Study: taunts of 'acting white' not enough to prevent black students from trying hard

October 11, 2005

CHAPEL HILL -- Despite a common belief that peer pressure against high academic achievement is prevalent among black students, a new study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University shows that that's not usually true.

Generally, the researchers found, black adolescents are as achievement-oriented as white adolescents, contrary to what some observers, including academics, have thought. A small percentage of black adolescents might not try as hard as they could in school for fear of criticism from other black students, but most are not deterred when others accuse them of "acting white."

"We analyzed interviews and existing data from eight North Carolina public secondary schools," said Dr. Karolyn Tyson, assistant professor of sociology in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences. "We found little evidence suggesting that a burden of 'acting white' is a major reason why some black students do poorly in school and is a key contributor to the black-white achievement gap."

A report on the research appears in the latest issue (August) of the American Sociological Review. Besides Tyson, co-authors are Drs. William A. Darity, Boshamer professor of economics at UNC and professor of public policy at Duke, and Domini Castellino, a psychologist affiliated with Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy.

How schools were organized was a factor in black students' attitudes about achievement, the researchers found.

"In particular, the racial and class composition of the most challenging classes, advanced placement and honors classes, at the high school level is critical in determining whether or not a climate exists that produces a burden of acting white," Darity said.

"A common complaint among successful students, regardless of race, was that they were to some degree stigmatized as "nerds" or "geeks," Tyson said.

Notions of how "acting white" has become a burden to many black students have become popular among many social scientists, she said. That is in part because those notions offer an easy answer to the question of why whites as a group fare better then blacks as a group in school. The racial achievement gap is one of the most stubborn and vexing problems in all of education and in U.S. society as a whole.

"...Surprisingly, sociologists have not paid enough attention to similarities in the daily experiences of black and white students in schools," the authors wrote. "Until we recognize that these processes generalize beyond one specific group, we will continue to go astray in our efforts to understand the black-white achievement gap."
Note: The most easily reachable source will be Darity, who is at or (919) 962-6810, 966-5392 or 966-2156. Tyson is on leave but might be reached at the Russell Sage Foundation at, or (212) 750-6036.

News Services contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596

UNC News Services

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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