Is ‘Acting White’ a Real Problem for Latino Students?

in Salon by

Yes, it’s a unique issue for ethnic minorities. Questions about authenticity hound, pester, poke, and prod us.

You see, many of us constantly face accusations of whether we are Latino enough, or black enough, or truly Asian, or a real Native American. I’m pretty sure nobody ever asks if someone is white enough… unless of course, there is an Aryan Nation initiation rite going on.

For nerdy ethnic minorities, the problem can be even more pressing. After all, we know full well that African American students who academically excel are ostracized for “acting white” — right?

Well, it turns out that we don’t know that.

A recent study has debunked this myth, showing “there’s no research that explicitly supports a relationship between race, beliefs about ‘acting white,’ social stigma, and academic outcomes.”

In fact, “studies suggest that the highest-achieving black students are actually more popular than the lowest-achieving ones” and that “black students have more positive attitudes about education than white students.”

Well, that’s a plot twist.

Now, the study didn’t examine whether Latino students are mocked for “acting white” if they get good grades. However, from my personal experience, I can answer this question.

And the answer is… nope.

My GPA was a thing of beauty back in the day, and yet none of my Latino peers or family members ever said I was “acting white.” The odd thing is that I was indeed asked this question — by my white teachers, who clearly assumed that this was a real issue.

It was always a short conversation, in that my English teacher would just dance around the topic by using euphemisms (a term I learned in her class). My math teacher would ask if anyone picked on me for knowing a cosine from a parabola (it never came up). And my history teacher would tell me it was good that I was doing so well in his class, because I must be under constant pressure to just give up and fail (he was kind of a dick).

Now, each of these teachers had his or her own reasons for bringing up the topic with me. These ranged from white-liberal guilt to passive-aggressive hostility. But they all assumed that as a Latino, I was an oddball outlier who was just asking for an ass-kicking from the thuggish Hispanics in my barrio.

But as I said, my good grades earned either praise or indifference from my fellow Latinos. Not once did anyone imply that I was a coconut (i.e., brown on the outside, white on the inside).

So why does this misperception persist, and what does it say about society’s expectations for Latino students?

Well, the myth is popular for myriad reasons. For starters, it places the blame for poor academic outcomes squarely on ethnic minority culture, as if it is pathological and behind help, “instead of on harder-to-tackle factors like socioeconomic inequality.”

For example, studies show that Latino children trail their white peers in math skills, but “researchers associate this with increased poverty.”

But acknowledging poverty as a root cause is discomforting to social conservatives, who preach Randian ideas about survival of the fittest and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. If kids are behind in school due to causes beyond their control (e.g., their parents are broke), it flays the entire idea that anyone can get ahead in America if he or she just really strives.

Furthermore, the myth pleases bigots with its “proof” that black and Latino kids are simply too afraid to excel because they will be accused of “acting white.” And if that’s not enough, the myth implies that those kids must just be genetically dumb (either conclusion works for a white supremacist).

Finally, this false narrative pleases those Americans who view excellence as synonymous with being white. After all, the thrust of the myth is that if ethnic minority kids just go ahead and “act white” (however one defines that), they will succeed. The subtle message is that acknowledging one’s culture — be it Latino or black — is a dead end, and the sooner that children learn that whiteness is the pinnacle of accomplishment, the better.

Now, all this could be dismissed as merely disturbing subtext for our society, if not for the fact that “stories about the sources of educational inequality can shape public attitudes and policy.”

This is where our good friend, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, comes in. Will she and her staff believe that Latino and black students are fearful of “acting white,” which is nothing more than a distraction “from the real problems: poverty, segregation, discipline disparities, teacher biases, and other structural factors”? And if so, will she insist that we can sidestep the tricky institutional issues, and just focus on changing the negative attitudes of all those ethnic minority kids?

How optimistic are you about her answer?

 

Featured image: Mundial Perspectives/Flickr

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