Updated: Mar 14
In the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a powerful keynote address. He brought into the national consciousness a term that is used to refer to academically inclined minority students who allegedly conduct themselves in snobbish ways: “acting white.”
In a culturally pluralist society, one of the main variables for success or the lack thereof is the culture of the group. Within the study of educational habits of subcultures, a theory emerged in the 1980s called oppositional culture, which attempts to explain the black/white achievement gap in education. This theory suggests that the gap is a symptom of the sub-culture’s rejection of the prevailing norms and values of the dominant culture—not just nonconformity within the educational system. In the case of black students, it meant acting white.
The theory accounts for the differences between black and white students in several ways:
1. White educators tend to provide black students with inferior education and handle them differently than white students.
2. Because of the “glass ceiling,” defined by the Department of Labor as an invisible and impenetrable barrier that keeps women and minorities from rising on the job ladder, white society fails to reward black people in a way that is commensurate with their educational achievement.
3. Black people often develop self-defeating behaviors that limited their ability to achieve academic success.
The research indicates that the phenomenon of acting white has greater social sanctions in integrated schools than in segregated schools. In other words, when black students conduct themselves in ways that are perceived as “acting white.” they lose popularity and the motivation to do well academically. However, this phenomenon seems to be most prevalent in racially integrated environments.
The entrepreneur, educator, and hip-hop artist, Killer Mike, in a 2019 interview, suggests having black children attend school with only black children until they are thirteen years old. His reasoning is based on anecdotal evidence. He attended all-black schools, lived in all-black communities, and only knew black politicians, police, and clergy. The majority of the public schools in his area were named after prominent black figures.
From his perspective, this experience instilled a pride in him that all black children should have before they encounter white society. Coincidentally, his experience is consistent with the research done by Harvard professor Roland Fryer and described in the paper “Acting White.” The researcher of the theory of oppositional culture, John Ogbu, suggested that white America’s traditional refusal to acknowledge the potential for black intellectual achievement instills doubts about black American’s intellectual ability, which produces an inferiority.
In the days of slavery, anti-literacy laws were put on the books because literate slaves were the ones who spread ideas about insurrection. Examples include Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey. An educated mind cannot be enslaved.
According to one historian, black people went from being completely illiterate in the mid-1800s to being half-literate by 1900. One of a slave’s main attractions to freedom was reading and writing, in addition to family rebuilding and land ownership.
In The Miseducation of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson comments that if you can control a man’s perceptions, you don’t have to be concerned about his actions. He contends that the modern education given the black people doesn’t help black people, because it’s designed to conform to the needs of their oppressor. The same goes for the standards and expectations for a black person’s life.
With education that is culturally uplifting and healing, black people have an opportunity to adopt new sets of standards and expectations. This type of change can happen when more black families adopt independent educational traditions.
An independent educational tradition is a model of education that does not solely depend on the school system for learning tools. Such a tradition is especially vital for communities where the school system is not adequately meeting the needs of the students.
The most important part of my education was sitting at the kitchen table and reading while my mother supervised me. That literally saved my life and is responsible for the work that I’m doing today. Because she gave me a higher knowledge base of what is possible, I developed higher expectations.
As a mentor, you want to be deliberate about what you model as far as your focus on reading and personal development, because the education of the children begins with the education of their teachers. There is always room to improve as a student, a leader, a businessperson, in your relationships, and in your finances—but only if you read.
What caused black people to develop an academic sluggishness? Malcolm X had an answer. From his perspective, the cause was years and years of being oppressed after slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and white discrimination. In addition, the educational system that black people matriculated through was designed to cause the young people to lose interest in school.
In addition, many parents who have formal education but saw so many barriers thought it fruitless for their children to reach higher. This ties in with the concept of learned helplessness, which occurs when someone suffers from a sense of powerlessness arising from trauma or a persistent failure to succeed. It occurs when someone attempts to pursue a goal and has that goal blocked.
If every time I go to open a door, someone hits me—and if everyone I know goes to the door, and someone hits them—eventually, we all stop going to the door. Vicarious learned helplessness happens when you see those above you—your parent or your hero—try to open the door, and then get hit. Then I won’t even try to open the door.
After a while, even if the door is open, no one bothers to go through it. Whether it’s a promotion on the job, a business venture, or the desire to access financing for a house or a business—things that were commonplace a few decades ago—people who are affected by learned helplessness don’t pursue opportunities available to them, because they feel powerless.
People who experience having goals repeatedly blocked also can be prone to outbursts of anger and potential violence. The 1967 race riots all across America, which left eighty-three dead and almost 2,000 injured, occurred in part due to discrimination that African Americans faced. President Lyndon Johnson established an eleven-member panel called the Kerner Commission to understand what caused the riots. The commission determined that white racism was the underlying cause of violence.
Did we, as a society, learn from the Kerner Commission? We did not. Instead, we saw white backlash to black assertiveness. The anger persists until this day. Many societal barriers have been broken, but many black people still have an emotional and psychological wall from their experience of racism.
I believe that when your culture limits or restricts your ability to fulfill your purpose, you have to find ways to transcend the limitations. Whether you had a baby out of wedlock, went to prison, got divorced, or filed bankruptcy, you can go on to live a great life. I’ve been blessed to see people recover from all these situations and prosper through hard work, perseverance, and having high expectations of themselves. They were actually better for what they had to endure, because it made them tougher and more resilient.
The barriers restricting you are within you. People will hold you to your limitations, so don’t hold yourself to them. There’s always something in life that can cause you to bury your hopes and dreams, but the people who fulfill their purpose face their fears, take risks, maybe fail several times, and get back up.
