Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


What President Obama (among many others) gets wrong about ‘acting white’

The following excerpts are from an article in yesterday's Washington Post. Written by Nia Malika Henderson, it challenges the continuing myth that suggests African American children and families don't value high levels of education, nor academic achievement and excellence.

Please check out the article, share it with friends, review the research referenced in the article, and then challenge people in your circles who continue to push this unsupported argument.

At best, this myth reflects a misunderstood social interplay between African American children trying to make sense of (and explain) the social realities of schooling for African American children.

At worst, this myth reflects a deliberate attempt to deflect any meaningful efforts to promote school transformation policies and practices that affirm and develop the brilliance in our young children.

Neither is acceptable, and both stand in the way of progress for our children and families.

When President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama speak to an audience of African Americans, particularly students, they invariably mention the trope of  “acting white.”  That is the notion that one impediment to black students’ success is the belief in some black communities that academic achievement is synonymous with whiteness, and therefore devalued.


The concept of “acting white” gained traction with a 1986 research paper called “Black students school success: Coping with the “burden of  acting white’”  by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu that was based on the study of a predominantly black Washington, D.C. public school.

Fordham and Ogbu concluded that blacks created an “oppositional cultural identity,” because of their historical oppression at the hands of white Americans, and thereby had come to devalue whatever they associated with whiteness, including social markers like academic achievement and speech patterns.


But is there a problem with the Obamas’ focus on “acting white” as an explanation for how black student’s perceive academic success and the achievements of their peers?

Over the last 20 years, in several studies, the original theory has been largely debunked.


And that’s the part that the Obamas leave out in their constant rehashing of the idea of “acting white.”  Their rhetoric, while seen as refreshing and bold by some, actually seems to confirm a stereotype, that somehow African Americans don’t value academic achievement, even though history and the Obamas’ own lives, not to mention the millions of other black kids who will go off to college in the fall, suggest just the opposite.

A personal aside:  I mentor a young woman who recently graduated from an all-black D.C. charter high school, in which almost every graduate goes off to college. The valedictorian of her class is a young man who wrangled with his parents as graduation approached over a problem–whether to accept a full ride to Yale or Stanford.

During the commencement ceremony, each student who got a scholarship stood up as a list of the awards and the total dollar amount was read out loud.  The valedictorian’s list was by far the longest with the highest total–$1.17 million to be exact.  And as the school official read that long list, the crowd — teachers and administrators, parents and mentors and brothers and sisters and friends of the graduates — began to stand and cheer.  His ovation was by far the loudest and longest.


I, Too, Am Harvard: The Black Student Experience

I, Too, Am Harvard…

A campaign highlighting the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College.

Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned-- this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.

The #itooamharvard video campaign is inspired by I, Too, Am Harvard, a play based on interviews with members of the black community exploring and affirming our diverse experiences as black students at Harvard College.

The original play premieres on (tonight) Friday March 7th, 2014 at 7 PM in Lowell Lecture Hall on the campus of Harvard College. @iTooAmHarvard #itooamharvard

Watch the companion video below, and learn more about the campaign online...