My Two Cents on the “Not Black Enough” Business.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the “not black enough” phenomena:

When Obama himself asserted that a kids in black neighborhoods who read are assailed as “acting white” it really annoyed me–mostly because I’ve been that kid all my life, known kids like that all my life, and I’d never heard anything like that. I certainly heard “nerd” a lot, but not “acting white.” I still think that it’s a really sloppy formulation, but I also think that it’s worth taking some care in judging other black people’s experience through your own.

The fact is that while I read a ton, and got teased for it, I lived in the neighborhood and talked like people in the neighborhood. I was in gifted classes at school, but I didn’t have the kind of parents the penalized for using a word like “irregardless.” Moreover, I was, if not particularly cool, still really well liked. My particular and specific black experience was that as long as you had some familiarity with the language, you pretty much were free to do whatever you wanted. That notion was reinforced when I went off to Howard and met black people from all parts of the globe united under the capstone. But what has become clear to me, is the limits of personal experience–there are black people who had to deal with this coming up, and you can’t simply laugh and say “Well it wasn’t like this for me, so it didn’t happen.” [Emphasis mine]

That sounds about right. In my experience, whether or not you were “acting white” had everything to do with your cultural capital. Among the black kids at my middle school (and high school, to a lesser extent), If you “lived in the neighborhood and talked like people in the neighborhood,” you could do whatever you liked with little scorn or harassment. The “acting white” charge was exclusively reserved for kids like me, whose parents lived in different neighborhoods and who, for whatever reason, sounded more like their white peers.

I’m not exaggerating much when I say that the label was a middle school equivalent of the Mark of Cain. Once you were branded an “oreo,” black life in school was effectively off-limits to you. And at a school where a scant 12 percent of the population was black, this could get pretty lonely. You could adjust by building friendships among the (geeky) white kids, but that would only exacerbate the problem, as your association with white kids was taken as prima facie evidence that you had no interest in “being black” (of course, this wasn’t a problem if you were part of the tribe, so to speak).

I still don’t have a great grasp on why this happened. Given that it mostly calmed down by the middle of high school, my best guess is that it was your standard bullying and exclusion, with a racial tinge. Still, speaking from experience, it is incredibly lonely to spend your middle school years rejected by the people who are “supposed” to be on your team, whatever that means. To be sure, this isn’t particular to black people; I’ve heard of similar things happening to kids at schools with small Hispanic or Asian populations, and it sucks all the same.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • No lie, I went to a Catholic HS where I was one of five black kids in my grade and was once told that some white kids “acted blacker” than me. All I could say was “It’s sad that you don’t even know how many levels that statement is foul.” It was the 90’s and I said “foul.”

    I heard the “acting white” charge from the other black kids in my neighborhood/school since I was in grade school which always struck me as odd since we all lived in the suburbs and our families were middle-class. I never understood what made me “less black” than everyone else.

  • RtG

    I lived in the neighborhood, talked like I was from the neighborhood, and from middle school on up was frequently called a nerd. But I got the acting white thing too. Sometimes it was explicit, like when a teacher told me I was the type who would marry a white man. And sometimes it was just a vibe, like when other kids exchanged looks when I told them the college I was going to.

    My point is that you can be from the ‘hood and of the ‘hood and still not be fully accepted because your actions are perceived as ambitious in a way your peers don’t think you should/can be.

    I know that word “ambitious” (per the previous sentence) is loaded, but “acting white” is usually thrown out to address a person’s academic pursuits. If a kid is smart and doesn’t study, then he’s just talented. But if he’s smart because he studies, then he’s “acting white.” It reminds me of that God-awful adage that if you want to hide information from black folks, hide it in a book. That blatantly ridiculous of course. But people subscribe to it.

    Sidenote: I saw Ta-Nehisi with his son on the subway yesterday.

    • I couldn’t disagree with this more:

      My point is that you can be from the ‘hood and of the ‘hood and still not be fully accepted because your actions are perceived as ambitious in a way your peers don’t think you should/can be.

      I know that word “ambitious” (per the previous sentence) is loaded, but “acting white” is usually thrown out to address a person’s academic pursuits. If a kid is smart and doesn’t study, then he’s just talented. But if he’s smart because he studies, then he’s “acting white.” It reminds me of that God-awful adage that if you want to hide information from black folks, hide it in a book. That blatantly ridiculous of course. But people subscribe to it.

      I think this oft-repeated idea that this epithet gets hurled at black kids who are studious/ambitious is really misread, and way overblown. The not-black-enough thing in school is about nerdiness, and when i say nerdiness, i don’t mean studiousness, but social awkwardness/lack of coolness. (And blackness, of course, is always conflated with coolness.)

