Published and modified on Peacevoice.info
“Why are you reading so much?” “Why are you speaking so properly?”
On July 27, President Obama reiterated these questions—inquiries he often hears from youth in predominately black neighborhoods where some children are afraid to learn. Yes, afraid. This fear Obama disclosed is brought on by the taunting many well-educated black individuals receive because their peers believe that being well read and articulate constitutes “acting white.”
Through covertly racist corporate media and hegemonic Caucasian opinion, dangerous implications are made that suggest minorities are both incapable and unwilling to learn. These implications only create innumerable obstacles and widen the achievement gap between whites and people of color in America. In a perfect society in a perfect world, movies such as Dear White People would not be a primary way of generating understanding about racial divides. Knowledge is power, and our own ignorance of racial characteristics and the ludicrous expectations we make based on them must stop. That is the only way to create a “safe” enough society where everyone has equal access and ability to this nation’s greatest freedom: education.
What does “acting white” look like? In mainstream America, this is going to a school and actually paying attention—being able to provide a well thought out answer when question by the teacher in class. This is seen as doing the homework assigned to you and holding an intelligent conversation with your peers based on the material outside of class. It is returning home to a family who cares enough to make sure you are on top of your homework and pressure you to get straight A’s.
What does “acting black” look ? On the other end of the spectrum, there is blackness: which is cutting classes whenever possible, looking like a fool when called upon by the teacher and consequently serving—and cutting detention—blowing off all homework assignments, failing and repeating your current grade over.
These low expectations lead not only to the fear of succeeding because it will be going against the “status quo,” but to the misallocation of resources in black communities. For a person of color, “acting white” may forever make you an outcast among your peers (not fitting in with either black or whites), but “acting black” leads to poor education, a minimum wage job, and the contempt of society’s dominant group.
The nature of our educational system and its racial divider has haunted this nation since before the landmark cases of Plessy v. Ferguson, where segregation cemented with the declaration that “separate was equal” and have continued long after Brown v. Board of Education, when it was unanimously decided that the results of Plessy v. Ferguson was a crock.
Well respected author and journalist Jonathan Kozol devoted himself to uncovering such awful truths about our country’s educational system. Kozol’s 2005 book, Shame of the Nation, provides an in-depth examination of the “restoration of apartheid schooling in America” through many heart breaking stories across the United States. His latest book, Fire in the Ashes, published in 2012, is no different. Kozol once again highlights the disadvantages black youth have compared to their white counterparts. “Why is nothing done about this?” is something I always ask when reading his works of nonfiction. It is always answered with the cruel reality: nothing is done because the expectations of achievement for these students is low, therefore they are seen as “inconsequential.”
Is it any wonder now why little “Billy” feels that as a young black boy, he is neither capable of nor supposed to sound intelligent? It is not entirely his fault. He is simply conforming to what American society expects. His parents experienced this, as well. Maybe he has no one to tell him to dream bigger – or maybe no one will—to look beyond what this society is handing out and reach for what his true intelligence and abilities may allow him to achieve. This includes reaching his full potential with access to quality education, encouragement to learn and a belief in the efficacy of doing so.
It is a vicious set of events: while the taunting of this oppression-induced mentality produces may deter many a well-educated black youth from reaching back and helping their fellow “minorities.” (Man, I hate using that word sometimes!) This is not acceptable, and it never will be.
So, how do we interrupt this cycle as well as the pervasive and damaging racial divide in our education system?
As we attempt to resolve this racial schism perpetuated by our own lack of understanding, it is easy to ask the questions, “What does it mean to ‘act black’?” or “What does it mean to ‘act white’?”
However, I encourage us all to cast aside any race-specific ideals that may arise in our answers. Let us discard the notion that “acting black” means one must be more interested in hip hop culture than literature. Let us renounce the misconception that “acting white” means growing up in middle class suburbia and being able to speak in an eloquent manner. By doing so, we are refusing to pander to the discriminatory foundations on which this society has been founded—the society that hated dark skin and ethnic features so much that a person with only “one drop” of African blood was forever labeled as a second-class citizen – or three-fifths of a person – in her own country.
Realizing that “race” really doesn’t exist would help as well. We are all human beings; the ideals of “race” in this country is little more than a socio-political structure to delineate between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ of society. Modern scholars such as Dr. Cornel West will agree that every society needs two groups of people to function—those that have the education and resources to attain more opportunity and those who don’t. The United States’ capitalistic system thrives on that. However, those that dislike certain human being based on features attained through the genetics of their immediate ancestry used the illusions of race to establish these two groups in America. It was simply more convenient. Coming to grips with that truth would certainly relieve our minds of the pressures of an outdated and quite frankly, tyrannical system.
We also must bear in mind that behaviors do not belong to any one race. Certain practices and idiosyncrasies may be more dominant in one particular group of people over all others, but to claim actions to be ours, and ours alone? It’s absurd to see it written down. Like Martin Luther King, jr.—I too, have a dream. My dream is that we as Americans (and as people) will one day move into a post-racial era where content of character is not predicated by “race.” This will in turn propel people of color to not be afraid to strive higher in their educational settings, and highly educated “minorities” will be the norm.
My dream is to see a world in which black youth do not purposely dumb themselves down in an effort to keep pace with what is expected of them. My dream is that white youth do not ostracize an intelligent youth simply because they do not look like them and therefore can’t be as smart as they are. One way this can be achieved is by encouraging young children—whether black, white, Latino, etc—not to self-segregate. Beverly Tatum’s book Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? examines the lack of understanding between ethnic groups based on the need to be with one’s “own kind.” I encourage us all to be inclusive with who we talk to, and we will realize that our similarities outweigh our differences. Who is to say I can’t be well versed in history and literature because of the color of my skin when I’m really no different than my white classmate who lives on the other side of town?