An empirical analysis of acting white

A study you can't afford to ignore

Dan Hodge | Dec 13, 2005

Photo by Scott Webb

Let me ask you a few questions that you may not have thought about recently but the answers are probably impacting your students every day. Are Black students less intelligent than White Students? Are White students smarter because they attend college? Are high Grade Point Averages (G.P. A.s) a result of a high I.Q.? No matter what your skin color, does being smart mean “acting White”?

An interesting article by Roland Fryer Jr. and Paul Torelli originating from the Harvard University Society of Fellows begins to help those of us who care about kids unpack these questions. Regardless of your ministry’s context and your students’ ethnic backgrounds, education is a very real, daily issue. Chances are there are some students in your group who are Black and may have low grades, but does this mean they are “stupid?” Well, let’s look further into these issues by discussing the results of the acting White study.

To begin, let’s first define acting White. According to Fryer and Torelli, acting White is a state of:

  • Having perceived “smarts”
  • Doing well in school and maintaining a high G.P. A.
  • Popularity being derived from good grades
  • Using proper English
  • Following rules (i.e., school standard rules and societal laws) [[These are the basic parameters presented by Fryer and Torelli. The term “Acting White” is a slippery and politically loaded phrase, with little consensus on a precise definition. For Thankeka (2002), it is the “acting” of a Euro-American in their values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, and patterns; this “acting” takes on no certain skin color and can take its form in a Black person. For Fryer and Torelli, “…we say ‘acting white’ exists if there are statistically significant racial differences in the relationship between popularity and grades” (pp.6-7). For nearly 2 decades, there has been a large debate among sociologists, cultural anthropologists, newspaper journalists, and policy wonks on the existence of “acting White.” For further study, I suggest you enter “Acting White” into any academic search engine to see others’ approaches to the topic.]]

This description of “acting White” emerged from Roland Fryer and Paul Torelli’s [[Fryer, Roland G, and Torelli, Paul. An Empirical Analysis of Acting White. Harvard University &National Bureau of Economic Research: 2005.]] investigation into the large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement. Fryer and Torelli utilized both a quantitative survey of G.P. A. scores and relied upon statistical data from school districts. From this data, they concluded that the pressure to be or act White is most intense among high achievers and in schools with more interracial contact. However, the pressure is non-existent among students in predominantly Black schools or private schools.

For Fryer and Torelli, the racial achievement gap in education is a vexing reality. They state, “Black children enter kindergarten lagging whites, and these differences remain throughout the school years. On every subject at every grade level there are large achievement differences between Blacks and Whites.” [[Fryer & Torelli (2005) 2.]] Both of the authors argue that Blacks, even in affluent neighborhoods, still lag behind. These researchers do not suggest that Whites are simply smarter or that Blacks are dumb; it is far more complex than that reductionistic explanation.

In their analysis, Fryer and Torelli uncovered a rich set of new facts. For example, they found large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement. [[Ibid. 4 & 45-46.]] Among Whites, higher grades yield higher popularity. For Blacks, higher achievement is associated with modestly higher popularity until a grade point average of 3.5, when the slope turns negative. [[Ibid.]] A Black student with a 4.0 G.P. A. has, on average, 1.5 fewer same-race friends than a White student with a 4.0. Among Latinos, there is little change in popularity from a grade point average of 1.0 through 2.4. After 2.5 however, the gradient turns sharply negative. [[Ibid. 45-48.]] A Latino student with a 4.0 grade point average is the least popular of all Latino students, and has three fewer friends than a typical White student with a 4.0 grade point average.

Thus it seems that at lower G.P. A.’s, little difference exists among racial groups in the relationship between popularity and grades; Blacks with low G.P.A.’s are more popular than Whites with low G.P.A.’s. At around a 2.5 G.P. A. (an even mix of B’s and C’s), racial differences start to emerge. [[Ibid. 13 & 45.]] Latino students lose popularity at an alarming rate after this cut-off. While Blacks and Whites continue to gain friends as their grades increase, the White slope is steeper. Fryer and Torelli state, “Black popularity peaks at a grade point average of roughly 3.5 and turns down afterward. Whites continue to gain popularity as their grades increase.”[[Ibid. 13.]]

Fryer and Torelli suggest that racial differences in the popularity-grades gradient may be due to various factors that are positively related to popularity (i.e., having high-income parents, having a privileged lifestyle, having affluence). Perhaps that at least partly explains why Black and Latino high achievers continue to be much less popular than similarly achieving Whites.

The “acting White” effect is more salient in public schools and schools in which the percentage of Black students is less than 20, but non-existent among Blacks in predominantly Black schools or those who attend private schools. Schools with more interracial contact have an acting White coefficient twice as large as more segregated schools (7 times as large for Black males). [[Ibid. 5-6.]] Thus it seems that the pressure to act White and the relationship between popularity and achievement has little effect on the average Black students who attend predominantly Black schools—but could potentially be a major reason for the underperformance of minorities in suburban schools or the lack of adequate representation of Blacks and Latinos in elite colleges and universities.

