Have You Been Accused of "Acting White"?
A Bullying Phenomenon Deeply Rooted in Cultures of Color

North Carolina artist Candace Earth-Seed

North Carolina artist Candace Earth-Seed was often the target of bullying by her own community in school. Her creativity led her to see the world uniquely. Her heightened sense of individuality, along with a full command of the English language (her first career was in teaching), caused her to be a target by classmates who felt that her good grades and interest in school made her alien to the Black culture.

Bobbi by Candace Earth-Seed

Many of my own K-12 education years were also plagued with a unique sort of bullying that many Black students silently and painfully endure...the accusation of "acting white" simply because we enjoy learning. I often wished that there had been a no bullying campaign when I was in school because I often feared going to school and began to even develop physical illnesses due to the stress.

You see, the most painful aspect of this experience is that it comes from our own people. I have to say that while I can now laugh at the idea of an Oreo Barbie doll (now recalled), an Oreo will never pass my lips because it was the title I wore through most of my school years (Black on the outside, white on the inside).


So for many who had suffered such bullying by making education a priority, the election of Barack Obama marked something very personal. It meant that maybe, our community would FINALLY begin to adopt the importance and power of an education. Children would not have to suffer the intense bullying that I, my brothers, and even my own children today have experienced. I cannot tell you enough, how much I appreciate the tone of the graduation exercises addressed by our beautiful and intelligent FLOTUS, Michelle Obama. She makes it clear that education is the ONLY way to possibly have any chance of fighting an uncertain economic future. She also makes it clear that the path is paved with a lot of stress and frustration. It takes courage. Unfortunately, it also involves facing down our own people who believe that academic achievement is not of the Black culture. Lack of knowledge of our history only serves to spur such behavior. The earliest recorded forms of mathematical calculations come from Africa. Improvement of the human condition is in our DNA.

President Barack Obama, stands next to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, as he waits for President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia to walk in the door of the Oval Office, June 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

"Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel
insecure around you."
~Marianne Williamson,
A Return to Love

What Is This Phenomenon, Specifically?

Roland G. Fryer, assistant professor of economics at Harvard University and a faculty research fellow for the National Bureau of Economic Research, has conducted extensive research on "acting white" bullying. It is "a set of social interactions in which minority adolescents who get good grades in school enjoy less social popularity than white students who do well academically." (2006) Those of us who have endured this teasing and ridicule see it as a terrible conflict of identity. When the need for social acceptance is at its peak, many scholarly students of color are faced with a daunting choice: continue to be ridiculed for getting good grades and speaking English in a manner that is acceptable and easily understood, or allow grades to slip so attending school is not an unbearable practice.

Historically an intracommunity issue, other cultures have now adopted this attitude, and bully students of their own races or others. My own children have met this challenge head-on by sometimes asking their accusers thoughtful questions such as, "What, specifically, is acting black? Do I have to act ignorant in order to act my race? Since you are not a member of my race, how can YOU qualify to tell me how to behave? You do not live my life." I believe their ability to stand and deliver comes from several places but primarily from a strong faith and understanding of their place in God's family. For this, I am truly thankful because I suffered for years as a student caught between two worlds who never quite knew where she fit in. I was dedicatecd to helping them escape the self-hate that often ensues as a result of this type of bullying.

Fryer (2006) specifically identifies targets of this teasing as those who participate in a number of activities such as enrolling in AP courses, speaking Standard English, playing a sport like soccer, listening to music genres other than Hip Hop or Rap, or any number of activities that do not readily identify with the accepted and perceived activities associated with the Black community.

It is most disturbing that this trend continues to include the idea that acting ignorant and earning poor grades is associated with acting Black and success is aligned with acting white. Even President Obama highlighted this difficulty in his address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and recognized it as a practice of national concern. It is this negative peer pressure that may also be a leading cause in the pervasive achievement gap, that, despite some success in the lower grades, continues to plague Black students, particularly males, on the junior and high school levels.

If minority students today deliberately underachieve in order to avoid social sanctions, that by itself could explain why the academic performance of 17-year-old African Americans, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), has deteriorated since the late 1980s, even while that of nine-year-olds has been improving. It may also help us understand the shortage of minority students in most elite colleges and universities. (Fryer, 2006, par 7).

