Why Isn't the Black Woman Scholar Who Developed "Acting White" Theory Credited?

by Signithia Fordham

There was incredulity and anger in the booming baritone of my friend’s voice. I hadn’t heard from him in more than a year, but when he called last month with such panic and urgency, I steeled myself for devastating news. Instead, he told me something that is so ordinary in my professional life I might not have noticed without his call.

“Did you hear President Obama talking about ‘acting white’ on the CBS Morning Show this morning?” he shouted into the receiver. “Yeah, girl, the president talked about your research but didn’t mention your name.”

This news evoked a mixture of familiar feelings. First came the elation that no loved one had died. But that quickly passed, giving way to the humiliation and pain that follows with the awareness that someone, once again, has appropriated and misrepresented my work.

More than 25 years ago, I used the phrase “the burden of acting white” to frame a theory for why and how black children achieve academic success—not academic failure—in my first major ethnographic study. Specifically, I examined the behavior of black students at a Washington, D.C., high school to theorize how some of them succeed because they mirror the academic behaviors and practices of white people. By contrast, some underachieve because “to act white is to give up one’s minority identity,” something they are unwilling to surrender.

My research and theory was published in 1986 with my collaborator and mentor, John Ogbu, a distinguished anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley. Since then, I have been humbled by how often my work has been appropriated by or erroneously attributed to others.

However, I must admit I’m honored that the work I completed so long ago remains relevant today and that even the president of the United States has made repeated references to it over the years. But, to be honest, my angst and discomfort stems from being repeatedly overlooked in the national debate that originated with my findings nearly a quarter century ago.

The gold-standard researchers on the subject of “the burden of acting white” include Roland G. Fryer and Ronald Ferguson of Harvard University, William Darity, Jr. at Duke University,Angel Harris at Princeton, Stuart Buck at the University of Arkansas, Vinay Harpalani of the University of Pennsylvania, and P.J. Cook and Jens Ludwig at Georgetown University.

My question is why? Why are they the recognized experts? I sense two primary patterns here, something they all have in common: elite institutional affiliation and maleness. Even more appalling, in the public discourse surrounding this issue, they are repeatedly referenced as if they made the primary and perhaps the only contribution to the conversation connecting school achievement to one’s willingness to behave in accord with perceived white behavioral patterns.

Photo Credit: Gary Ventura for City Newspaer

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