When ‘Black Like Me’ Means ‘White Like Them’

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From my first steps onto campus, I was determined to make my Nigerian parents proud and to seize the opportunities they had left their native country for. I had graduated high school in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s most eastern province, at the top of my class and as student body vice president. Being the single black student in a school of 600 had been immaterial to me. I had not developed a sense of black identity because, simply, I did not have to.

So here I was at the University of Western Ontario, the sole black on a dormitory floor made up mostly of white students from Toronto and a few ethnic minorities. It was, for most of us, the first time we were living away from home, and we spent time asking honest and sometimes naïve questions about one another, including ones about religion and race. It proved to be a safe, collegial space to check our biases. Or so I thought.

A few months in, we received an email notification that our exam grades were available. One by one, the pre-meds among us logged onto the reporting system to access our scores and, following the lead of one floor mate, shared them aloud. Each of us had already fallen prey to the paranoia that even a single mediocre grade would compromise our chances of medical school acceptance.

“76!” a friend proclaimed, appearing satisfied. “80” from my roommate. “74” from another. “72,” lamented another. Then I nervously stepped up to enter my login. “94!” I declared in relief.

Most of the others donned looks of approval or surprise, while one, an Indo-Canadian business student, was notably shocked. “Are you trying to be white, Bolu?!” he jeered. The others laughed boisterously at the question.

I was confused. Surely, performing well didn’t make me any less black, did it? This was the first time I saw myself as a racialized minority in the context of an educational institution. Some of my peers, it seems, were subscribing to the stereotype of black underachievement.

Throughout my undergraduate years I would hear comments of derision about “acting white.” Coming from black and white colleagues alike, this quip was particularly common when I decided to pass up social activities to study. I would often succumb to peer pressure in the hope of fitting in, and I found myself second-guessing my dedication toward academics.

Similar experiences were described in the work of another man of Nigerian ancestry. In his 2003 book “Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb,” John U. Ogbu, then a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, described how black youth are often seen as betraying their cultural identities by aspiring to academic success.

After months of fieldwork in the affluent Shaker Heights suburb of Cleveland, he had developed what he called the “cultural-ecological theory of academic disengagement”: The education gap between black and white students could be partly explained by students underperforming to avoid derision by their peers. It was indeed a controversial finding.

Dr. Ogbu, who died a few months after his book was published, classified immigrants like my family — those who chose to migrate to settler societies like Canada and the United States — as voluntary minorities who accepted many aspects of the culture they had chosen.

In contrast, he described involuntary minorities — indigenous people and those who came here as part of the slave trade — as suffering from marginalization and discrimination for multiple generations. Some of these individuals, he found, were less trusting of educational institutions, which they saw as part of the system that contributed to their historical disenfranchisement. They clung to manners of speech and dress that were distinct from the (predominantly white) mainstream and that fostered a disregard, even a disdain, for assimilation.

Dr. Ogbu’s theories rang true at times in my own life as I continued to struggle with the balancing act: Would I slack off or go to the library in the evenings to pre-read for the next physiology lecture and risk being caught “acting white”? (It was Dr. Ogbu who popularized the phrase in the mid-1980s, to explain why black students might spurn behaviors associated with achievement.) How much would I have to lower the grades I reported to my friends when they would pry, to fit their preconceptions?

Both my grades and my identity were slipping.

But toward the end of my undergraduate years, I found myself spending time with other first-generation Canadians from Africa. Like me, many of them understood that agency and dedication would propel them farther than foreign names and pigmentation would pull them back. The doors that advanced education promised to open were a primary reason our parents emigrated to North America. My new friends and I were not trying to conform to what peers, strangers or society believed a black male should be.

I attended medical school in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Commonly, minority physicians-in-training report tremendous support from their communities. In his memoir, “Black Man in a White Coat,” the African-American psychiatrist Dr. Damon Tweedy describes receiving positive and encouraging reactions when medical staff members saw the “young brother” sporting a white coat during his medical training at Duke in the late 1990s.

This would be the case for me as well.

Unfortunately, it is not always the case for others, who have the ability to succeed but succumb to social pressure. Minorities with aspirations of upward mobility have considerable barriers holding them back. Systemic factors like differential access to high-quality child care, lower socio-economic status overall and poorly funded schools account for much of the educational achievement gap between black students and the general population. Peer pressure should not be one of them.

Every step I took, from undergraduate training to medical school to competitive postgraduate training programs, yielded fewer and fewer colleagues of my complexion — a pattern documented in a recent article by Dr. Amit G. Pandya and other members of the American Academy of Dermatology diversity task force. It is for this reason that the academy runs a mentorship program that engages medical students of color in the hope of creating an ethnically diverse cohort of dermatologists.

The University of Toronto’s Community of Support initiative recognizes the importance of a health care community that reflects the diversity of the Canadian population, with black and indigenous students a priority. Through its mentoring program I work with black students who aspire to become physicians. Many of them tell me that interacting with a physician who looks like them encourages them to continue their own journeys.

I tell them what my immigrant parents told me: to surpass expectations placed upon them by institutions, friends and themselves. Because achievement has no color.