Avoiding the 'Acting-White' Trap

Sep 15, 2014

A group of black students at Kent State University is taking a special interest in the work of one of the school’s psychology professors. Angela Neal-Barnett is studying how the accusation of ‘acting white’ affects a young person’s identity.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair explores how a simple statement impacts what it means to be black in America.

 

Savannah McCarthy is a broadcast journalism major at Kent State University. She moved a lot growing up, and she says being a black girl who excelled in school often set her apart.

She says criticism came from every side, "and not just from black kids, but from white kids, too, who were like, ‘You’re acting white.'"

The acting white accusation is a form of bullying unique to African-American culture. It’s been around since emancipation -- a response to how education started to change the black dialect.

“The term in the black community is, ‘You talk proper,’” according to Kent State psychology professor Angela Neal-Barnett.

She says, “When you say to someone who is black, 'You are acting white,' it’s an accusation against the core of who they are.”

The roots of anxiety in African-American youth
Neal-Barnett is one of the first researchers to measure the accusation. She realized its impact when studying the roots of anxiety in black women.

She says when she asked black women suffering from anxiety when it started, each woman in the study group told her it stems from periods in middle school, or junior high school when the other kids accused them of acting white.

Neal-Barnett has shifted her research focus to study anxiety in adolescents. In one recent survey, she found 90 percent of black kids reported hearing the acting-white accusation in one form or another. 

 

Martell Davis, Leia Belt, and Dana Pugh study psychology at Kent State University. They're part of Angela Neal-Barnett's team of researchers studying anxiety in African-American youth.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

Grad student Martell Davis helped analyze the data. He says the accusation can have lasting impact on an adolescent, who’s at a critical point in their identity development, and it can have major implications into adulthood. 

"It can be linked to depression, anxiety, externalizing disorders and conduct disorders.”

Neal-Barnett says black adolescents, and even adults get caught in what she calls the "acting-white trap." Research has shown that high-achieving black students, especially in mixed race schools, are the most likely to get negative feedback for success. The pressure, she says, can be intense.

“They say to us, 'It’s just easier to conform than to have to deal with the taunts and the accusations all the time,” says Angela Neal-Barnett.

A conversation about what it means to be black
The acting-white accusation is an issue that resonates with Matthew Thompson, president of Black United Students at Kent State. His group has taken a keen interest in Neal-Barnett’s work as part of an ongoing dialogue within the black community.

“You can be told you act white, or you act white, or that’s too black," he says. "There’s a balance of gauging your blackness at all times. That’s the reality for us so we have to talk about that.”

Thompson says the acting-white accusation has nothing to do with wanting to be white and everything to do with what it means to be black.

Isaac Floyd resists racial labels. He says the way he speaks and acts is part of what it means to be black, despite stereotypes from both races.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

Group member Isaac Floyd says his generation needs to continue to reshape the black identity.

“It is your responsibility as a black person to broaden the expectations of black people to achieve certain things that may be outside of those margins that stereotypes reinforce," he says.

He wants to be free to define for himself what it means to be black.

“Being educated is being black. Speaking proper is being black. So that’s what I want to get out of my personal life,” says Floyd.

Savannah McCarthy agrees that her race just…is.

“I mean to be black is to be me,” says McCarthy.

Angela Neal-Barnett has published more than a decade’s worth of research into the acting-white accusation, racial identity and anxiety in African American youth, most recently in the journal Comprehensive Psychology.