Longitudinal Effects of the “Acting White” Accusation and Racial Identity Development among Black College Students: An interview with Dr. Myles Durkee

This #MustReadMonday, we are excited to feature a recent paper by Dr. Myles I. Durkee: Longitudinal Effects of the “Acting White” Accusation and Racial Identity Development among Black College Students. This article examines racial identity development among Black students making the transition from high school to college, addresses the implications of cultural invalidations (specifically, accusations of “acting White”), and provides policy recommendations for combatting the detrimental impacts of such cultural invalidations on college campuses.

1. What would you say are the main takeaways from your article? 

Dr. Durkee: First, “acting White” accusations—which are insults that discredit or challenge someone's racial authenticity and their membership within their group—have longitudinal implications on the development of racial-ethnic identity. Within that, we also find distinct patterns among Black youth across gender. For Black male and female youth, we see very different developmental patterns in terms of how these racially stressful events impact their racial-ethnic identity development over the first few years of college.

We really thought it was important to focus on the transition to college because that's such a radical transition point for most emerging adults, and it's really the first time they're leaving the nest (i.e., their parents’ homes). This is also the first time they can really explore their own independent identities, outside of the socialization messages that their parents have provided. It's a chance for them to come into their own sense of identity, so we tend to see dramatic shifts across various identity dimensions during the transition to college.

2. Given that the transition from high school to college is such a critical time of identity development, how might such racial stressors impact identity development among Black youth going into their first year of university or college?

Dr. Durkee: Over the years, we've collected a lot of data on this particular age group. It's really a challenging and taxing time period. Black youth and youth of color who are transitioning to college have to learn how to manage multiple identities. This fits into racial code switching—which is our other line of research—in that Black youth and youth of color have to learn how to adapt their behavior in order to be included in different spaces.

At predominantly White universities, there are campus norms and campus traditions of how people are expected to carry themselves. You notice these norms from day one—from the first moment students set foot on campus, they know that in order to be respected and included on campus they have to present themselves a certain way. For some Black students who grew up in predominantly White spaces, they likely absorbed the tendencies of White culture and merged these practices with their natural behavior, but when they interact with Black peers they may be judged for “acting White” or perceived as being a less authentic Black person. This creates a tension—a push and pull where individuals must find their own sense of identity. Oftentimes, that sense of identity and self-expression is going to shift across different spaces and different contexts—even within the same college campus.

3. Could you also touch on some of the gender differences you found in your paper, as well as their implications?

Dr. Durkee: Definitely. Based on prior research we've done on the same dynamics, we expected that there would be gender effects because we know there are differences in how Black male and female youth experience “acting White” accusations. Particularly, for Black female youth, they receive these accusations much more frequently than their Black male counterparts. When we look at the specific trait that they're targeted for, style of speech is the most common characteristic (talking White, sounding White). Based on that trend, we thought for sure that there would be different gender effects for identity development over time—we just weren't sure exactly how those differences were going to play out going into the study, so it was exploratory in that sense.

We found that, in general, “acting White” accusations had a more detrimental reciprocal effect for Black males compared to Black women. Most importantly, when we look at the level of centrality, for Black males who received these accusations more frequently in high school, by the time they finished their first year in college, race became less central to how they saw themselves and, when they saw race as less central after the first year of college, they experienced more “acting White” accusations over the second year of college. So, we found a negative feedback loop where, if you saw your race as less central to who you were, you were going to receive more accusations down the road.

We didn't see this pattern for women. For women, the only kind of detrimental pattern we saw was that Black women who had a high level of accusations in high school had a lower level of public regard after the first year of college. Basically, they felt that society saw their group negatively. But that could be in tune with the reality of our society, so this kind of outcome isn't necessarily detrimental in that sense because it can make them more aware of the current context that we're living in right now. A good amount of research finds that having a low level of public regard can actually prepare individuals for discrimination because they're already anticipating it. If you can anticipate or expect discrimination to occur, it's much easier to cope with it and to move on from it in a more efficient manner—versus discrimination that catches you completely off guard.

So, ultimately, the takeaway message here is that, for Black women in the study, they demonstrated more of a protective developmental pattern where we're not seeing “acting White” accusations having as detrimental of an effect on their racial identity development overall. But, for Black males, we are seeing that these threats are having more of an impact on their racial identity development and the impact does appear to be more detrimental.

Lastly, for Black males we found that having more “acting White” accusations in high school led to lower levels of private regard. They felt less positive and proud about being Black after the first year in college. Once again, that's not a positive outcome—it’s much more of a risk factor in the grand scheme.

What we're missing from these findings is the mechanism of why we are seeing these different gender patterns. We think that coping skills may differ dramatically across the different gender groups, and women may be using more adaptive coping responses to address these types of threats than males. We do have the data on this, but have yet to analyze it, so that's going to be one of our next papers once we get some time to really dive into it.

