Rick Badie’s article, “What is so ‘unblack’ about being intelligent?” sure struck a chord with readers who are dismayed about the peer pressure among black youth to avoid the pursuit of academic excellence in order to “keep it real” or “stay black”. The article and all of the comments that it generated are worthy reading. http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/sharedblogs/ajc/badie/entries/2005/12/01/what_is_so_unbl.html?imw=Y
This subject is near and dear to my heart. I remember when I first stepped foot on the Stanford University campus as a freshman. I was shocked to discover this kind of are-you-black-enough judgment coming from many upperclassmen of the school’s small black community. Evidently, my class was one of the first entering classes whose black population was comprised of mostly middle-class kids. And as we showed up with all of the trappings of affluence, we were immediately challenged about our “blackness”. Needless to say, the more we participated in “white” activities, the more we were considered trying to be white.
Certainly everyone in the black community had embraced a level of academic priority in order to be at Stanford in the first place. But there was a palpable disdain for the zealous academic. And acting “white”- through speech, extra-curricular endeavors (like pledging a traditionally white fraternity or sorority)—was definitely not cool. We would often hear someone say about another black student, “she don’t know she’s black”. And there was plenty of “helpful” advise to go around– “don’t forget where you came from, brotha!”; “you might think you’re white, but whitey doesn’t think so.”, etc.
It is a troubling phenomenon, and disturbing to think that you can get all the way to college and still face that kind of judgment from your fellow black peers. But there it was. The aspect of this whole black judgment thing that disturbs me most is the resulting devisiveness. We are quick to applaud a black person who achieves excellence at something. We want to identify with him or her, and want them to serve as a representative of the race. But we criticize and try to reroute them all along the way. The achiever has to prove all along the way that he has not forgotten who he is.
If we want to pursue excellence and be “cool” in the community, we become closet achievers. Secretly studying and participating in almost all-white academic arenas, while being careful to dress right and attend all of the black social events to prove we are “down”. Those who are most successful at living this dichotomy are successful because they are the social chameleons we are so familiar with. But the chameleon life is no easy one — straddling two worlds at once while trying to be a contributing part of both. Often black children who have not mastered the chameleon persona (or don’t care to) find themselves between a rock and a hard place, not fitting in anywhere. And this is no small issue. Children do best in environments where they feel that they belong and where they are supported. Children who must choose their race (and this is what they are required to do in this situation), are led to understand that choosing to achieve in the school setting is choosing to act “white”. And choosing to act or be “black” might be cool but not academically successful.
I watch my kids master their chameleon personas everyday. We live in a predominately white neighborhood and my kids attend a predominately white school. There are a handful of Black kids at their school, all struggling with this identity issue. My kids, after being in the mostly white school environment all day, participate in a music community that mostly asian. Then they go to practice with their predominately black AAU basketball teams.
The analogy of the chameleon is perfect because our children feel they have to transform themselves—the way they look and act—to conform to expectations. What makes the situation of the black child in the white environment so tricky is that they are forced to deal with stereotypic perceptions and expectations from everyone– their white teachers, white and black peers, included. The onslaught of negative feedback they can get from the white community can be dizzying. And not because it is as overt and in-your-face as that from the black community. White racial treatment is insidious because it is most often subtle but constant. The notion that black students are inferior learners, more threatening, and the quinessential “lesser/other” permeates the messages the white community imposes on our children. Our children are encouraged to relinquish more outward signs of “blackness” like forms of dress, music, and black friends. They are more socially accepted (and academically supported) in the white world if they act in ways that make the white community more comfortable.
