Teen bullying cases have gotten a lot of press lately. Adults, apparently oblivious for years to the harassment and physical violence perpetrated by young people on one another, have jumped on the bandwagon — producing everything from public service announcements to school lesson plans highlighting the dangers of bullying.
From the poor kid hanging from a fence by his jacket last year in Upper Darby, courtesy of his classmates; to the little old lady harangued to the point of tears on a school bus in Greece, N.Y., images of teens behaving badly have captured the spotlight — which is a good thing.
But one particularly damaging form of bullying is unique to the African-American community — and one; generally speaking, we’d rather not talk about.
It’s the “acting white,” or “not Black enough” charge — heard from Black children (and some adults) in neighborhoods all over America. Worst of all, it is used not to mock supposedly “white” speech patterns, music, or style of dress, but to decry intelligence itself.
Our kids have somehow been taught to believe that striving for academic excellence — studying, getting good grades, even the ability to speak, read and write the language — is the sole purview of white folks, and that if you’re Black and trying to better yourself through education, you’re certainly not cool — or even worse, a sellout.
Let’s not just gloss over this. Think about it for a minute. If intelligence is uncool, and getting good grades or speaking English without mumbling undecipherable gibberish is acting white, what then, is genuine Blackness?
What, I ask you, could be more pernicious, more insidious, more damaging to the minds and souls of Black kids than the notion that if they’re smart, they’re not really Black? What could hurt them worse, long term, than the idea that if they study hard and try to get ahead in school, they’re somehow a traitor to their race?
I can’t think of a single thing. And to see and hear this mindset manifest itself through the words and actions of our young people is truly heartbreaking.
Consider 18-year-old African-American Logan West of Connecticut, the newly crowned Miss Teen USA 2012. The cause she has decided to champion, because for some unknown reason beauty queens must always champion a cause, is bullying. And the reason she chose this cause? You guessed it. She was teased, mocked, harassed, beaten, and even stabbed with umbrellas from middle school through high school for “not acting her skin color.”
A few years ago I hosted a weekly radio talk show on WURD 900 AM. One week my co-hosts and I invited outstanding Black academic scholars from several Philly high schools on the program. These were the kids who did all the right things — worked hard, earned straight A’s and college scholarship opportunities, and volunteered in their communities.
They each told a sad, harrowing tale of having to hide their intelligence from their peers. They didn’t raise their hand in class to answer a question, pretended not to know the answer when called upon, and hid their report cards from their classmates. They told stories of the anger and hostility heaped upon them by their peers for simply being smart, and of the beatings and harassment they faced for “acting white” — as though intelligence and academic achievement are reserved for white folks.
I remember that show vividly, mostly for the sad resignation in the faces and the voices of those young people. I also remember it for the calls we got after they left. Some callers, more than a few, in fact — all but called the kids liars, denying that any such twisted mindset was pervasive among our young people.
I noticed the same thing when reading the comments section accompanying the Logan West story online — Black folk, supposedly reasonable adults, writing to say Black kids don’t act that way, and West probably made the whole bullying story up for media attention.
She didn’t — and its time to get our heads out of the sand. That level of denial is not helpful — in fact, denying the mindset’s existence is part of the reason it’s been allowed to flourish.
Education is not the enemy — it is the one sure way up and out of poverty. The ability to read, write and speak English is not the sole domain of the white man — it is how Black people ace the interview and get the job.
Whoever convinced our young people otherwise — now, that’s the enemy.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.