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Is “Talking White” a Thing?

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

In the last 10 years, however, new research has challenged the “acting White” theory. In a 2005 paper, sociologists Karolyn Tyson, William Darity Jr., and Domini Castellino found “that Black adolescents are generally achievement oriented and that racialized peer pressure against high academic achievement is not prevalent in all schools.” According to their research—drawn from interviews with students across eight North Carolina schools—racialized stigma against high achievement exists. But it requires specific circumstances, namely, predominantly White schools where few Blacks attend advanced classes. There, Black and White students hold racialized perceptions of educational achievement, and Black students are often isolated by stigma from both groups.

As one school counselor notes: They did not like being in honors courses because often they were the only ones. … Also, some of the kids felt that if they were in these honors classes, that there appears, the Black kids look at them as if they were acting White, not recognizing that you could be smart and Black. A lot of White kids look at them, basically, “You're not supposed to be smart and Black, so why are you here?”

By contrast, “acting White” accusations were least common at the most segregated schools, a finding echoed by a 2006 study from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who found “no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students’ popularity” in predominantly Black schools. Across schools, the general pattern was this: “Acting White” accusations weren’t attached to academic performance and rather were a function of specific behaviors. If you hung out with White kids and adopted White fashions, you were accused of “acting White.” Smart kids were teased, but no more than you’d see in any other group.

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