Imagine an African American high school student being teased for speaking Standard English or being harassed for their commitment to reading and studying. As a parent, what would be appropriate response if one’s middle school age son or daughter was constantly being ridiculed for making good grades and participating in activities that promote intellectual development such as the chess club or the debate team? Despite the commonly held belief that education is considered the ticket to success in American culture, there is subtle and yet influential negative trend that has developed within certain minority communities that despises academic achievement and those who pursue such goals.
Within the disciplines of social psychology and education, a number of studies reveal the existence of African American male youth who are being marginalized by their African American peers due to their commitment to academic excellence. Considering that social status is an important aspect of their development, these adolescents are forced to make some choices that may determine their trajectory in the future. For many, they are making a decision between being smart or facing the possibility of being ridiculed, experiencing academic or social success, exposure to advancement or acceptance.
For obvious reasons, these students should be commended due to their willingness to pursue academic excellence. As stated within the research, these scholars are willing to:
Adopt an individualistic identity
This refers to the notion of embracing an identity that values individual achievement. It is based upon the recognition that success or failure is a reflection of personal responsibility. In light of such, it is not an identity that is influenced by the beliefs, values, and behaviors of a group or select number of individuals.
Endure negative accusations
African American male youth who embrace academic achievement are not simply being labeled as nerds or geeks. They are often labeled as attempting to act White among other African Americans, which is a serious accusation within the African American community. By in large, these accusations are often based upon: 1) speaking Standard English, 2) developing habits that promote reading and making good grades, and 3) participating in activities that promote intellectual development and expression (i.e., debate, chess club, etc.).
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to endure to such accusations. In fact, many African American male youth engage in a number of activities in an attempt to preserve their social status while simultaneously (and unknowingly) undermining their own academic well-being and future. These activities include embracing certain cultural ideas regarding racial identity and masculinity that prioritize: 1) one’s manner of dress (i.e., wearing the pants below the waist, expensive footwear, etc.), 2) one’s manner of communication (i.e., slang, Ebonics, etc.), 3) participation in non-academic activities such as athletics, and 4) engaging in disruptive activities such as fighting and being a class clown. To add insult to injury, many of these students fail to realize that these activities often serve as a reinforcement of the negative racial stereotypes that exist towards members of certain minority groups.
Engage in behavior that negates negative racial stereotypes
It is not uncommon for students who do well academically to defy certain social expectations, especially within school settings in relation to their peers. However, given the context of media-based perceptions and race relations in the US, African American male youth who make the grade are definitely overcoming the considerable odds. An example of such is evident in how the local news depicts the existence of certain types of crime in association with African American male youth. In addition, media-based images of African American male youth are also associated with certain forms entertainment including professional sports and music. Based upon these generalized observations, it is not surprising that one may draw negative conclusions regarding African American male youth in the US. In light of such, it would be refreshing to see an increase in media-coverage in relation to academic achievement among African American male youth.
As a society, let’s encourage our youth to pursue high academic standards. With the African American community, academic achievement should be the norm, not the exception; and they certainly should not be teased for such efforts. For those students who express concern regarding the negative responses of their peers, remind them that they are standing in the same shoes of those who were stigmatized over 50 years ago. Reassure them that they have been given the charge to secure their own well-being through diligence and hard work while simultaneously dispelling the false assumptions regarding the African American community as well as those who falsely accuse them.