      I went to a pretty academically rigorous high school, and my graduating class was about 85% black. Popularity correlated pretty closely with the kids who were in the early college admissions program. The kids in our class who got the NBE thing tossed their way were nerdy kids who listened to rock music and sounded decidedly not like people from inner-city Philadelphia.

      This is problematic, sure. But it’s not the same thing as this “culture of black pathology” shit — black folks just hate academic excellence — that so many people, including lots of upwardly mobile Negroes, are so invested in and continue to bemoan.

      • RtG

        It sounds like we had two very different high school experiences.

        At my school, popularity had everything to do with your wardrobe, your attractiveness, and who you dated. If you had a car, that was a plus. But your academics? *shaking head* Not really. No one wants to date someone who’s flunking out. But kids on the honor roll generally were not part of the cool crowd.

        In my school, you got the NBE thing precisely because you were studious. If you were studious and socially awkward to boot, that wasn’t considered NBE; that was pathetic..

        There were those rare birds, however, who could pull off being studious while also being a little popular. But they were without exception stunning to look at and well-dressed. And the less studious students copied off their papers.

        • i think we’re talking past each other. when i brought up the academics thing at my HS, i wasn’t suggesting that getting good grades = cool, only that the idea that getting good grades did not disqualify people from popularity.

          is it possible that all the kids at a given school who are on the honor roll are unpopular? very much so. what i’m suggesting is that it’s not the grades that got people called Oreos or wannabes, but cultural competency.

          (I also think we should really drop the idea that somehow being an unpopular, bookish nerd is somehow a uniquely African American phenomenon.)

          • RtG

            I’m confused. I’m not sure where we’re disagreeing here. (?)

            Also, I’m not implying that being nerdy is unique to blacks. *shrugs* At least I wasn’t trying to imply that.

          • dve

            I think demographics matter a lot here. I went to a school that was half white, half non-white, but only a handful of the nonwhite kids were black. There’d been a great deal of handwringing over the neighborhood shifting from white to nonwhite, and there was a pretty hardcore tracking system in place, which not all that covertly acted to keep white kids, regardless of their grades and test scores, in the ap/ib/honors track, and most of the rest of the kids out of those classes, so that (upper middle class white) parents wouldn’t keep pulling their kids out of the school. This had been going on in milder forms from elementary on up. So, I was mocked by most of the black kids in my high school explicitly for being in the gifted classes with white kids, but it was as mucn about the context as about me– my presence as an exception in a obviously racist structure was seen as collusion to a degree, even if I recognized and complained about the racism as much as they did.

            Of course, grown up me can see that and get past it, but adolescent me tried to overcompensate with “cultural context,” in order to be liked, which eventually worked to a degree in making me more popular, but because so much of what pop culture constructs as “blackness,” is pathological, ended up with me performing my way into some of the most traumatic moments of my adolescence.

          • I understand what you’re saying about cultural competency, but it’s almost the same thing. Being a “nerdy” black student is to follow in the tradition of folks like W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes- were they culturally incompetent?

            I’m 22 years old, a lifelong honor student and bookworm who was accused of “acting white” up until 10th grade or so. So it’s not an ancient phenomenon. The only time I remember not being ostracized for my academic pursuits was the two years I spent in private school, and was the only black person in my grade, period. Mind you, the demographics of my schools for K-6 and 9-12 ranged from 40-80% black. Like one of the previous commenters, I grew up in a neighborhood that was solidly middle class, with virtually no crime or drug problems. My peers acted like they were from the ghetto/streets/hood/whatever you wanna call it…but there was no ghetto!

            Anyway, I guess I just have a problem with the idea that nerdiness = socially inept. Sometimes it’s just a maturity issue–even today, I have no problem holding conversations with folks 10+ years older than me, but find that most people in my age group think I’m “too deep”.

            • Reggie

              I think GD is way off here. First, I don’t think a school that is 85% black is a good example. It is always easier when you are in a majority black environment, which really isn’t representative of society in general. In that context, people don’t call you out for being NBE since there are typically enough other black people doing what you do. It’s when you are in a situation where your achievement puts you with mostly white peers – which is indicative of what happens in the world at large. Unfortunately, when you really achieve, you end up surrounded mainly by white people (or least, not a lot of black people). In my experience, regardless of how “down” you are, when you end up in a majority white environment the old NBE monikers come out, typically by the people who live primarily in all black environments. I saw this happen to my older brother’s best friend, who was always a good student, went away to an Ivy League school while my brother stayed local, and when he came back, he wasn’t really accepted. It’s one thing when you are just the smart kid amongst a group of black people, it’s entirely different when you achieve to a point where there are no majority black groups of your peers.

