Are (Black) Female Academics Ignored?

The anthropologist who coined the phrase “the burden of acting white” argues that male experts have misunderstood her work as she’s been overlooked in the public debate over her research.

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A teacher keeps an eye on children playing at Magical Beginnings Learning Academy in Middleton, Massachusetts, May 2020. (Getty/The Boston Globe/John Tlumacki)
A teacher keeps an eye on children playing at Magical Beginnings Learning Academy in Middleton, Massachusetts, May 2020. (Getty/The Boston Globe/John Tlumacki)

President Barack Obama responded last month to a question at a town hall meeting to discuss his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, reigniting a public discussion over whether black student achievement is constrained by “the burden of acting white.” Anthropologist Signithia Fordham’s work in 1986 with her mentor John Ogbu developed the controversial theory that explains why some black students excel in school by embracing white cultural norms while other black students underperform because they refuse to conform—or act white. Regular Race and Beyond columnist Sam Fulwood III noticed that Fordham’s voice was oddly absent from the recent public debate and asked her to address her work in this space, thinking she deserved an opportunity to have her say during this revival of the conversation she started a quarter century ago.

There was incredulity and anger in the booming baritone of my friend’s voice. I hadn’t heard from him in more than a year, but when he called last month with such panic and urgency, I steeled myself for devastating news. Instead, he told me something that is so ordinary in my professional life I might not have noticed without his call.

“Did you hear President Obama talking about ‘acting white’ on the CBS Morning Show this morning?” he shouted into the receiver. “Yeah, girl, the president talked about your research but didn’t mention your name.”

This news evoked a mixture of familiar feelings. First came the elation that no loved one had died. But that quickly passed, giving way to the humiliation and pain that follows with the awareness that someone, once again, has appropriated and misrepresented my work.

More than 25 years ago, I used the phrase “the burden of acting white” to frame a theory for why and how black children achieve academic success—not academic failure—in my first major ethnographic study. Specifically, I examined the behavior of black students at a Washington, D.C., high school to theorize how some of them succeed because they mirror the academic behaviors and practices of white people. By contrast, some underachieve because “to act white is to give up one’s minority identity,” something they are unwilling to surrender.

My research and theory was published in 1986 with my collaborator and mentor, John Ogbu, a distinguished anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley. Since then, I have been humbled by how often my work has been appropriated by or erroneously attributed to others.

However, I must admit I’m honored that the work I completed so long ago remains relevant today and that even the president of the United States has made repeated references to it over the years. But, to be honest, my angst and discomfort stems from being repeatedly overlooked in the national debate that originated with my findings nearly a quarter century ago.

The gold-standard researchers on the subject of “the burden of acting white” include Roland G. Fryer and Ronald Ferguson of Harvard University, William Darity, Jr. at Duke University, Angel Harris at Princeton, Stuart Buck at the University of Arkansas, Vinay Harpalani of the University of Pennsylvania, and P.J. Cook and Jens Ludwig at Georgetown University.

My question is why? Why are they the recognized experts? I sense two primary patterns here, something they all have in common: elite institutional affiliation and maleness. Even more appalling, in the public discourse surrounding this issue, they are repeatedly referenced as if they made the primary and perhaps the only contribution to the conversation connecting school achievement to one’s willingness to behave in accord with perceived white behavioral patterns.

I want to be perfectly clear that I am not claiming that the idea did not exist prior to my work in the late 1980s. Charges of acting white have long existed in the black community, predating my research. Scholars as varied as W.E.B. DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier studied and critiqued the frustrating burden black Americans have experienced in their struggle to conform to white social norms. My work—which has become known as the “Fordham-Ogbu Hypothesis”—simply extended their work into areas of educational achievement. I observed black students in their school environment and reported what those interactions suggested.

I have grown frustratingly accustomed to seeing other academics, who are obviously aware of the “Fordham-Ogbu Hypothesis,” choose to reassign my work to others.

In one illuminating example, I remember a major 2005 conference misnamed Acting White: Revisiting Ogbu and Fordham’s (sic) Hypothesis held jointly at Duke University and the University of North Carolina shortly after Ogbu’s death in 2003. The conference was rightly designed to celebrate his enormous contributions to minority education. But I wasn’t included—at least not until someone informed me that the conference was being planned and I contacted the organizers.

My friend’s phone call evoked this and other memories. Shortly after his call last week, I heard reference to President Obama’s discussion of the subject. News reports said the president responded to a question about “acting white” and black males’ (my study wasn’t gender-specific) academic performance. Later, a brief national conversation took place in the media, including MSNBC’s The Melissa Harris-Perry Show, which included an image of Ogbu as the sole source of the theory.

Out of view of this spirited and public debate, my phone and email inboxes filled to capacity with calls and notes from colleagues and friends who were dismayed that my work was being discussed—again without me.

The critical question I seek an answer to affects, not just me, but also many others: Are black women ignored by American society? Are we compelled to do the important labor for others to consume, elaborate, embellish, and dismiss?

This is an extremely important question in the wake of my personal experiences and the narratives of so many other female researchers whose narratives I am privy to. I am well aware of the claim made by female academics—regardless of color—including, for example, anthropologist Catherine Lutz’s assertion that gender is the greatest predictor of theory building and that women’s theoretical ideas represent “uncomfortable information” that is often erased from public view.

Against this background, I really didn’t need a call from a friend to remind me of what I know so well. Theory development—and the public conversations surrounding them—seems to be the exclusive province of male researchers in elite settings. We women who venture in these hallowed halls do so at our own risk. My experience is typical. The research I completed, revealing how burdensome it is to embrace whiteness as the only standard of success, is Exhibit A.

Signithia Fordham is the former Susan B. Anthony professor of gender and women’s studies and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester. Her forthcoming book, Downed by Friendly Fire: Black Girls, White Girls and Female Competition at Underground Railroad High, will be published in fall 2015.

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)