Tag: acting white

Lest We Forget: Segregated Communities, Integrated Division

Sarah Underwood—

“Integration was one of the worst things to happen to black kids. We lost our community,” said a former student whose segregated Floridian high school closed in 1969. It’s nearly impossible to read that without feeling troubled. Weren’t black communities oppressed during Jim Crow? How could anyone feel nostalgic for his segregated high school? Author Stuart Buck does not agree with the first part of the student’s statement, and in no way does he advocate segregation. His book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, does, however, find evidence to support the second claim.

Before the integration of American schools, freedmen and their descendants found safe havens in black schools and churches. While most other social settings meant encounters with whites who were often offended by the very presence of black people, schools in particular offered a chance for young black people to see principals and teachers as role models who not only had the same color skin but similar experiences. Integration relegated black pastors to menial work, and black educators were often fired altogether. The only two settings that had created a sense of community and protection for young black people became “something controlled by and meant for” whites only.

Desegregation broke up close-knit communities, as black students were bused out to distant white schools. During segregation, black teachers had been respected members of their communities who knew parents and students and pushed their students to succeed. Of segregated schools, one black alumnus remembered, “My teachers would not accept mediocre work, because they knew that I could not function in a racist world being a mediocre person.” Nobody recalled—at least in written record—that their peers in segregated schools thought education was “the province of white people.”

Buck does not, of course, say that segregated schools were a good idea, only that desegregation brought a new set of problems. Sometime after 1965, one of these problems eventually devolved into the criticism by black students of their studious peers: “acting white.” He quotes another scholar as acknowledging that “acting white ‘is’ the most negative accusation that can be hurled at black adolescents.” The accusation, Buck says, is a natural response. With no black role models in their schools and no social outlet entirely free of racism, one (tragic) way to create a cohesive, protective unit was to rebel against the white students and teachers’ example. A black child working hard in school seemed to be collaborating with the institutions that had shattered whatever safety black communities had managed to create during segregation.

Buck quotes the head of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department as noting “if anybody had said anything like [“acting white”] when we were growing up in the ‘50s, first, your mother would smack you upside the head and, second, they’d check you into a mental institution.”  He also finds several black valedictorians and honor-roll students who today acknowledge they are accused of “acting white” on a daily basis. It is indeed dangerous to profess nostalgia for the days of white-only and black-only schools, but something of it has to return before the achievement gap between black and white students can close. That “something” is not further segregation, but a better integration: the development of a true community.


Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

“Acting White” and What It Means for Everyone

The racial desegregation of schools in America prompted immediate action—a story of protests and violence, white flight, and painful new beginnings—as the forging of our contemporary educational system began. More than half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, questions about how students of all races can excel in desegregated environments remain a concern for parents and teachers alike.

For black children in particular, the term “acting white” has been used since to refer to classmates who mind their schoolwork. The removal of black schools managed by black communities and the colorblind recognition of the value of education left a strange legacy, and the term is a peculiar reminder of how separation becomes a comforting recourse even when the goal is integration.

Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation addresses these unintended consequences of desegregating schools. Writing for The New Republic, John Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation: Stuart Buck McWhorter said: “Stuart Buck at last brings together all of the relevant evidence and puts paid to two myths. The first is that the ‘acting white’ charge is a fiction or just pointless marginal static. The other slain myth, equally important, is that black kids reject school as alien out of some sort of ingrained stupidity; the fear of this conclusion lies at the root of the studious dismissal of the issue by so many black thinkers concerned about black children.” McWhorter went on to further discuss the book and the problems it raises with Richard Thompson Ford for Bloggingheads.tv. Check out their discussion and read Buck’s book for his conclusive take on how we can improve our educational system with knowledge and awareness of the cultural impact that desegregation left.

Bloggingheads: McWhorter and Thompson discuss Buck’s Acting White

Last Monday the video blog discussion site bloggingheads.tv posted a dialogue on Stuart Buck’s most recent book, “Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation”. Featured in the discussion are Richard Thompson Ford of Slateand John McWhorter of The New Republic, both of whom wrote extensive reviews on “Acting White” when the book was published this past spring. In this video dialogue, Thompson and McWhorter discuss the the relationship between racial identity, public school desegregation, and the legacies of the Civil Rights movement.