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Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race

reviewed by Richard Verdugo - 2004

coverTitle: Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race
Author(s): Sarah Susannah Willie
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415944090, Pages: 224, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

What exactly did it mean to be Chicano, black, Native American, or Asian American back in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s?  Sarah Willie's book, Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race, attempts to examine how different college settings affect race identity and how such identity is played out (or performed) in these settings.  Two cohorts of black students who attended either Howard University or Northwestern University at some time between 1967 and 1988 are interviewed and their responses analyzed. 


Acting Black seems to me to comprise three sections.  Section one (chapters 1-4) is an introduction to the topic, a brief review of blacks in higher education, a memoir of the author's own college experiences, and brief descriptions of both Howard and Northwestern Universities.  Section two (chapters 5-6) is the first analysis section in which Willie compares and contrasts the experiences of two groups of black students: one group that attended Northwestern University, and a second that attended Howard University.  Section three (chapter 7-10) examines the idealization of higher education, the performance of race, and its implications for higher education.  An appendix describes the methods and sample used, and the questions asked of respondents. 


There are four main findings from Willie's study.  First, there is the issue of status.  Status is an important factor differentiating both groups of students.  Northwestern University (NU) students indicate that their decision to attend NU was based on the prestige of the University.  Indeed, NU is one of the leading universities in the United States.  NU students are thus status conscious in the broader sense of the term.  In contrast, Howard University (HU) students tend to be concerned with "fitting in," and moreover they argue that the trade-off of attending HU in terms of status is not that great.  In fact, HU respondents make a concerted effort in pointing out the long and distinguished history of HU, e.g., "a Mecca of black intellectual thought."


Second, isolation is an issue that is continually referred to in the study.  At NU, black students felt intensely isolated from the campus and college environment, and there were important consequences.  First, isolation led to strong cohesiveness among black students at NU, and an "us against them" mentality.  Second, such cohesiveness formed the basis for the development of norms and values about in-group and out-group behavior.  For example, fraternizing with white students was reason to ostracize or ignore black students.  Third, such isolation tended to feed on itself and led to even greater isolation from the rest of the NU community, a distrust of all out-groups, and a reduction in the bonding between black students and the University. 


In passing, Willie correctly notes that the University must be held partly culpable for the isolation black students felt on the NU campus.  Black students at NU merely reacted to what they perceived to be a disinterested and somewhat hostile environment.

Isolation at HU was not an issue; students blended in very well at an all-black college.  Nevertheless, there were two isolating factors at HU: colorism (status was linked to skin color), and neighborhood status (tensions between HU students and inhabitants of the local neighborhood surrounding HU). 


Third, identity was also an important differentiating factor.  At NU black student identity was constantly being challenged or questioned, not only by white students, faculty, and college administrators, but also by other black students.  The demographic and social context in which NU students operated dictated such a scenario.  As black students at an all-white college, it could not be otherwise; students countered or acquiesced to racial stereotypes, depending on what suited their objectives or purposes.


For black students at HU, identity was not as much an issue because it was not under such scrutiny, challenge, or questioning.  Compared to their counterparts at NU, HU students tended to feel comfortable with their identity or in attempting to find their identity; in fact, the environment at HU aided students in finding their racial identities. 


Finally, the topic of race performance was a central issue in Willie's study.  Performance refers to the presentation of a role or self, depending on context and objectives.  It seemed to me that race performances were more likely to occur at NU than at HU because students' racial niche was more precarious at the former institution.  Students' performances varied from acquiescing to racial stereotypes, to those not linked to such stereotypes.  Performances varied depending on the context and on a particular student's goal. 


The primary aim of Willie's book is to examine the process of racial identity (its development and change) among young black students and how this process was affected by attending either an all-white (Northwestern) or an all-black (Howard) university.  Theoretically, the study is in disarray; it fails to develop a clear, concise theoretical foundation or set of hypotheses that can be examined by data--however such data might be collected.  The driving force behind this study is captured on the first page of the book (p. 1):


Desiring to understand my own experience at a predominantly white college with one semester spent at a historically black one, I decided to speak with African-American alumni and alumnae of two institutions of higher education, comparable...but for the racial composition of their student bodies.  I wondered why some African Americans chose mostly white colleges and others chose historically black ones.  I wondered if the racial sense African Americans had of themselves was influenced by the college they attended.  I was especially interested in the ways that formal equality coexisted with informal inequality--that is to say, the contradiction that everyone is equal on paper because discrimination has been made illegal and the reality that most people of color still experience racial discrimination. 


