Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race (review)
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Reviewed by
Sarah Susannah Willie. Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race. New York: Routledge, 2003. 210 pp. Paper: $24.95. ISBN: 0-4159-4410-4.

Acting Black captures the experiences of African American alumni who attended either Northwestern University, a predominantly White institution (PWI) located in Evanston, Illinois, or Howard University, a historically Black institution (HBI) located in Washington, D.C. Drawing on interviews with 55 African American alumni of these institutions, as well as on her own undergraduate experience, Willie provides an intriguing look at why some African American students chose a PWI versus an HBI, and the interaction of racial identity with college choice.

A unique aspect of Willie's study is her decision to interview alumni rather than currently matriculated students. In choosing alumni from the 1960s through the late 1980s, Willie talked with students who graduated during the height of the civil rights movement as well as during the conservative resistance to civil rights initiatives two decades later. This selection allows her to place her study within a historical context. This background is emphasized at the beginning of the book, where she devotes a chapter to the educational history and social movements of Blacks in the United States from slavery up to current, contemporary contexts.

A second important aspect of this study is the personal nature of the research. Willie clearly positions herself as a biracial Black woman, who has been able to negotiate race in her social circles because of her dual identity. Having been socialized in a predominantly White environment and through attending predominantly White Haverford College, Willie elaborates on the complex racial dynamics that she experienced, particularly as they were intensified by a semester exchange program at Spellman College, an HBI for women. She realized with amazement, on her return to Haverford, that her White classmates [End Page 441] were oblivious to the ways in which race influences society. This experience as an undergraduate became the motivating force for conducting the study.

In two separate chapters, Willie discusses the experiences of the Black Northwestern alumni in the study and the Black alumni at Howard. She focuses on the Northwestern alums' ambivalence toward the prestige of their alma mater, as well as the segregation between the White and Black students and the unfriendly campus climate regardless of when they graduated. Black alumni at Howard, on the other hand, discuss positive experiences, which included working with professors who thought students could learn and their appreciation for the presence of other Black students that created a strong sense of confidence. Negative experiences at Howard centered on those familiar to undergraduates at all institutions: complaints about administration, problems with registration, "drama" with the financial aid office, and housing difficulties.

Willie uses different experiences of the alumni to discuss the dissipation of Black cohesion that took place on campus after the civil rights movement. She notes changes in Black students' attitudes at Northwestern, ranging from a cohesive utopia to social disunity. Alumni at both institutions perceived changes in the Black student cohort that enrolled shortly after them. Some believed the new cohort's make-up was a result of strategic admission policies that favored middle-class versus working-class Blacks. Because students from nearly all time periods reported noticing a change, however, Willie suggests that the perception was more a result of the students' changing racial identity than of a generational shift in admissions.

The final chapters develop a theory of race and "Blackness" based on the experiences of the alumni. Willie analyzes race using anthropology, economics, and psychology. While concentrating on the most foundational pieces of race literature in the field, she discusses earlier conceptualizations of race as something static and nonfluid and also more recent conceptions of race as dynamic, contextual, and developmental. Willie uses examples from the interviews to emphasize the complex dimensions of changing one's ideas about race, gender, class, religion, etc., while not drastically changing one's personality. Willie's analysis of Blackness illustrates the ways in which the participants in the study experienced being Black during the college experience.

In the beginning, Willie stated that the study's purposes were to better understand her unique...