My point here is that this tendency to racialize behavior did not originate with black youth. Mainstream society has a very clear notion of what defines blackness and their notion is overwhelmingly negative. I won’t even go into the consistently negative messages we get from the television about what it means to be black. (You’ve watched the news. You saw the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Enough said.) Unfortunately, in the school environment, many of the teachers, administrators, and peers operate on accepted characterizations of “black” behavior, which color their perception of that student. Thus, a black student who is quiet and not deferential to a teacher is perceived to have an “attitude”. A black student who performs poorly on an exam is not just an unprepared student, but an unintellegent one. Or a black student who performs confidently in class is not well-prepared or intelligent, but arrogant or a cheater. In this environment, the black student has to navigate a mine field. If a black boy, for example, “acts up” at recess, he is not just being a rambunctious boy like his white counterpart. He is unleashing his natural black tendencies toward aggression. Acceptable behavior by the white standard, then, is more difficult to achieve for the black child. And with everybody telling him what it means to be “black”, it’s no wonder that so many kids embrace these self-defeating notions of ‘blackness”. This route for the black child is easier. It allows him to separate himself from what is thought to be white and to “keep it real”. It frees him from the expectation to work hard and achieve. And this way everybody is happy. Everybody’s notions of the world are kept in tact.
This makes the phenomenon of black peer judgment particularly painful, because it perpetuates the white racist notions that our forefathers fought hard to overcome. And as I think back to my college years, I can only assume that the beliefs that drove the black upperclassmen to reject the black freshmen for “acting white” have been passed down to their children, so that a new generation can impose the same limitations on their peers and themselves.
Whatever the source of this racist imposition, it needs to be halted. And the best people for the job are parents. All parents, especially black parents. The responsibility for preparing our children for excellence and making sure that they know they can do ANYTHING and anything WELL, falls on us. We cannot control how teachers think. We cannot change the beliefs of other families. But we can tell our children everyday (over and over again) who they are; that they come from a community with a long history of achievement, academic and otherwise; and they have the ability to do and be whatever they want to do and be. We can help them define themselves as whole and balanced… as valuable people, thereby combating all of the negative and confusing messages they are getting elsewhere. Its up to us. If we do not do it, no one else will…and I mean no one!!
1 – Just wanted to say that I really enjoy your articles.
Written by: -a at 2006/01/28 – 04:31:37
2 – Hi, I read your article. I live in Sweden and I am a white mother of four black children. My eldest son lived 9 years in Florida and being a black man there gave him some strange experiences. He is not a black American, he is part Swedish and part Gambian, which makes him a black European. He were often asked questions about his blackness, both by blacks and white. People didn´t know how to catogarize him. He likes to dress in Gap clothes, that was not concidered black. He likes the sound track from Oh Brother where art thou, that was concidered strange by some white. Some white told him his English was so good and grammatically right, which was surprising to them. (He was tought Brittish English in school)
Being European and African made him odd in USA. His looks made him fit in perfectly in South Florida, but both blacks and whites found him different.
Written by: Linda Levin at 2006/02/23 – 17:10:40
3 – Linda,
Thank you for your comment. By the way, my children love the Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, too!!! All we can do as parents is encourage our children to be their authentic selves. Since it is impossible to be everything to everyone, they must be taught be please themselves (…and maybe us sometimes!). And we parents must celebrate their individual beauty everyday!! That’s our job. Right?
Written by: Gina at 2006/02/23 – 22:47:57
4 – Dear Gina,
As the mother of two children and a co-founder of the Parent Network for Students of Color here in Palo Alto, I want to thank you for the lucidity of your analysis. I came across your blog today as I begin work on drafting a mission statement for our group.
Having grown up in a predominately white neighborhood in NYC and attended public schools there, including CCNY, and having reared two children, one of whom is now 30, the other of whom is about to turn 19 and is enrolled in Swarthmore College, I have a lot to say on the subject of how to support our children as they work to become their own authentic selves–and, I might add, how we as black parents work to do the same.
I look forward to reading more.
Thanks again, Marvina
Written by: Marvina White at 2006/10/08 – 21:49:28
5 – Oh my, today I read your article and cried. I have boy/girl twins that will be starting school in the fall (they will be 3). They have been home and been in a controlled environment. They are happy and loving children. As I read your article it brought into reality the issues that I was not consciously aware of why I was finding this so hard. Now I understand.
I remember what it was like for me growing up from a middle class family and attending school, first in a predominately black school, then in a predominately white school and never feeling like I fit in either place. I don’t want that for my kids, but I understand that I will not able to always protect them from the ignorance’s of the outside world.
Thank you for letting me know that there are more people who share my issues, and unfortunately what may become my children’s issue. You have written a truly wonderful article.
Thanks again, Janese
Written by: Anonymous at 2008/12/05 – 16:11:15