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Kent State Researchers Examine Emotional Impact of Acting White Accusation

Posted May. 17, 2012

Acting white is an accusation faced by many black adolescents, and it is one of the most negative accusations a black adolescent can receive from another, according to a team of Kent State University researchers.

A recent study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders highlights the emotional implications of being on the receiving end of the acting white accusation. Kent State researchers who surveyed African-American adolescents in Northeast Ohio found higher levels of anxiety among those who had been accused of acting white.

The research team was led by Marsheena Murray, Ph.D., a 2011 Kent State doctoral graduate, and supervised by Angela Neal-Barnett, Ph.D., a professor in Kent State’s Department of Psychology. Neal-Barnett is a top researcher in the study of anxiety disorders among African-Americans.

More than 100 low-income adolescents from predominantly black high schools completed questionnaires measuring anxiety. The accusation of acting white was experienced both directly and indirectly by half of the respondents. Only four participants reported not experiencing any aspect of the accusation either directly or indirectly.

“It appears that being accused of acting white is very common for black adolescents,” Murray said.

The research found that black adolescents who experienced both indirect and direct accusations of acting white evidenced higher levels of anxiety than those who heard it indirectly only. 

“At times, teens hear the accusation directly, such as ‘You act like a white girl,’” Neal-Barnett said. “Other times, they hear it in an indirect way, such as ‘Why you listening to white boy music?’” High anxiety also was associated with hearing the accusation on numerous occasions.

“The accusation is viewed as a judgment against the core of who they are,” Neal-Barnett said. “I think that people may be surprised by these findings because people don’t often talk about the emotional impact of the accusation.”

The study’s findings build on the research team’s previous work on the topic and pave the way for intervention studies. 


“We are committed to developing interventions for black adolescents,” Neal-Barnett said. “Not everybody copes ineffectively with the accusation of acting white, but we want to develop interventions to teach adolescents who receive the accusation how to cope more effectively so they don’t experience these higher levels of anxiety or stress. In addition, our team is beginning to look at teens that make the accusation.“

The results are published in the article “The Acting White Accusation, Racial Identity, and Anxiety Among African American Adolescents,” published in the May issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. It is available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2012.02.006.

For more information about Kent State’s Department of Psychology, visit www.kent.edu/cas/psychology.

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Media Contacts:

Angela Neal-Barnett, aneal@kent.edu, 330-608-1937
Bob Burford, rburford@kent.edu, 330-672-8516