Good Grades, Fewer Friends

Through Fryer's research, certain GPAs have been identified as the turning point for losing friends. Hispanic students are not exempt from this practice and male students who achieve 4.0 GPAs are the least favorite of their peers while Black males who achieve a GPA of 3.5 begin to lose their friendships. This is slightly higher than the magic number of 3.25 that seems to be the turning point for Black females (2006).

In accordance with Fryer's findings, participation in extra-curricular activities can help ease the pain of this struggle. There are a number of groups and associations in which students can elect to get involved. This provides the opportunity to meet and associate with students who have similar social interests. In addition, a good GPA, coupled with a solid record of extra-curricular activities, is like sprinkling "fairy dust" on a college application. A good balance helps to demonstrate initiative and commitment to the educational process.

But you donít have to be king (or queen!) of the world, with a long list of stellar accomplishments. As long as you can demonstrate to the admission committee some level of accomplishment, initiative, commitment, and leadership, then youíre on the right track. (How Admissions Decisions Are Made, 2009).

Today, money does not have to be a barrier to a college education. Actually, if your family earns less than $60,000 per year, and you earn good grades, you could go to HARVARD (Harvard Financial Aid Office, 2008). This is just one example but there are so many similar stories nationwide.

What to Do When You Go To School Tomorrow

"This all sounds great, Professor Bass, but I have to go to school tomorrow."

Let us intellectualize this.

1) EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT. YOU ARE DOING THE RIGHT THING!! Post high school training and education will help protect you in the event of an economic recession in the future. While nothing is guaranteed, more education will improve marketability and staying power in the future. You want to have as many tools available to help sustain yourself and your family. Research also shows that over the course of your lifetime, a college degree will increase your annual salary by nearly $25,000.

2) Think of the flip side of the coin. Ok, give in. Imagine the future you could have by earning good grades and what it would be like if you decide to fall to the peer pressure. What would you do with those friends as adults? Stand in the unemployment line together? Never visit another city or country because you do not have the resources to do so? Always be at the mercy of those who can read or complete math functions necessary to maintain a household? Most importantly, you would always wonder whose lives you could have touched if you had continued to follow your dream...whatever it may be.

3) It is not in your head and it can be very difficult to deal with. It CAN AFFECT your grades. If this happens to you, do not look back on your experience with regret. Being victimized by bullies can easily interfere with your educational goals. Push forward. Find support in friends who are also having the same difficulty. Contact a school counselor and involve your parents. It is important to protect your right to learn in an atmosphere conducive to success. Many teachers have no idea such behavior even occurs.

4) How to cope: STAY AWAY FROM SOCIAL MEDIA (FACEBOOK, TWITTER, ETC.) Sharing this information online will only serve to heighten the problem. TALK TO SOMEONE YOU TRUST. There are numerous bullying resources available everywhere. Bullying is bullying. Do not consider this a different animal. There is help available.

5) IT'S YOUR TIME, NOW! My oldest son silenced one of the worst bullies he ever had by simply responding that he would pray for him. It was sincere and the bully had no idea how to respond. He was unable to shake Grant's confidence and this is what bullies do -- tamper with the confidence of their classmates. Protect yours.

6) PAY IT FORWARD We can begin to encourage others to see that this no longer has to be a part of our culture of learning. Let's work together to make the terms "acting white" just another distant memory of our struggle and place it on the shelf with the other antiquated ideas that have stifled our growth and development. It starts withall of us to turn this around and I have faith in your generation.

Share your story -- I would love to help you help others who are having this same difficulty in school. Join the conversation on my Facebook page: Education Coffeehouse: Encourage, Engage and Educate

Professor Marsha


Marsha Kay Bass, ABD


Fryer, R. (2006, June 22) Acting white: The social price paid by the best and brightest minority students. Educationnext. Retrieved August 31,2009 from

Harvard announces sweeping middle-income initiative. (2007, September 10). Harvard University Gazette Online. Retrieved August 31, 2009 from

Wolken, D. (2003, August 24). Football factory: Special report: The Air ForceAcademy prep school. Retrieved August 31, 2009 from

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