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Getting beyond the 'acting white' insult

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Elizabeth Zalanga
Elizabeth Zalanga, left, explains to Brian Lozenski how students attending the Science Museum's Youth Science Day can learn basic computer programming skills to create a simple game or animation Thursday, July 17, 2014 in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

For the past year - especially as the economy has been growing - President Obama has been calling for equal opportunity for all Americans, including young African-American men.

In a recent speech, Obama encouraged a group of young minority males to ignore those who put them down with insults like "acting white:"

"Sometimes African-Americans, in communities where I've worked, there's been the notion of 'acting white' ... where, OK, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there's some authentic way of being black ... that has to go."

"Acting white" is a concept that has been around for a long time. But now, the president assures us that there is no one way of representing a culture.

Elizabeth Zalanga in Saint Paul reported on the same topic for MPR News in July:

From middle school until now I've gained a strong sense of who I really am. I'm just me, and whether people think I "act white" or not, the statement no longer phases me.

Now, I no longer code switch. I offer the genuine me to all potential friends. I don't let stereotypes define who I am. You see, we're all more similar then we think and if we took the time to understand others there would be less tension between us.

One caller from St. Paul said he thinks the insult is a big part of what's holding his community back.

This is a big part of why black kids are not choosing to go to college, are not choosing to further their education. Because the moment they do, and the moment they step forward, many others in their community -- their friends -- are shunning them.

"Acting white" is something that African-Americans hurl at other African-Americans just to put them down, said Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart.

"Especially when this goes on in school, the either intended or unintended consequence is it makes young people feel that they have to limit themselves, that they have to hold themselves back," he said.

That's what President Obama was saying in his speech. There's no one way to be African-American, Capehart said.

This issue doesn't just affect African-Americans, said Duke University professor William Darity, Jr.

"We have a widespread sentiment that suggests there is some kind of discount for being intellectually a high achiever. I want to argue that there is no evidence that the degree of anti intellectualism is greater in the black community than anywhere else," he said.

We don't deny that the acting white charge occurs in schools, but we do argue that there's a context.

It's most likely to occur in schools in classes that are ranked by challenge or difficulty, and if black students are largely absent from those classes, and concentrated disproportionately in the weaker ones so that the more challenging classes actually visually look like they are the property of white students.

And that's because of the exclusion of so many black students.

Have you--as a person of color--ever been accused of acting white? Or have you thought it about someone else? What do you think it says about expectations, influences and peer pressure within your community?