by Roseana Auten
photograph by John Anderson
Just for being a black female who has lived under the roofs of family members other than her parents, Andrea is at a statistical disadvantage for passing all sections of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). She knows this because her Dobie Middle School principal, Patrick Patterson, presented the majority African-American and Hispanic student body with this and other bits of information on race, economic status, academic achievement, and potential earning power when he first helmed the school in 1996. And if Andrea, a 12-year-old seventh grader, can't pass the exit-level TAAS, she can't graduate from high school, thus drastically diminishing her opportunities in life. Andrea found this news discouraging, and it also made her a little mad. "I did not like that, I did not like that," she says firmly. You see, she is already beating the statistics that say she'll fail -- making great grades in school, and setting her sights on college. "I lived with all [my relatives], but I'm still the way I am," Andrea says. "I know what I can do, and I don't want anything to set me back."
On the other hand, Andrea's classmate, Asia, 13, believes that knowing the bald facts on minority achievement need not be a stumbling block to kids like them, who are already making progress. Mr. Patterson "was just giving us information," she protests.
But Talia, 13, another classmate, is on Andrea's side. She lives with just her mom, and hates to think that that fact alone foreshadows failure. "I'm in the Junior Honor Society and University Outreach [an outside academic program]," the eighth grader says. "I'm going places."
But what the future holds for minority students like these who want to "go places" in a country that increasingly looks as though it will be without affirmative action in the college admissions office and on the job is far from certain. For now, however, it's clear that high-striving minority students still face particular obstacles that many of their white counterparts don't. Some problems are much-discussed, such as minorities' disproportionate levels of poverty in comparison with whites, or the allegation that educators often don't hold minorities to the same standard as whites. One student is very blunt about that. "They expect less of us than white people," says 13-year-old Vicki, an ambitious Latina at Webb Middle School.
Another barrier is less talked about, however. Hard-working minority students can often be the target of reproach and scorn from other minority students. But this invective isn't engendered merely out of a schoolyard bully's wistful jealousy. No, it seems to come from a suspicion that high-acheiving minorities are acting against their race. Author Peggy Orenstein, in her 1994 book Schoolgirls, took note of this trend during her year-long study of middle school students. Orenstein observed that when minority children excelled academically, they were told by other minorities that they were "acting white."
According to one educator, the two phenomena -- low expectations of minorities and the provocative insult, "You're acting white" -- are closely linked. "What happens in many schools where there are low expectations is that mediocre performance is acceptable," says Ana M. "Cha" Guzman, chair of President Clinton's Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, and a vice president of business affairs for Austin Community College. "So if you excel, you have left the norm and brought attention on yourself. And that's bad, particularly in the teenage years."
If the students in Dobie principal Patterson's office -- all high-striving, forward-looking young people -- had been a bit reserved at the onset of the interview, my question about this "acting white" business releases them from their shyness, and the room erupts into electrified chatter as they all try to respond at once. Yes, yes, some of them had had that epithet thrown at them, or at least, were familiar with the label. "But what does it mean?," I ask. Together they search for the best definition, and then Andrea sums it up: The term comes from a belief that "most white people do all good."
However, some students point out that many white students feel similar pressure to downplay their scholastic successes. For example, minority students in Raffy Vizcaino's pre-Advanced Placement English class at Webb Middle School detected a sort of a reverse trend at their school, noting that white students at Webb will brag about their lack of accomplishment -- "to fit in." With whom? "All the other dumb minorities," one blurts, and everyone laughs. But they just as immediately perceived this as a function of economics as well. Surely, no white student would be proud of making poor grades at Bailey or Murchison Middle Schools, they said. "They'd be embarrassed," says eighth grader José, 14.
Still, some students were willing to relate their own troubling experience with being ridiculed by their peers for their good grades. For Dobie student Asia, working hard in school wasn't the only thing that alienated her from her friends -- it was also the fact that her well-meaning teacher would point her out as a shining example to the rest of the class. "They didn't want to talk to me, they'd start saying things about me," she says. "It hurts, but I'm getting my education."
Talia, her schoolmate, has also faced taunts of "wanting to be white." Like Asia, she says that having a strong identity and sense of purpose allows her to brush it off. But is this harder to do than she lets on? Talia shifts into second person: "And you still do get called `white girl,' but as long as you know what you're doing, it's okay."
Glenn, an eighth grader at Dobie Middle School, says he hasn't been labeled with the insult, but knows what he would do if he were. "When they tell me, `You acting like a white boy,' I'm going to ask them, `What do you mean, acting like a white boy?' And they're not going to know what to say." He begins to imitate his adversaries. "`Uh, you hang out with white people, you starting to act like white people.' Well, what do white people act like?" he demands of his imaginary tormentors. "They don't know what they're talking about," Glenn says dismissively.
Such confidence -- where does it come from? Their families, of course -- the backbone of the very "culture" University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia recently blamed for not holding minorities' failure in disgrace. And yes, most of the students were very annoyed when they learned about Graglia's comments, but they also can't imagine what he was really trying to say. In any case, he must have been talking about someone else, not them.
"He doesn't know me," sniffs Asia. Perhaps students like these have simply grown so accustomed to hearing others' grim predictions of their imminent failure that it's become second nature to hang on with such smiling determination. What does it matter whether some misinformed law professor or a school principal tells them the odds aren't in their favor? They know better. Although he knows it rankled some of his students, principal Patterson says that showing them what they're up against, statistically, on the TAAS was only to let them know how important the TAAS is. "I believe in giving kids information straightforward, and letting them deal with it," he says. Painful to hear or not, the information must have resonated among some students, anyway. In his first year at Dobie, the school made major gains in the TAAS and got off AISD's list of "low-performing" campuses.
"But let me ask you," Patterson says, turning to the group, "how would you have reacted if I had not been a black man?" Another outbreak of spirited chatter ensues. Sometimes, it does make a difference who is judging you. The students freely admit it would have wounded them much worse if a white principal had flouted before them the statistical possibility of their failure. Patterson "understands where we're coming from," explains Talia. "No offense, but if he was white..."
"It would have hurt," interrupts another.
"I think everybody would have been a little bit too upset," Talia finishes. "It's like, `You negroes, I don't even care about you. You can fail as much as you want.'"