Sue Scheff: Acting White By Connect with Kids

“If you dress too proper, with your shirt tucked in and stuff, they’ll probably say you act too white.”

– student Diijon Dacosta, 20

For many American teenagers, one of the ways to be unpopular in high school is to be an “A” student. In fact, in some schools, doing your homework every day, studying hard and getting good grades has a controversial label. Some call it, “acting white.”
Lindsay, 15, knows the pressure to be cool. “If you’re really smart, they might think of you as a nerd or something,” she says.
Will they say you’re a nerd, a dork, a bookworm …or acting white?
“If you dress too proper, with your shirt tucked in and stuff, they’ll probably say you act too white,” says 20-year-old Diijon Dacosta.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University surveyed 166 middle and high school students from both the inner city and the suburbs. The students said that “acting white” often meant “getting good grades, joining clubs, being a leader.”

Students also talked about “acting black.”

“That would include … not studying, not doing homework, not joining various honor societies or other school projects. I think it is all part of that identity,” says Don Rice, Ph.D., psychologist.

He says that one problem is the culture doesn’t celebrate African Americans who are well educated or well spoken.
“Very seldom does one think of a black kid as being smart or geeky in that sense, and they’re not getting the messages through television, they’re not getting the messages through movies,” says Rice.

Rice adds that the media help set expectations in a child’s mind, and low expectations can lead to low performance.
“They don’t really see the opportunities, they don’t see how sitting down and learning algebra can lead to something that would be a better life,” explains Rice.

“It’s easier to just say forget about it and forget your school work than it is to actually go through with the whole process and do good in school,” says Omyrie, 16.

Still, experts say that inside all children, there is a desire to learn and achieve.

“It’s a matter of finding what it is these kids want out of life and to show them how to get it,” says Rice.

Tips for Parents

  • “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.’” (Sen. Barack Obama)
  • “Education starts at home. Teach your children the benefits of a good education — have them visit college campuses, talk to professionals in your neighborhood, and get involved in clubs and activities at school.” (Don Rice, Ph.D., professor of psychology)
  • “It’s not measures of popularity or social success that predict achievement in college or the business world, but academic achievement itself that is the best predictor.” (Marla Shapiro, licensed psychologist)
  • “Part of the achievement gap, particularly for gifted black students, is due to the poor image these students have of themselves as learners,” says Donna Ford, professor of special education and Betts Chair of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, and author of the study on “acting white and acting black.”  “Our research shows that prevention and intervention programs that focus on improving students’ achievement ethic and self-image are essential to closing the achievement gap.”


  • Fryer and Torelli, National Bureau of Economic Research: An Empirical Analysis of “Acting White’
  • The Century Foundation: Equality and Education
  • Vanderbilt University’s News Network