Fryer and Torelli also consider such factors as the self-fulfilling prophecy and self-sabotage. [[Another potentially related factor is Claud Steele’s theory of disidentifaction. Steele’s theory suggests that young African American males as well as females disidentify with school when faced with poor academic attainment. He states that they do not allow achievement, whether it is negative or positive, to affect their respective views of themselves. Moreover, this psychic alienation, this act of not caring, makes the African American youth less vulnerable to the specter of devaluation that haunts them (1993:74). Steele’s main components of the theory are that the young African Americans begin to disidentify with any component of the social structure around them that would harm their already fragile ego. Moreover, to keep hope they dislocate themselves from any component of society that would damage their self-perception. Steele states that to maintain a paradoxically high self-perception they engage in dubious activities in their environment to maintain a perceived identity (p 75).]] Both occur when students begin to tell themselves that they are going to do poorly, they are going to fail, and that they are dumb; ironically the “prophecy” ends up coming true and reinforces the presumption that the student was “dumb” to begin with. They also suggest that Blacks may regularly “downplay” their actual G.P.A., while some Whites may consistently “up-play” their grades. [[Fryer & Torelli (2005) 13.]]

One possible reason that Blacks face a steeper popularity-grades gradient is short supply of high-achieving Black students, the researchers argue. In other words, there are few role models present for high-achieving Blacks; moreover, there are few popular high-achieving Blacks in high schools for other achievers to look up to. Thus the cycle continues, since for Blacks being popular is associated with having lower grades. The same is true for Latinos; especially males. In contrast, for Whites, being popular is associated with higher G.P. A.’s and achievement. [[Ibid. 17-19.]]

Interestingly, Fryer and Torelli found no empirical support for the oppositional culture hypothesis, meaning that they found no opposing forces that would typically “hold-back” high achievement among Latinos and Blacks. For the authors, societal structures and typical “holding back forces”—such as racism and societal issues—were not a factor for young Blacks and Latinos. [[While I disagree with the authors, I do believe we are making progress in these societal issues, but we still have a long road ahead.]] In fact, they observed that most Blacks and Latinos were “free” to perform highly, but they decided internally to settle for lower grades in order to maintain a certain level of popularity.

Responding as youth workers…

How do we respond to this type of study? How does this affect the students we work with?

First, we can all recognize that middle or high school does not have to be the defining moment for any of our students. We will better serve our students if we project ahead to where we’d like to see them in ten years. For example, if someone were to have told me 15 years ago that I would be completing a PhD and teaching at the college level, I would have laughed in their face. But, someone believed enough in me to build in me and saw my future ten years out. That vision stayed with me. Quite frankly, I failed P.E. in high school, I never took one S.A.T. or P.S.A.T., I skipped most of my classes, and barley passed because I went to night school. But I have managed to maintain nothing less than a 3.7 G.P. A. all through college and graduate school – all because a mentor saw more potential for me than I even saw myself.

This does not mean we ignore bad grades and poor behavior in school. But it does mean that we begin to ask the question: what are the pressures at school or among friends that might be contributing to these grades? Then we try to get involved as we can. One way youth workers can be involved in the educational system is to join the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). When I have been a part of the PTA, I have found many doors open for deeper relationships and impact with the faculty and the school. Another way to be involved is to attend school district meetings and voice our experiences and opinions.

Second, we can challenge the assumption that Black students are “dumber” than White students, or vice versa. That is a myth. As youth workers, we can begin to break down the negative stereotypes that exist within all of us regarding academic achievement—Blacks included! The reality is that many urban Blacks are extremely gifted and talented, but many of the schools they attend do not allow for such creative expression of those talents.

A young Black man I worked with who we’ll call “Troy” is a great example of this. Troy did not do well in school. He reached high school and had a 2nd grade reading level, failed most tests, and had poor attendance. But Troy loved to draw. In fact, Troy loved to draw so much that he drew all over the bathroom walls. Troy was expelled from school at the age of 16. However, the story is not over. Troy worked blue-collar work for several years. I helped Troy pass the G.E.D. test and helped him enroll in a school for performing arts in San Francisco. He graduated magna cum laude and is now a set designer for major plays. Only God sees the end!

Fryer and Torelli present an intriguing study and many new ideas to talk about and reflect upon. Perhaps my favorite part of their work is that they do not give us a long list of clear, easy answers. It is up to God and us to figure that out for our own kids in our own communities. We are faced with a strong challenge in the years ahead. Keep hope alive and may God continue to use us as we all face these challenges head on.

Note: you can access the “Acting White” study in its entirety here.

Action Points:

  1. Take a few minutes to think about the students in your own ministry. Do you have Black and/or Latino students? What do you know about their academic performance, and about their popularity among their own and other ethnic groups? If not, who are the minorities specific to your communities, and how (if at all) do you see the ‘acting White’ principle playing out?
  2. How do you respond to the findings of Fryer and Torelli? What would you challenge? What other dynamics do you think are involved in educational performance and popularity in your community’s schools?
  3. What are some ways your ministry can help address these negative forces in students’ lives? What insights can scripture bring to the conversation?

Multiculutral Youth Ministry Posts

Dan Hodge

Dan White Hodge, PhD is a dynamic speaker, scholar, Hip Hop theologian, urban worker, & racial bridge builder that connects Urban popular culture with daily life events. Dan has been an active member of the Hip Hop Community for over 20 years and continues to not only study the culture from both an academic and practical perspective, but live it as well. He has over 16 years of urban youth work experience having worked for Young Life and now working with undocumented peoples in Los Angeles with his wife Emily. Dan’s books are “Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel and Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur” (VDM Academic 2010) and “The Soul of Hip Hop: Rimbs Timbs & A Cultural Theology” (IVP August 2010).

More from this author

More From Us

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads sent straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.