African American adolescents sometimes ridicule their peers for behaving in ways they identify as characteristic of whites. A variety of behaviors may trigger this response: manner of speech and dress, choice of television shows or sports, and, most troubling, demonstrating a commitment to academic success by participating in class, studying hard, and enrolling in advanced classes. This phenomenon was given prominence in an article published in 1986 by ethnographers Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu, reporting a study of a predominantly black high school in Washington, D.C. Since then, the burden of “acting white” has emerged as one of the standard explanations for the black-white gap in test scores and academic achievement; gifted black students are dragged down by peer pressure. But the evidence does not provide much support for the view that peer pressure against academic achievement is especially pervasive or important in influencing the academic striving of African Americans.
Ogbu speculated that black students tend to sneer at academic striving because they are influenced by an “oppositional culture” traceable to slavery, discrimination against blacks, and persistent inequality. Academic achievement is devalued because of its association with the dominant and oppressive white culture. A contrary view notes that while both black and white adolescents may sometimes exert (or experience) peer pressure against being “nerdy” and working hard in school, this anti-intellectual norm is not usually racialized.
Fordham and Ogbu reported on their observations from a single school. Several studies based on representative national surveys of high-school students have reached contrary findings. These have demonstrated that the differences between black and white students are negligible with respect to the value placed on education. Blacks express expectations at least as high as whites for graduating from high school and attending a four-year college. On average they attend class and expend as much effort outside of class as whites, and their parents are just as involved.
Whether there is a social penalty for academic success has also been investigated from national survey data. By a number of measures relating to social rejection, top students of both races do no worse (on average) than those in the middle of the grades distribution. Being in the honor society actually appears to protect against social ostracism, especially for black students in predominantly black schools. On the other hand, research by David Austen-Smith and Roland Fryer (2005) has found that the best black students have fewer close friends than those with average grades, especially in the case of males.
Since Fordham and Ogbu’s original contribution, there have been several more ethnographic studies of individual schools. These have tended to cast further doubt on the notion of the “burden of acting white.” A detailed survey of students in Shaker Heights, Ohio, by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson (2001) has been especially influential. He found no evidence of an oppositional culture among the black students. Similar proportions of black and white students reported that there was a social penalty for academic striving in this successful and long-integrated school system. Another study of eight schools in North Carolina confirmed that there was some social penalty for high achievement for both races, but in only one of the schools were there reports of a strong racial element to this stigmatization (Tyson, Darity, and Castellino 2005). It did appear that qualified black students sometimes avoided taking advanced placement classes, but that was due more to a concern with being socially isolated (as possibly the only black student in class), rather than a concern with being criticized by their black peers.
The bottom line is that the adolescent norm against academic striving and success is evident among both white and black students. In some times and places, the successful black students are accused of “acting white,” but there is little evidence in support of a pervasive black cultural norm against academic striving and success. Finally, whatever the penalties, there are also social rewards for being successful, and in the rough-and-tumble of adolescent society, the top scholars are not doing any worse on average than their peers.
Austen-Smith, David, and Roland Fryer. 2005. An Economic Analysis of “Acting White.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 120 (2): 551-583.
Cook, Philip J., and Jens Ludwig. 1998. The Burden of Acting White: Do Black Adolescents Disparage Academic Achievement. In The Black-White Test Score Gap, eds. Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, 375-400. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Ferguson, Ronald. 2001. A Diagnostic Analysis of Black-White GPA Disparities in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 347-414. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Fordham, Signithia, and John U. Ogbu. 1986. Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the “Burden of Acting White.” The Urban Review 18: 176-206.
Tyson, Karolyn, William Darity Jr., and Domini R. Castellino. 2005. It’s Not “A Black Thing”: Understanding the Burden of Acting White and Other Dilemmas of High Achievement. American Sociological Review 70: 582-605.
Philip J. Cook