to social anxiety and explores its manifestation as a form of racial bullying.

  • Fordham, Signithia. Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and Success at Capital High. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226229980.001.0001

    Fordham’s ethnography focuses on the academic success of African American students and explores the symbolic role of academic achievement within the Black community and investigating the price students pay for attaining it. Findings argue (1) the presence of a deeply rooted cultural system that favors egalitarianism and group cohesion over the individualistic, competitive demands of academic success and (2) details the how the achievements of successful African Americans are “blacked out” of the public imagination and negative images are reflected onto black adolescents.

  • Fordham, Signithia. “Beyond Capital High: On Dual Citizenship and the Strange Career of ‘Acting White.’” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 39.3 (2008): 227–246.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1492.2008.00019.x

    Fordham’s book focuses on African American students’ success in an urban school, exploring the symbolic role of academic achievement and investigating the price students pay for attaining it. This ethnography details how successful African American achievements are “blacked out” of the public imagination and negative images are reflected onto black adolescents, chronicling the struggle of African American students to construct an identity suitable to themselves, their peers, and their families.

  • Fordham, Signithia, and John Ogbu. “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the ‘Burden of Acting White.’” Urban Review 18 (1986): 176–206.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01112192

    The reference of debate in the majority of articles is this publication. Fordham and Ogbu’s now classic article uses ethnographic data from a high school in Washington, DC, to propose a framework for understanding how collective identity relates to schooling and affects academic achievement. The authors argue that the fear of being accused of “acting white” causes social and psychological effects which diminish black students’ academic effort and lead to underachievement.

  • Horvat, Erin, and Kristine Lewis. “Reassessing the ‘Burden of “Acting White”’: The Importance of Peer Groups in Managing Academic Success.” Sociology of Education 76 (2003): 265–280.

    DOI: 10.2307/1519866

    The authors offer a reassessment of the burden of “acting white” and suggest the importance of examining variation of achievement among students’ peer groups. This analysis highlights students’ ability to sustain an authentic black identity and achieve academically by effectively managing their academic success among their peers.

  • Madyun, Na’Im, Moosung Lee, and Mustafa Jumale. “A Social Network Analysis of Acting White.” Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences 2.2 (2010): 3231–3235.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.03.493

    Using social network and interview data, this case study illuminates why “acting white” did not apply to students at a predominantly Somali American school in the United States. Specifically, this case study shows that high-achieving Somali working-class students were not isolated from their peer networks in their school. Furthermore, this study suggests that “acting white” may not be applicable to schools where schools are structurally small-sized, culturally college-bound, and ethnically homogenous.

  • Neal-Barnett, Angela, Robert Stadulis, Nicolle Singer, Marsheena Murray, and Jessica Demmings. “Assessing the Effects of Experiencing the Acting White Accusation.” The Urban Review 42.2 (2010): 102–122.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11256-009-0130-5

    In this paper, the authors assess adolescents’ experience of the “acting white” accusation. They present a series of studies that explore both qualitative and quantitative approaches to understanding this phenomenon. They suggest that the qualitative data and findings guide the formation of a quantitative assessment of the “acting white” accusation experience. The authors report findings that include a recommendation for a mixed methods approach to this topic to facilitate further understanding of the accusation.

  • Ogbu, John U. “Collective Identity and the Burden of ‘Acting White’ in Black History, Community, and Education.” Urban Review 36 (2004): 1–35.

    DOI: 10.1023/B:URRE.0000042734.83194.f6

    This paper is part of a larger discourse on “acting white.” In it, Ogbu explains the meaning of collective identity and distinguishing it from other concepts of identity by summarizing the evolution of oppositional collective identity and cultural frame of reference or oppositional culture among Black Americans. Within the context of the contemporary United States, Ogbu suggests continuity between Black historical and community experiences with the burden of “acting white” as experienced by Black students.

  • Spencer, Margaret Beale, Elizabeth Noll, Jill Stoltzfus, and Vinay Harpalani. “Identity and School Adjustment: Revisiting the ‘Acting White’ Assumption.” Educational Psychologist 36.1 (2001).

    DOI: 10.1207/S15326985EP3601_3

    The authors apply the first author’s Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory approach to a study of African American secondary school students, which argues for a consideration of context-sensitive factors and ethno-racial culture in the development of youth identity. Rather than assume that African American students share the same normative cultural development of white youth, this study reveals that Black students show high self-esteem and achievement goals in conjunction with high Afrocentricity– which contrasts the “acting white” assumption. Findings stress the importance of considering the undeniable influence of culture and encourage researchers and policymakers to focus on the contextual challenges facing African American and minority youth.

  • Tyson, Karolyn, William Darity, and Domini Castellino. “It’s Not A ‘Black Thing:’ Understanding the Burden of Acting White and Other Dilemmas of High Achievement.” American Sociological Review 70 (2005): 582–605.

    DOI: 10.1177/000312240507000403

    In this widely cited article, the authors argue that Black students’ orientation toward achievement is informed to a greater degree by institutional structures and patterns of academic placement in the schools they attend than by black culture. Drawing on ethnographic case studies of multiple schools in North Carolina, they argue that school context influences whether or not a burden of “acting white” cultural phenomenon related to academic achievement develops among Black students.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down