When intelligence is seen as “acting white”

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Tiffany Pridgen

I spend a lot of time being the only black person in a group. I’m used to it — that’s the way it’s always been and it’s rare that I ever feel uncomfortable about a situation. It’s not even because I didn’t grow up around black people — it’s because I’m a dork.

Because of what my academic interests were, the music I listened to, the way I dressed, and the nature of the hobbies I did for recreation (reading, for one), I caught a lot of crap from black kids in my classes. I really didn’t give a damn if they called me “teachers pet” or “white girl” or whatever else they could spew that was intended to be insulting. Getting 100′s on my tests was more important to me than fitting into a clique. I’m still exactly the same: I don’t see how being a nerd makes me any less black, and I don’t frankly understand why anyone thinks it would in the first place.

I’m reminded of a little girl I tutored when I was in college. Up until third grade she was doing great in school. At the end of that year her teachers were shocked at how her end-of-grade test scores had dropped compared to years prior. They did note that her attendance had become slightly erratic and that she was less outspoken in class. As she was a very intelligent girl who had never been afraid to raise her hand in the past, it seemed odd that she had regressed back to a place where she didn’t even want to try to answer the teachers’ questions. When they called on her, hopeful that she would interact regardless of the fact she didn’t volunteer, she could never give a correct answer. She would behave as if she was annoyed to be called out.

The teachers didn’t understand what was happening that would make her begin to lose interest in her studies since in the past she had been so excited about learning.

At the suggestion of one of the girl’s enrichment teachers I called her mother…timidly. I was afraid she’d feel imposed upon and like I was trying to interject where I shouldn’t have had my nose in the first place. I was surprised at how gracious she was to receive the call. Not only had I woken her from a nap (she worked multiple jobs), but she had a young baby in the house who she was trying to rest up for. She perked up immediately when I told her the purpose of my call–that someone was taking an interest in her girl.

She let me in on something her daughter’s teachers hadn’t observed: her peer group had changed. In kindergarten, first, and second grade she wanted to interact with “smart” girls (who happened to be white) because their interests were inline with her own. As she moved closer to adolescence she became more susceptible to negative peer pressure and in third grade she was made to feel self-conscious by black classmates who teased her because being smart meant she was trying to be white. So, she simply shut down. She began “code switching” (I noticed this early on during our relationship) and would speak Queen’s English around me, the enrichment teachers, and other gifted students (regardless of color). Whenever the kids who teased her were near, her speech became ghettofied. Her mother didn’t talk that way, so I knew she wasn’t getting it from home.

I needed a game plan. I tried to look back on what I had done to become so carefree about pressures to be more like my black classmates, but realized I simply didn’t give a shit at that age. Sure, I went through a phase where I wanted to wear Cross Colors and Fubu, but it was fairly short-lived; I had better things to do than drive to Virginia every time I needed a tee-shirt. My ruralness and the fact we couldn’t get cable like the townies affected my world view in such a way that I thought smart was cool (because PBS was one of the few stations we could get), and if boys paid attention to me that’d be okay, too.

For the girl, though, a product of a decidedly more urban environment she didn’t have the luxury of the isolation away from the media and from people in her social class. She also didn’t have any role models to show her that it was okay to follow her own path, even if it wasn’t one that others have previously tread. Her mother was a blue collar worker, but wanted so much more for her daughter than she had achieved herself. She knew she had to look for support outside the family, and even beyond her white teachers who didn’t “get” what was going on.

Eventually, I figured out that the best way to help the girl was to be super-casual about the situation. I never discussed what her mother told me with her but rather tried to befriend her and act as a mentor. I didn’t want to be didactic, but instead tried to mold her academic behaviors through leading by example. I challenged her to do math problems beyond her ability level and for her to correct me when I was wrong (because sometimes I am not smarter than a fifth-grader). I tried to show her how academics tied into her everyday life–math in cooking and baking, science for tending a garden, etc. She in turn let me in on her home life and told me about her mother’s German chocolate cake and how she’d let her help mix it. Most of all, she saw that I was perfectly normal even if I wear khakis and Sperry’s–that being myself doesn’t make me an aberration. This isn’t an act I’m putting on.

It was important that she understand that intelligence isn’t a social hindrance and that getting good grades has nothing to do with being a sell-out against the black community. Of course I couldn’t say to a fourth-grader, “Hey, I’m black and I’m smart — the two aren’t mutually exclusive.” All I could do was demonstrate that I had friends of all races (smart friends, thanks) and that being smart had gotten me admitted to a tier one school (go Tar Heels).

By the close of the year her end of grade test scores had shot back up to the top, her attendance improved, and she felt comfortable associating with the smart kids again. She was back in her element. While I’d like to take credit for her turnaround, I know that at least part of the success is due to her mother’s acuity and concern. It was she who needed to make her daughter understand that shunning her smart friends for being white and treating intelligence like it’s some kind of Uncle Tom trick for adoration is racism. She needed to be courageous enough to pick and choose which influences would be most beneficial for her growth and a student and as a conscientious human being. If that meant cutting some black friends out of her day then so be it.

Her mother had the clarity to understand (as ridiculous as it is) that some people will say that if a black person uses correct grammar and dresses conservatively, they’re “clean” and “well-spoken.” No, they respect the eyes and ears of the people around them. What does that have to do with race?

I hope that when my son is in elementary school and testing the waters of friendship that I’ll be just as intuitive as my pupil’s mother and help him to understand that excellence is colorblind and not to allow anyone to convince him otherwise.

Tiffany Pridgen is the mistress of snarkymomma.com: a blog where she recounts daily the joys and frustrations of being a modern momma. She lives in Durham, NC with her son and husband.

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