The Urban Review

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 1-35

First online:

Collective Identity and the Burden of “Acting White” in Black History, Community, and Education

  • John U. Ogbu

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After more than 15 years of comparative study of minority education, I concluded that I would have to study two additional factors, namely collective identity and cultural frame of reference to more fully explain the variability in minority school performance. In 1986, I published an article with Signithia Fordham on how “oppositional collective identity and cultural frame of reference” or oppositional culture contributed to Black students' school performance. Many critics have misinterpreted the joint article and even constructed a different thesis of oppositional culture than the one we proposed in the joint article. The thesis is that Black students do not aspire to or strive to get good grades because it is perceived as “acting White.” Furthermore, they have translated my cultural–ecological theory into an oppositional culture theory. I am writing this paper to correct the misinterpretations of the joint article in order to advance scholarship on the subject. I begin by explaining the meaning of collective identity and distinguishing it from other concepts of identity. Specifically, I summarize the evolution of oppositional collective identity and cultural frame of reference or oppositional culture among Black Americans and discuss the Black experience with the “burden of ‘acting White’” in the contemporary United States. Finally, I suggest some continuity between Black historical and community experiences with the “burden of ‘acting White,’” as experienced by Black students.

African American achievement race identity history of race and schools