Malcolm X advised that leaders of black people instill within young people the desire to further their education. How can this be done? Hopefully, by this point in the book, you’ve reviewed the tools on developing a sense of self and identifying your purpose, which should invoke/restore a self-sustained motivation.
More specifically, there are two things that I believe we need to look at in order to close the achievement gap: Increasing time on tasks in academic study and Creating a culture of high expectations.
Increasing Time on Tasks in Academic Study
Black educational consultant Jawanza Kunjufu has been working for thirty years to reverse the achievement gap. Kunjufu is best known for this book series The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys.
Here are some statistics about the study habits of the races, based on Dr. Kunjufu’s research with SAT scores (which range from 0 to 1600):
The average SAT scores for Asian students was 1600.
The average SAT scores for White students was 1582.
The average SAT scores for Hispanic students was 1371.
The average SAT scores for African American students was 1291.
Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the score differential did not correlate with the parent’s education level, income level, or the number of parents in the home.
Here’s what the research showed about study habits:
Asian students study twelve hours per week.
White students study eight hours per week.
Hispanic students study three hours per week.
Black students study one hour per week.
What were the black students doing besides homework? They watched thirty-eight hours of television, spent eighteen hours listening to music, eleven hours playing basketball, and nine hours texting/talking with friends. My experience confirms this is an accurate picture of how black youths spend their free time.
Kunjufu suggests that, for every hour of TV, telephone, or video game usage, students should study for one hour. I can’t articulate how important this would be to closing the achievement gap. SAT results are not based on ability or luck. They are based on effort.
How a young person spends his or her free time is something that can be controlled. We can level the playing field. As a mentor, your question should not be whether your mentee is passing all their classes, but whether they are exceling and living up to their potential.
Spike Lee, the director of the famous film Malcolm X, commented that Malcolm X would be turning over in his grave if he saw the state of education of black children today. Something is wrong when ignorance is championed over intelligence.
The first step to change is truth. The next step is action. As a mentor, put a reading list together of all the books pertaining to their and your future life experience. Make a plan to work through all the books over time.
Creating a Culture of High Expectations
Do you truly believe the future can and will be better than the present?
In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama talks about the white flight that started in her Chicago neighborhood when she was in the first grade. She talks about feeling the disinvestment in the first grade, and how children have an intuitive sense that they are not being invested in.
When we look at young people today, we have no idea where they are going to be as adults. Mentees are at the mercy of the standards of their mentors and the environment those mentors create. You can demand excellence of the children, but if you don’t change the atmosphere in their house, they won’t be able to meet those demands.
This begs the question: Does a child fail school, or does the school fail the child?
We have a lot of great black history to learn and reflect on, but it’s also important to craft a great black future. For that, we need to set high expectations. If we operate under the belief that all children can learn, we can help them best by having high expectations. Children tend to rise to the level of expectations of their mentors.
Unfortunately, many students are surrounded by people who have low expectations for their students, based on their circumstances. Julian Weissglass, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes that tremendous harm occurs in institutions where people are conditioned to take on values, assumptions, and practices that inhibit the learning of students of color and lower socioeconomic classes.
From Weissglass’ perspective, class and race are significant causes of the achievement gap. Class and race are closely correlated with poverty, teachers with unconscious bias, single-parent homes, and students who are disinterested in learning.
But these issues are no excuse for a child not learning. When the mentor has a high expectation for the mentee, it gives the mentee added confidence that their circumstances will NOT determine their potential greatness, and there is no ceiling on their potential.
How do we heal our expectations?
A. Belief in their Potential
The one who thinks he can and the one who thinks he can’t are both right.
Your role as a mentor is to help young people break out of that negative thought pattern by promoting a belief in their ability to develop and become better than their present situation may reflect. As simple as it sounds, you can make a choice that you will live the life you were meant to live—not the life that was given to you—simply by believing that you can.
Extensive research has shown that a major factor in fulfilling your potential is belief in your ability to improve. Unfortunately, many people believe that their destiny in life is predetermined and that they are limited, partly because of negative messages they’ve received from friends, family, and/or society.
Positive expectations can change their perception of a situation just as dramatically as negative expectations. Fixed mindsets hold people back.
What happens if you think that your personality and intelligence is something you can develop and improve? Research shows that with education and consistent practice, you can change your memory, judgment, and attention. Your ability is not like a hand you’re dealt in a poker game. It’s something you can cultivate through your efforts, although it can take years of passion, toil, and training.
The main factor in achieving expertise is meaningful engagement.
Your opinion of yourself profoundly affects your life. How does the power of belief transform your psychology?
Growth mindsets free people to pursue what they value, with passion and resilience. People can learn these mindsets to break out of self-defeating patterns.
There are five factors that operate in mentors that have high expectations of their mentees.
1. Warm environment—Mentors create a warm climate for the mentee through what they say verbally and non-verbally. They are nicer to them than they are to people of whom they expect less.
2. Added input—Mentors teach more to mentees from whom they expect more, compared to those for whom they have lower expectations.
3. Chance to respond—Mentors give mentees for whom they have higher expectations a greater opportunity to speak and more help to shape their thoughts and perspectives carefully.
4. Thorough feedback—If more is expected of the mentee, there is greater praise when a satisfactory response is given and also a more distinguished response when an unsatisfactory answer is given. One of the ways that mentors demonstrate low expectations of someone is by allowing them to get away with a low-quality answer or low-quality performance.
5. This is the most important piece: accountability. If we don’t hold the mentees accountable when they fall short of expectations, then there is no point in having expectations.