4. For those not as familiar with this area of research, could you expand a little on the concepts of racial identity (RI) centrality and RI regard, as well as how these two dimensions interact with one another to produce an overall sense of importance and meaning of racial membership?

Dr. Durkee: Broadly speaking, racial identity is how important, significant, and meaningful one’s sense of identity and belonging is to a particular racial group. Every person fits within a racial group—at least in America. So every person has a racial identity or a sense of what that group membership means to them. But, within that identity, there are many ways to operationalize what the identity really means to people. There are three dimensions that we focused on in this paper. Centrality gets at how important the racial identity is to your sense of self. The other dimensions get at the regard you have towards your racial identity. Regard can be further broken down into private regard (how positively you feel about being a member of that group) and public regard (how positively you feel that society regards your group). The three dimensions that we focus on in this paper are centrality, public regard, and private regard.

5. In the article, you mention that, because this study utilized a sample of Black students attending predominantly White universities in the Midwestern U.S., findings might not generalize to Black students attending minority-serving institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Do you have any predictions as to what kind of differences we could expect to see in samples from minority-serving institutions?

Dr. Durkee: The composition of the group you identify with matters so much in the college context, and it's the issue of having a critical mass of in-group members. When you don't have a critical mass and your group is severely underrepresented, this raises the stakes for cultural invalidations to occur because each individual member of the group has to become an “ambassador” who represents the entire racial-ethnic group in many campus settings. Oftentimes in their classrooms and many other spaces across campus, they’re going to be the sole individual from their social identity, and everyone else is going to look to them to learn information about their group’s behavior and whether the stereotypes of that group are true. This creates increased pressure for cultural policing, and this policing can happen among in-group members to ensure that each person is behaving in a way that the group approves of, so that there are no “bad apples” that would make the group look bad. Additionally, out-group members are also going to rely on minority individuals to give them information about what their minority group is really like. So the lack of a critical mass significantly increases the pressure of cultural invalidations and the psychological consequences of these experiences.

Cultural invalidations are likely to have different implications at historically Black colleges or university, due to the dramatic shift in racial composition. When your group is in the numerical majority, one of the benefits of having majority status is that you’re more likely to be viewed as an individual rather than an “ambassador” for the group. If you happen to behave strangely, people see that and say, “Oh, that person is behaving strangely”, rather than “why do all Black people behave strangely like that?”. This is why the racial composition of school contexts matters so much, because it interacts with cultural invalidations and results in unique implications from these dynamics.

6. You note in your article that data were collected at a pivotal time of social justice reform. Do you think your results would have been different if the data were collected in present day, where we are in the midst of such reform rather than at the start of it? 

Dr. Durkee: Honestly, I think the results would remain pretty similar, even in the present day. When we first launched data collection for this project in 2013, national movements for social justice reform were right at the onset. In fact, #BlackLivesMatter was just starting to trend on Twitter, so that movement was just getting started and has continued to build momentum. Overall, the same types of racial stress that youth were experiencing back then hasn’t really changed much in regards to racial stereotypes and how youth are simultaneously pressured to confirm the positive stereotypes of their group and discouraged from confirming any negative stereotypes. Otherwise, they may be perceived as an inauthentic member of the group.

I think this is consistent and generational as well. I imagine our participants’ parents and grandparents experienced the same type of racial dynamics, particularly in relation to school and residential integration back in the day. Those who decided to integrate predominantly White schools and neighborhoods may have been seen by in-group members as “selling out” for leaving their own community. So there are small things that change and shift over time, but in the grand scope, these racial dynamics stay relatively consistent and stable over time. Stereotypes also shift very slowly and over very long periods of time. This is particularly true for racial stereotypes, because they are really rigid and the same racial stereotypes that emerged decades ago continue to persist today, just with a slightly different flair or expression.

7. Are there also generational differences in terms of how people see others’ decisions to conform to what is viewed as stereotypical behavior for the out-group?

Dr. Durkee: That definitely pulls more into our more recent work on racial code-switching. We do see a generational divide on people’s perceptions of racial code-switching. Overall, when we look at Black Americans, there tends to be two camps when it comes to code-switching. One camp sees it as crucial to survival and getting ahead in life. There’s pressure to code-switch to get a callback for an interview, to get hired for a position, or to get promoted—it’s kind of a means to an end. But there’s another camp of people who are highly opposed to code-switching because they see it as selling out by having to change who they are to accommodate other people’s comfort. But even within this camp, there are those who refuse to code-switch altogether and are willing to face the consequences, and there are those who are highly opposed to code-switching but still do it when it’s absolutely necessary. When these two camps communicate about racial code-switching, we get very polarizing responses and participants commonly ask: Should we continue this practice or not? Is this something we should train our kids to do, or should we not?

What’s hard for us to determine is whether this is a difference across generations altogether or more of a developmental trend. In general, younger folks are more radical and likely to push back against the system, so, when it comes to code-switching, younger people are naturally going to be more opposed. But as they get older and get more responsibilities (mortgage, children), they might be more willing to accommodate that adaptation in order to achieve a larger goal. We’re not sure if it’s simply a generational difference or a developmental pattern that people transition through—my sense is that it’s probably more developmental than generational.

