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The “Acting White Theory” Doesn’t Add Up

The graduating class of Livingston High School prepares for commencement June 3, 2008, in New Orleans.
Mario Tama/Getty

Do Black students purposefully underachieve because they attribute being smart to “acting White”? For more than a decade, academics, policymakers and cultural critics have publicly chided Black children for having an anti-intellectual attitude, based on the “Acting White Theory.”

The Acting White Theory originated in the 1980s with Dr. John Ogbu’s ethnographic research and is commonly used to explain present-day “achievement gaps” between Black and White students. Today the Acting White Theory has its own Wikipedia entry and was mentioned by then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2004, when he said, “Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a Black youth with a book is acting White.”

The Acting White Theory seems to have particular cachet among flatulent Black people who feel a certain disdain toward the less refined (pejoratively “ghetto”) aspects of the Black community. Many of them have been called “sellouts,” which reinforces a key tenet of the Acting White Theory. Other scholars, such as Edward Rhymes and Michael Eric Dyson, push back against the theory. In his book Acting White? Rhymes states: “Somehow many African Americans (usually the affluent, disconnected ones) have swallowed this misconception about African-American youth being anti-intellectual and anti-education. This ideology concerning nerds and geeks did not originate in the African-American community, but in predominantly White, middle-class, suburban communities.”

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