              • you’re both making and missing my point at the same time. In the examples you’re using, you’re saying that it’sthe fraternizing with white folk that got people branded as insufficiently black, not their scholastic achievement.

                A majority black environment is actually the perfect counter to this idea, because black academic excellence is completely unremarkable in that context. i’d also be really careful with this assumption you’re making, that you can “achieve out” of black spheres. To the extent that those spaces (in your example, an Ivy) are not black spaces it’s not because they are academically rigorous and more so because they’ve been historically hostile to/unaccepting of black people.

                • Reggie

                  I see what you’re saying and I do agree – scholastic achievement in and of itself is not all that it takes to be called NBE. I’m sure that the top students at Howard, for example, aren’t often labeled that way.

                  I’m a bit more dubious about the idea that one cannot “achieve out” of black spheres. I think that is in fact the case. I of course realize all the institutional inequalities that leads to this reality, and they sicken me, but the fact is that there unfortunately aren’t enough black high school students achieving on the level required to get into a top 25 school to make the black population at those schools sufficiently big to prevent the feeling of an all white environment. At least that is my experience, and what I’ve seen in my younger sister’s peers.

                  • Reggie

                    And lets no forget later in life when people enter the professional world. I have a lot of black friends who have successful professional careers and all have predominately white colleagues.

                  • but the reasons there aren’t “enough black people achieving on the level required…” are almost entirely structural. We also know that standardized test scores correlate really closely to your parents’ socioeconomic status/educational attainment — and since black people are less likely to have those kind of advantages, they are less likely to end up in schools that emphasize college prep, or end up in advanced classes. And of course, many school districts that have large/predominantly black populations lack the kind of resources to pump kids into top-25 schools. (And again, we really need to disabuse ourselves of this notion that top-tier schools are populated solely and completely with super-smart and dedicated students, as opposed to the well-heeled and well-connected.)

                    We also know that black kids in integrated school settings — and black boys in particular — are much more likely to be placed in remedial classes and much more likely to be harshly disciplined for the same infractions as white kids.

                    If your black friends found themselves in a sea of nonblack faces in elite colleges or in their successful professional careers, it’s because most of the other black folks were weeded out by all sorts of institutional obstacles.

            • this is a singularly terrible argument.

              Being a “nerdy” black student is to follow in the tradition of folks like W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes- were they culturally incompetent?

              you’re on some other shit here.

  • I went to junior high in my neighborhood in the South Bronx, so there were no White kids until two enrolled my senior year (they were siblings). I was never told I was acting White, but I was told I spoke like a White person. It offended me at the time, but after a while I realized that simply meant that I spoke properly (my voice doesn’t naturally have the pitch nor the lilt to sound like a “valley girl”).

    I didn’t always speak properly, I just always spoke properly at school and at home because that’s the way I was raised (both of my parents would chastise me for using slang).

    • i’d be careful about the “properly” thing. “proper” speech is completely contextual, but this usage implies that it’s fundamentally superior.

      • How does the way I used it imply that it’s superior?

        If I said something along the lines of “we ain’t got no” in front of my parents, they would tell me to speak properly. That’s what I mean when I say I spoke properly.

        • no, i get what you mean. i’m saying, “properly” is loaded with all sorts of other connotations, and informed by all sorts of other social stuff.

  • TNC talked about this a bit more at his NYPL talk with David Remnick last night–was anybody there (anybody?). They mentioned how Bobby Rush made fun of Obama’s “bop” (a beloved oldhead version favor of “swagger”), saying that he didn’t walk like that when he first got to Chicago. This led both speakers to sheepishly admit to working to adopt some behaviors of their respective groups (black, Jewish). TNC said he practiced his bop in the mirror. It was good + funny.

    Also a shameless plus here, I recently wrote a hella long self-indulgent blog post on this very topic, illustrated with lots of pics of famous actresses (hotties), which I will link to now:

  • This narrative of smart black kids being accused of “acting white” drives me crazy. I’m not denying that it happens. I was called an “Oreo” for talking white when I was in elementary & middle school, so I have first hand experience with this unfortunate occurrence. It just seems to me that the “acting white” phenomenon has been overstated. For every black kid who said I “talked like a white girl”, there were 3 or 4 more who never made any mention of it. And by the time I was in high school, many of the black people that I previously felt ostracized from had become my friends.

