In fact, this charge grew out of the integration era, as Stuart Buck documents in Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation.
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Many black students placed in previously all-white schools encountered white teachers either overtly or covertly hostile to their presence, at best thinking of them as hopeless prospects for success. Many of the white students, while hardly as starkly belligerent toward them as the sneering kids in photographs of Little Rock Central High School, were distinctly unwelcoming to the new black kids in countless ways.
This will surprise few of us today, and it was hardly limited to the South: Recall the famous shot of the angry white woman at the meeting on busing in Boston. The pique she displayed did not magically evaporate once black kids were settled into these white schools—it became the substrate of the black kids’ new schoolroom experience, week in and week out. That kind of rejection can make a person disidentify from a whole environment, and one result was a sense that school was for white kids, something outside of the authentic black experience.
Over time, open white resistance to black kids in these schools receded as attitudes on race changed. However, a cultural meme casting school as “white” had set in and has become self-perpetuating since. The “acting white” charge can thrive even in extravagantly funded schools where nonwhite teachers are as exquisitely sensitized about racism as humans can be, quite unlike the nasty, dismissive teachers that black kids encountered decades ago.
It may seem counterintuitive that the “acting white” meme would persist beyond what caused it. But this is how cultural memes can work. A useful analogy would be the wariness some black people retain even today of hospitals, a legacy of the Tuskegee experiment, during which researchers left black men’s syphilis untreated. A meme can be especially tenacious when it is useful for other purposes. Teens of all stripes seek ways of defining their subgroup, fostering a sense of group membership, and even of acting out. In black-teen culture, one way of doing this is to embrace the idea that studying is “white.”
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Sure, white kids get made fun of for being nerds, too. But as Kimberly Norwood has deftly gotten across in her study of the “acting white” charge, it’s one thing to be called a nerd, another to be told you are disqualifying yourself from your race. That lends a particular sting.
Those who deny the continued association of whiteness and school note, for example, that black kids do not say outright to interviewers that they devalue school, consider it “white,” or dislike smart black peers. Studies show that if you ask black kids whether they value school, they say yes. But issues of racial identity are subtle. The sociologists, educators, and journalists who point to studies like this would laugh out of the room a paper claiming that you can identify, for example, people’s inner racism by asking them about it.