An article in Vox in 2017 discussed The myth about smart black kids and “acting white” that won’t die, declared it debunked, and that’s that, I guess.
“The ‘acting white’ theory — the idea that African-American kids underachieve academically because they and their peers associate being smart with acting white, and because they’re afraid they’ll be shunned — was born in the 1980s.”
I never “dumbed myself down” when I was a kid in the 1960s. But I did feel that, for a variety of reasons, that I was thought to be “acting white.” Part of it I credit with my father, who, though barely a high school graduate, did not like the use of ebonics, for himself and certainly not for his children.
So I have been told I was “talking white,” which, not incidentally, was generally NOT a compliment. My standard retort that since I’m black, and I’m talking, that I must be “talking black” generally did not fly.
Even as an adult, that’s been an issue. I remember those first six years in my current job, when we were serving a national audience with our research. I talked to people on the phone about their library reference requests. When I went to the annual conference, I’d see in the faces of white people, “He’s black?” and in the smiles of African-Americans, “He’s black!”
When I was in 11th or 12th grade in high school, I attended a few days of a Red Cross training session in Manlius, NY, near Syracuse. I had a lovely time. I even got a standing ovation after I performed on stage. People expected me to sing, I gather, but I played blues on my comb for a couple minutes.
There was a group picture (above), and I got a bunch of people sign the back of my copy. One black girl, who I liked well enough, wrote, “You’re a nice guy, but you’re no soul brother.”
If I had been punched in the gut, it wouldn’t have hurt nearly so much. Not only had people who had known me for a while decided I wasn’t “black enough,” someone I knew for less than a week came to the same damn conclusion! Hell, thinking about it now, it STILL stings a little.
I cried, not just at the time, but for weeks – months? – afterward. It took a good long while to conclude, essentially, that they – whoever – can go sod off.
So I never slacked off academically because of being too… whatever. I didn’t know how to be someone else. But I can understand how it could play out that way for others.