    I agree with Jamelle that being branded an “Oreo” can make for a pretty lonely existence (I particularly felt the sting in middle school), but it just seems like this conversation always turns into a bunch of “why do black people hate education?!!” hand wringing.

    • Maria

      I think the “acting white” label is often a rejection of upper middle class white culture, of which valuing education is often a key component. It doesn’t have anything to do with black people hating education – I think it has to do with rejecting the idea of assimilation into “mainstream” white society society. I was never called white for getting a good grade on a test, but when I started to take an interest in acting and so would go and see some random local Shakespear play or something like that, people started taking notice. What I took this to mean is that as black person, when you start moving in white circles, black people don’t like it. And I think that is a problem.

      On the flip side, I’ve noticed some of my girlfriends taking the opposite view. These are women who are all black, almost all grew up in all black neighborhoods and went on to achieve various levels of success, but I’d say are all now solidly upper middle class. I’ve heard them, when for example evaluating a man as a potential mate, describe someone as “too black” – i.e. not able to seamlessly navigate the mostly white circles they often find themselves in at work functions or something like that. I wonder if this is some kind of backlash against the NBE attitdue.

  • R.A.B.

    Okay, so what’s bothering me about this convo generally is that so many people are willing to assume that it’s really just black kids perpetuating the trope. I grew up at a middle and high school where white kids were often as capable of pushing the Not Black Enough meme onto nerdy black kids as the cool black kids were. I think this observation is important because (1) it maybe says quite a bit about the degree to which at least some white kids identify being black as antithetical to being nerdy and (2) it maybe squashes this nonsense that disdain for knowledge, or knowledge-seekers, or straight up nerds is “black pathology.”

    The alienation, at various points in my experience, came from different groups, different contexts, different cultural currencies, but its cumulative effect was all the same: broad alienation.

    • RtG

      That’s fair. I don’t think I’ve ever had a white person tell me I wasn’t NBE. But I have gotten, “Oh, I didn’t think you’d like this kind of music” or things along those lines. The think the sentiments are the same.

    • I had a few white kids tell me “I wasn’t like the other the black students”, as if this was some sort of compliment. Unlike the “Oreo” accusations from black kids, the white students’ allegations continued throughout my four years of high school.

  • R.A.B.

    As further observation, I’ll note that I’ve been implicitly/explicitly accused of Not Being Black Enough more often by white people than black people in my lifetime.

    • I think that’s a really important point. Of the people who’ve ever dared to accuse me of not being black enough, they’ve usually been white – generally folks who presumably know little to nothing about what that actually means.

      Now some of that could be a function of the schools and professional settings I’ve been immersed in for most of my life. I’m allowing that my anecdotes don’t tell an entire story.

      But to the extent that this has even been an issue in my life, I’ve very rarely heard this from other black people.

  • Ron

    This myth can be troubling, because it can influence kids who’d otherwise participate in things out of them because they’ll think they’re special snowflakes. I used to think this was my problem growing up schools that were usually 99% black and hispanic from first grade to 12th grade.

    But as an adult, I realized without that environment I’d be devoid of many of the things that define my life right now. One of the things about growing up in a town of 45k people where there were black principals, black mayors and city council members and doctors and business owners was the recognition that black achievement was not some strange unusual thing to be eschewed.

    This didn’t mean much until spend the next decade away from Jersey living in a variety of places with black populations that were never more than 10% at the most and recognizing how it influenced the way that I went about certain professional things compared to my friends who were natives of those places.

    So as a kid what I mistook as being eschewed for “being smart” was really just a lot of hyperbole given to me by all sorts of people who were feeding the myth. I mean, my father’s “you have to deal with it” responses weren’t anymore helpful, but I think telling a kid that they’re not that special and that even if people don’t like them it’s not an excuse to fail to achieve and work hard…and maybe make friends (but that it’s not the only thing) would be far more helpful.

    So would programs geared towards students (outside cities) because a lot of times in majority-minority suburbs (at least in mine) there’s a desire to focus largely on the “problems” and not as much on helping students through outreach within the schools outside of sports which doesn’t of course relate to everyone.

    I think an issue like this is always anecdotal though, except that we can all agree that having people decry anti-intellectualism in the black community is evidence of a tone deafness of haughty Ivy Tower types and politicians who haven’t spent enough time in the forest to diagnose the trees amongst them.


    • I think an issue like this is always anecdotal though, except that we can all agree that having people decry anti-intellectualism in the black community is evidence of a tone deafness of haughty Ivy Tower types and politicians who haven’t spent enough time in the forest to diagnose the trees amongst them.


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