In the spirit of the NCAA college basketball tournament, ESPN aired a documentary on the bittersweet careers of University of Michigan’s “Fab Five.” During the documentary, former Michigan star, and current Huffington Post contributor, Jalen Rose expressed his feelings about his team’s rivalry with Duke when he said, “For me Duke was personal. I hated Duke and I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.” Rose’s comments became fodder for those looking to emphasize the growing income and education gap amongst African-Americans. But what many have seen as a time to highlight interracial divisions may distract from further debate on the impact being called “Uncle Tom” has on over half America’s child population. In a country aiming to compete with the world for the future, what impact does being called an “Uncle Tom” or “white boy/girl” has on academic achievement in America?
For those minorities who have reached some level of academic achievement, there is a chance they have been ridiculed by someone at least once. For many of us, the key to persevering through the gambit of name calling in the name of academic achievement was a strong self-image instilled way before we entered school. Unfortunately, the stigma associated of high achievement is intergenerational. I can remember sharing my acceptance letter to the U.S. Peace Corps with an older family friend. I was surprised when he commented, “Oh, so you going to do that white stuff.” Like Rose, this family friend’s first reaction to something he had little personal experience with was to label it foreign.
In 2008, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College undertook research into the growing academic achievement gap between Black and white students. The research also examined why Black students were under-represented in gifted programs. The report posits that “part of the achievement gap, particularly for gifted Black students, is due to the poor image these students have of themselves as learners.” In a survey of 166 Black 5th- through 12th-graders identified as gifted, students described “acting white” as speaking properly, being smart or too smart, doing well in school and taking advanced courses. Of the respondents, 60 percent reported knowing someone who had been teased or ridiculed for doing well in school, while 42 percent reported being teased for this reason themselves.
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