It's Not “a Black Thing”: Understanding the Burden of Acting White and Other Dilemmas of High Achievement


Journal Article

For two decades the acting white hypothesis—the premise that black students are driven toward low school performance because of racialized peer pressure—has served as an explanation for the black-white achievement gap. Fordham and Ogbu proposed that black youths sabotage their own school careers by taking an oppositional stance toward academic achievement. Using interviews and existing data from eight North Carolina secondary public schools, this article shows that black adolescents are generally achievement oriented and that racialized peer pressure against high academic achievement is not prevalent in all schools. The analysis also shows important similarities in the experiences of black and white high-achieving students, indicating that dilemmas of high achievement are generalizable beyond a specific group. Typically, highachieving students, regardless of race, are to some degree stigmatized as “nerds” or “geeks.” The data suggest that school structures, rather than culture, may help explain when this stigma becomes racialized, producing a burden of acting white for black adolescents, and when it becomes class-based, producing a burden of “acting high and mighty” for low-income whites. Recognizing the similarities in these processes can help us refocus and refine understandings of the black-white achievement gap.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Tyson, K; Darity, W; Castellino, DR

Published Date

  • August 2005

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 70 / 4

Start / End Page

  • 582 - 605

Published By

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1939-8271

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0003-1224

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1177/000312240507000403


  • en