Jane was not her name, but her real name was an equally common one. In many ways, she was much like her name. Pretty enough, but not a stunner. Slightly taller than average, but not tall enough to stand out. Dark skinned, but not noticeably so. Neither curvy nor boyish. As I try to recall her appearance thirty years later, I can’t even conjure in my mind how she wore her hair. I’m pretty sure she did have hair because if she didn’t I would have noticed.
I probably wouldn’t have noticed her at all in our large school if we didn’t have several classes together, most notably a drama class that had perhaps a dozen students. It’s impossible to overlook someone in a drama class, especially a small one. She was, I recall, always friendly, but in a distant, quiet way.
If Jane was plain, Lola was a stunner. Voluptuous, sultry, a Puerto Rican girl with glossy, black hair, coffee-colored skin and large black eyes. She and I were rapidly becoming friends. I remember one day, standing in the hallway of our school. It must have been lunchtime because none of us were in a hurry. Jane mentioned to Lola that she was having a party that weekend. She asked her to come. She didn’t ask me. I shuffled my feet a little bit and tried to not look too awkward. I was making friends in school, so this wasn’t crushing, and although Jane and I were on friendly terms, we weren’t friends, so it wasn’t a shock that I wouldn’t be invited. I did find it a little strange that she would invite Lola while I was standing there. So, while this wasn’t a huge social humiliation or a dramatic personal blow, everyone likes to be liked and I wanted to be invited.
My discomfort must have been palpable because Jane turned to me and said, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to invite you. My brother and his friends give me a hard time about acting ‘too white.’ It’s bad enough as it is. If I invited white kids to my party, they’d give me so much trouble.”
Prior to attending this school, all my other schools had been mostly white. I could see from my first day there that some sort of self-segregation was going on in the school, but I hadn’t yet learned the whys and wherefores. I say self-segregated, but don’t imagine anything too terribly hostile. Outside the school, there was a grassy area shaded by tall trees along a small stream. If you walked by at lunchtime, you’d see teenagers eating bagged lunches or lunches bought at a nearby shop. You might see a cluster of half a dozen black boys with one white boy or a group of four or five white girls with a couple of black girls. In fact, I’d say that self-segregation along gender lines was more common than along racial lines. However, I had always gone to public schools and was used to mixed sex groups and knew what to expect and how to navigate them socially. A racially integrated school was still new to me. I still didn’t know how to navigate it. So Jane’s reason for not inviting me was in important piece of information. She was experiencing social pressure from her family.
A week or two later, in our drama class, as some sort of trust exercise, we each had to tell the class something the rest of the class didn’t know about us. I was a pretty straight kid with an unremarkable life and finding some deep secret was harder than you might expect. I can’t remember what I said. In fact, I can’t remember what anyone said, except Jane. She told us that her brother and his friends made fun of her for being a “wannabe” because she got good grades. It would be a few years yet before Spike Lee’s School Daze would popularize the term. She said that she told her brother, “I’m not going to get bad grades just because you think getting good grades is ‘white.’ I don’t think being ignorant is being ‘black.’ I going to do what I want to do and be myself and I don’t care what you say.” But she did care, she told us, and she tried hard to act “black” and to not seem “white” in any other way.
This memory was jogged by a short article by John McWhorter, “No, ‘Acting White’ Has Not Been Debunked,” the overall thrust of which is summarized in the title. I followed the link from his article to an opinion piece that was given as an example of the opinions McWhorter was countering. The core of Nia-Malika Henderson’s article, “What President Obama gets wrong about ‘acting white’” is:
The North Carolina based study showed black students, some in predominantly black schools, and others in predominantly white schools, negotiating peer pressure and class selection in much the same way that their white peers did. The study suggests a common strain that sometimes has poor white kids dealing with the burden of being seen as “uppity” and “snobbish,” and black kids in predominantly white school settings, on occasion grappling with that same notion, with a racialized overlay. It’s essentially nerds versus jocks, yet it plays out in very nuanced ways depending on the school setting and is complicated by class, race and in-group versus out-group pressures.
Harvard economist, Roland G. Fryer, finds evidence that the most high achieving blacks students at predominantly white schools taking a hit on the popularity front, but finds no evidence of the same trend at predominantly black schools. He also finds that “variants on acting white have been spotted by ethnographers among the Buraku outcasts of Japan, Italian immigrants in Boston’s West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and the British working class, among others.”
The fact that a similar dynamic is at work in other society and among other groups does not negate the reality that academically high-achieving black students in some communities (note, some not all) are criticized by their family and friends for “acting white.” Now that Henderson has jogged my memory, I can recall having critical things said to me by working class boys about the fact that I got good grades, calling me a snob. It was ineffectual because they were not part of my social circle. Had I come from a family with a strong working class identity, perhaps my response to that would have been different.
It seems to me that the major disagreement between McWhorter and Henderson is not about the facts, but how the facts should be discussed.
One little note, as I experienced it, the conflict wasn’t between “jocks and nerds,” it was between those who felt themselves to be marginalized by the society and those who were trying to be a part of it.