Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

A 2005 study found that “black adolescents are generally achievement oriented and that racialized peer pressure against high academic achievement is not prevalent in all schools.”

Photo by Hongqi Zhang/Thinkstock

“All right, hear me out,” begins the young black woman in a video uploaded to the website LiveLeak last Friday. “There is no such thing as ‘talking white,’ … it’s actually called ‘speaking fluently,’ speaking your language correctly. I don’t know why we’ve gotten to a place where as a culture—as a race—if you sound as though you have more than a fifth-grade education, it’s a bad thing.”

She continues like this for nearly two more minutes, emphasizing the point that her speech reflects proper English and attacking the idea that it’s a deviation from black identity.

If she was hoping for a positive response, she got it. In addition to thousands of shares and tweets, it reached more than 560,000 views and made the front page of Reddit.

Not that this was a surprise. The main ideas—that black Americans disparage “proper English” and education and use a “broken” version of the language—have wide currency among many Americans, including blacks.

“Ebonics” is mocked as a fake language, and efforts to use it in schools have sparked vocal opposition. When the Oakland, California, school board approved Ebonics for use in its schools in 1996, a flurry of public figures condemned the decision. “I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender, bordering on disgrace,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who later reversed his stance, but not before he was endorsed by a wide range of people.

At the time, linguists protested the criticism, noting the extent to which Ebonics—officially known as African American Vernacular English—is recognized as a language system with its own grammar and pronunciations, with roots in the regional dialects of 17th-century Great Britain. Far from being slang or broken, AAVE is a distinct form of English used by many blacks in informal settings.

Still, it is true that so-called “proper English”—otherwise known as Standard English—is associated with white people. And there are many anecdotes and stories of black teenagers disparaging one another for using Standard English or “talking white,” which also tends to come with accusations of “acting white.” And, as we can see from the video, it’s these accusations that stand as Exhibit A in arguments for the existence of black pathology.

After relating a story involving his sister and her children, who asked him why he “talk white,” Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley mourns the alleged pathology of black anti-intellectualism that stunts community growth. “Here were a couple of black third graders already linking speech patterns to race and intelligence,” he writes in his book Please Stop Helping Us. “They had determined that ‘sounding white’ was something to be mocked in other blacks and avoided in their own speech.”

In this anecdote, Riley provides the nut of the “acting white” theory: That blacks stigmatize academic achievement and code it as “white.” But as he notes in the book, the definitive treatment comes from the late John Ogbu, a professor of anthropology at the University of California–Berkeley.

In multiple studies over several decades, Ogbu explored the allegedly “oppositional” culture of black teenagers and pushed the “acting white” idea into the popular discourse. “The low school performance of black children stems from the following factors,” he writes with Signithia Fordham in the 1986 paper, “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of ‘Acting White’ ”:

First, white people provide them with inferior schooling and treat them differently in school; second, by imposing a job ceiling, white people fail to reward them adequately for their educational achievements in adult life; and third, black Americans develop coping mechanisms which, in turn, further limit their striving for academic success.

Ogbu was thorough and convincing enough to spawn a whole genre of popular work around “acting white.” Besides Riley, the most recent contributions include Ron Christie’s Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur and Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, which—like Ogbu’s work—argues that blacks lag in educational outcomes because of a cultural bias against academic achievement.

In the last 10 years, however, new research has challenged the “acting white” theory. In a 2005 paper, sociologists Karolyn Tyson, William Darity Jr., and Domini Castellino found “that black adolescents are generally achievement oriented and that racialized peer pressure against high academic achievement is not prevalent in all schools.”

According to their research—drawn from interviews with students across eight North Carolina schools—racialized stigma against high achievement exists. But it requires specific circumstances, namely, predominantly white schools where few blacks attend advanced classes. There, black and white students hold racialized perceptions of educational achievement, and black students are often isolated by stigma from both groups. As one school counselor notes:

They did not like being in honors courses because often they were the only ones. … Also, some of the kids felt that if they were in these honors classes, that there appears, the black kids look at them as if they were acting white, not recognizing that you could be smart and black. A lot of white kids look at them, basically, “You’re not supposed to be smart and black, so why are you here?”

By contrast, “acting white” accusations were least common at the most segregated schools, a finding echoed by a 2006 study from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who found “no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students’ popularity” in predominantly black schools.

Across schools, the general pattern was this: “Acting white” accusations weren’t attached to academic performance and rather were a function of specific behaviors. If you hung out with white kids and adopted white fashions, you were accused of “acting white.” Smart kids were teased, but no more than you’d see in any other group.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating observations from Tyson, Darity, and Castellino was the extent to which an anti-intellectual culture existed among whites as well:

[C]ontrary to the implications of the burden of acting white and oppositional peer culture hypotheses—that white students generally have superior standards for academic achievement and are embedded in peer groups that support and encourage academic striving—the experiences described by some of our white [student] informants indicate the presence of a much less achievement-oriented academic culture.

In interviews, white students describe ostracism from peers and apprehension from parents who want to avoid the perception of “elitism” that comes with children in gifted programs.

Again, none of this is to deny the reality of racialized ridiculing. It happens—I’ve experienced it—and it’s painful. But it isn’t a feature of black culture. Rather, it arises from a mix of factors, from social status to the composition of the school itself. As the sociologists note in their conclusion, stigmatization for whites and blacks seemed to come from the “perception that the low-status student was attempting to assume the characteristic of the ‘other,’ especially an air of superiority or arrogance.”

With all of that said, let’s circle back to the video. “I don’t know why we’ve gotten to a place where as a culture—as a race—if you sound as though you have more than a fifth-grade education, it’s a bad thing,” says the woman. Ignore the mistaken attack on African American Vernacular English. Knowing what we now know about “acting white,” we should read this complaint in a different light.

If her peers have mocked her for “talking white,” it might have less to do with her use of Standard English overall and more to do with its use in an unusual setting. Remember, for many Americans, Standard English is only used in formal settings—business and school, but not home. By forgoing the vernacular in informal speech, she might come across as elitist, in the same way it might seem pretentious to purposefully use professional jargon when talking with a nonspecialist.

In other words, she isn’t being mocked for the English as much as she is for her refusal to code-switch and use informal language for an informal conversation. That might be unfair—let’s say you can’t actually speak the vernacular!—but it’s not evidence of pathology. Or, as a teacher might tell her students, there’s language for home, and there’s language for school, and sometimes, what works for one place might not work for the other.