Back to school

American rapper Jermaine Cole (J. Cole) is well cemented in the hip hop music world. I started listening to his mix tapes while living in America and remember all the hype about him due to his route to fame. Rejected by Jay-z years before and then after perfecting his craft, finally being signed by the rap mogul, it wasn’t really the ‘rags to riches story’ that made him stand out, but becoming a university graduate before receiving a record deal. There are several rappers who went into higher education including, Lil’ Wayne, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Common, Chuck D and Ice Cube; but being educated is not celebrated as much as having ‘bling’ and fast cars, in the world of hip hop.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, J. Cole commented that if he had the usual story of growing up in the ghetto, selling drugs to survive etc., he would’ve been a lot easier to market. No doubt it would’ve been a major jewel in his hip hop treasure chest of credibility. However, being formally educated and president of the Pan-African society at his university, hasn’t been a major hindrance in his career so far.

Nearly ten years ago researchers at Harvard University conducted a study on the perceived meaning of ‘acting white’ in 20 high schools across America, and defined the term as follows:

“Acting white” — generally understood as the situation in which black students face ridicule from their peers for engaging in behaviours allegedly considered to be characteristic of whites, such as earning good grades, raising their hand in class, reading books, or taking an interest in the fine arts.”

Over the last 20 years a few social scientists have mentioned that black students deliberately underperform in their education, to maintain their ‘blackness’ amongst their peers. Harvard’s research concluded that high achieving black students were accused of ‘acting white’ not only because they had good grades, but equally for the way they speak, the music they listen to, books they read and other personal habits. The research went on to say that black students are more likely to believe that personal habits, including those mentioned, determine racial authenticity.

A few days ago, this viral video captured the exasperation of a black lady, essentially asking what does ‘speaking white’ actually mean? Here is a snippet of what she said; the rest is in the video.

 “I know it’s something we don’t like to talk about but having proper diction doesn’t belong to the Caucasian race. That really gets under my skin. Having proper diction is what you’re supposed to do.”


Earlier this year, 17 year-old Kwasi Enin, the son of Ghanaian immigrants to America was accepted by eight Ivy League Universities: Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Princeton and Cornell. You may have heard the buzz around Kwasi, especially when he finally made his choice and decided to go to Yale University. Kwasi’s parents also faced the press and his father stated in a CNN article:

“People think Kwasi is like an angel or somebody who was sheltered. Really, we gave him a lot of freedom, even though at the same time we were very strict with him in terms of academics and the way he behaved. We only pray that going forward he will stay focused and not be distracted.”

Speaking about Kwasi’s 14-year-old sister, Adwoa, he also declared: “I told her, Look, I believe you can do better than him!”


Do the stereotypes of white students and those from ethnic backgrounds still hold true today?

Is Kwasi ‘speaking white’ in the video?

In England, there was a call from the Education Select Committee, for schools to introduce longer school days, especially for white working class students, who are underperforming in comparison to their ethnic counterparts. The Committee’s report stated that poor white students are now the worst academically performing group in the country, however the fact that poor students from ethnic backgrounds are starting to achieve better grades indicates that improvement is possible. According to the Education Select Committee this is how the figures stack up:

Poor pupils achieving at least 5 A-C grades at GCSE level:

White British 32% (28.3% boys; 37% girls)

Indian 62%

Pakistani 47%

Black African 51%

Black Caribbean 42%


The issue of poorly educated students (whatever their race) isn’t just down to culture, if schools are adequately resourced and have good teachers then any child can excel. Parents also have to play a role, Kwasi’s parents are active in the education of their children but not all parents care, with some believing that education only takes place in a building with the word ‘School’ on the front gate. We’ve all acted a certain way at school to be accepted by one group or another, but whether we like it or not, every race is diverse containing people with various talents; black people can do more than sing, dance and run!

When we see black people achieving in areas outside of music and sport, it’s not because they are ‘acting white’, it’s because they are being themselves and is all that should be required. The perception of what it means to be black is being remoulded, but maybe black people are too hung up on who is / isn’t ‘acting white’. This debate, which happens in schools and among adults too, doesn’t provide answers to how we can collectively progress but is just divisive.



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