Now, of course, we’re having a recent resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter and there’s a stronger appreciation for Black culture. So there is an appreciation of people expressing their blackness across all spaces (being unapologetically Black). But we also saw this in the 60s with the Black Power Movement led by the Black Panthers, so our parents had similar movements decades ago and we had similar trends among younger people.

8. Your article touches on some important implications for universities stemming from your study’s findings, namely the need for greater investment in resources to cultural groups and organizations that support Black students and the need for more inclusive campuses with increased numbers of Black students and faculty. What are some ways that these suggestions could help combat either “acting White” accusations (AWA) themselves or the detrimental impacts of AWA experiences on Black students?

Dr. Durkee: Cultural groups and organizations on campus are crucial in both the support and retention of students from marginalized backgrounds because these groups really do provide a safe space for members of marginalized groups who are experiencing racial stressors in their day-to-day lives. They need these outlets to vent to someone who gets it rather than having to explain why this is a stressor in the first place to someone who may not get it or may not have experienced this type of stress personally. Additionally, when prejudicial events occur on campus, these groups become a body to organize and push back against the larger structure of the university and push for policy changes to help improve the campus and make the institution more inclusive. On top of that, these spaces can also provide valuable friendship and networking opportunities. So, these groups fulfill many different needs for students.

With that said, we do have another paper that’s coming out that looks at how the mental health consequences of these accusations differ depending on the race of the perpetrator, and we do find that when you experience “acting White” accusations from a same-race individual, the longitudinal mental health implications are more severe than if you were to experience it from someone outside of your race (Durkee & Gómez, 2021). This isn’t really surprising, but it confirms what we already assumed—when you receive cultural invalidations from an in-group member, it’s going to sting more and linger a bit longer because you don’t necessarily have the same coping mechanisms when you experience stressors from the sample people who are supposed to be part of your community of social support.

Within these spaces, there have to be opportunities for diversity training. This can help members to realize that, even though the group overall may be underrepresented on a college campus and may not have a critical mass, there still needs to be room for diversity within these groups and organizations because each member is not going to come from the same background, even if they share the same identity. If it’s a big university, these students are likely to come from different states and have very different life experiences, so these spaces have to be capable to allow for that diversity within the group, and not assume that everyone needs to fit a monolithic profile to make the group look as positive as possible among the larger campus community.

9. What are some future directions in this area of research that you are most excited to see, either through your own research or the research of your colleagues?

Dr. Durkee: I like the question of: What can schools do, and what practices should we encourage, to help with these dynamics? That's where critical mass matters both in terms of students and faculty. You really need a critical mass because, without having that critical mass, it just exacerbates everything. All the stressors of being marginalized become exacerbated—you are now that token individual and that, alone, is fatiguing and exhausting. And by critical mass, I don’t mean the majority—exact figures of critical mass vary from 15% to 33% of the total population.

Also, space for cultural groups and organizations is important. The good thing is that almost all universities tend to have these affinity groups already, which is great because they provide such a pivotal resource to the students who share those identities to have someone to talk to. But these groups need resources and training. Having diversity, equity, and inclusion training within these organizations could help lessen and prevent cultural policing and cultural invalidation from happening within these groups.

Our most immediate next steps are really looking at coping. We need to understand how people cope with these types of stressors because we can then design interventions and training to help people enhance the most protective coping mechanisms that help individuals manage these types of stress. In addition to that, teasing apart whether coping responses are differ based on who the perpetrators are is essential. If we know who the most common perpetrators are, maybe we can design strategies and solutions that are more tailored to lessen the harm from these experiences.

10. Is there a general takeaway that you and your co-authors would like readers to have from this recent paper and from your ongoing research in this area?

Dr. Durkee: We hope this paper can spark conversations. Conversations and dialogue are a great way to get people thinking about these issues and educate people on certain topics that they may not be aware of. Even though this paper focuses specifically on Black students, the same dynamic happen for other minority groups and represents a larger pattern of people being stereotyped for not fitting in with the way that society expects them to behave. I think the same dialogue and conversations can happen in broader circles and should happen.

For the full research article, see:

Durkee, M. I., *Perkins, T., & *Smith II, R. E. (2021). Longitudinal effects of the acting white accusation and ethnic-racial identity development among Black college students. Journal of Research on Adolescence. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12708

For additional reading on the mental health implications of “acting White” accusations, see: Durkee, M. I., & Gómez, J. M. (2021). Mental health implications of the acting white accusation: The role of cultural betrayal and ethnic-racial identity among Black and Latina/o emerging adults. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000589

Author bio:

Myles I. Durkee, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan. His research examines the implications of cultural invalidations and racial code-switching to understand how people navigate racial contexts and internalize messages about their cultural identity. This work examines how these experiences influence important psychosocial outcomes, including mental health, identity development, and academic achievement.

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