Unfortunately, the author does not clearly present a theory or a set of hypotheses.  Rather, a handful of topics are raised, questions asked and responses described and examined.  I did not have the sense that the questions Willie asked were directly related to either identity or to racial performances.  This particular defect with the book is, in my estimation, one of the two main problems with the study.  The author might have undertaken a rigorous review of the literature addressing race and gender in other institutions and used that information in developing a theory or set of inter-related hypotheses for examination.[1]   Unfortunately, this strategy was not pursued, and the study suffers as a result.


A second theoretical problem concerns the role of social structure (the University) and its effect on the experiences of black students.  The analysis is, however, very superficial.  If by social structure is meant the patterned and regular forms of behavior, practices, and policies, both formal and informal, then the author never fleshes this out.  For example, the author indicates that at NU, the administration is partly to blame for the isolation felt by black students, e.g., dorm assignments, appearing to be disinterested, etc.  The interesting thing about institutions and organizations is that they tend to develop a culture and climate of their own which is closely linked to their history and mission.  In higher education, institutions run the gamut from loosely structured (Antioch, for example) to highly structured and regimented (the military academies, for example).  In addition, institutions of higher education also vary in their mission, e.g., some tend to be caring and nurturing, others are no nonsense organizations merely concerned with learning.  NU and HU tend to be somewhere in the middle of the regimentation dimension, but one important mission of HU is clearly to care and develop pride and self-confidence among black students.  This does not appear to be Northwestern University's mission; it is an intense, competitive place for learning.  Neither is good or bad; they are institutions with different missions, objectives, and cultures.  So, the fact that black students at HU felt better than those at NU should have been obvious from the outset.

Third, the author's study is related to the work of Fordham and Ogbu (1986), as well as to studies by Anderson (2000, 1994), and McLeod (1987).  The author could have greatly benefited from a thorough review of this rather extensive body of research (For reviews of this literature see Giroux 1983, and Verdugo 2002.).  Anderson's work, for example, raises the issue of the "Code of the Street," and how this code is played out in various contexts, but in other contexts some young black men do not take on these roles, in school for example.  There are some valuable lessons to be mined from this body of research that would have greatly contributed to the theoretical development of Willie's study; unfortunately, they were left unexplored by the author.


I have two methodological concerns with this study.  First, the total number of respondents is 55.  Table 1 describes the sample by gender and university affiliation.


Table 1. Sample description

Gender             University

Howard            Northwestern   Totals

Male                14                    15                    29

Female             11                    15                    26

Totals               25                    30                    55


Keep in mind that these 55 respondents are intended to represent cohorts that attended these universities in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  However, the sample is too small to apply any meaningful generalizations to all black students who attended either of these universities during the time periods mentioned.  In fact, it is safe to say that the findings only apply to those respondents interviewed by the author.


Second, the sampling technique used, snowballing, is very controversial.  The primary difficulty with this technique is that it does not draw a "sample" in the formal sense.  Instead, because one respondent suggests another, and that one another, and so on, respondents tend to be related on some important traits.  It is little wonder that on many factors, there appeared to be considerable correlation of views and experiences within each sample. 


In conclusion, Acting Black lacks the theoretical rigor and clarity that one would normally expect from a scholarly publication.  There is no proposed theoretical framework, and there is no a set of inter-related hypotheses for examination.  In addition, it is not clear how the fundamental questions and topics addressed by the author are related to race performance.  Methodologically, the small size of the sample and the sampling technique itself limit the findings to those respondents interviewed.  Acting Black, to a large degree is their story, and it may or may not be the story of other black students attending Howard or Northwestern Universities during the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s.  The study under review cannot answer such a question.



Anderson, E. (2000).  The code of the streets.  Chicago, ILL.: University of Chicago Press.


Anderson, E. (1994 May). The code of the streets. Atlantic Monthly, pp. 81-94.


Fordham, S., Ogbu, J. (1986).  Black students' school success: coping with the burden of acting white.  Urban Review, 18, 176-206


Giroux, H. 1983.  Theories of reproduction and resistance in the new sociology of education: a critical analysis.  Harvard Education Review, 53, 257-293.

Kanter, R.M.  (1977). Men and women of the corporation.  New York:  Basic.


MacLeod, J. 1987.  Ain't no makin' it.  Boulder, CO.: Westview.


Verdugo, R. R. 2002.  Race-ethnicity, social class, and zero-tolerance policies: the cultural and structural wars, Education and Urban Society, 35, 50-75.

1 Note that Willie does cite Kanter (1977).  My concern is that the author does not undertake a rigorous review of that literature addressing race and gender in an institution/organization, and how that literature addresses race/role performance.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 262-266
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11156, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:56:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Verdugo
    National Education Association
    E-mail Author
    Richard Verdugo is a staff associate for the National Education Association, Washington, DC.
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