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Breaking Away

Caroline Jhingory had been warned but she was still surprised — and hurt — when some of her lifelong friends turned on her the way they did.

Ms. Jhingory is a 22-year-old black woman from Washington, D.C., who went off to college a few years ago. "One of the connections I had with my friends back home was that we had always been sort of aspiring hip-hop artists and things like that," she said. "But we were young, you know, and I eventually woke up from la-la land and realized that I would have to get an education and a job, something a little more concrete than fantasies about the hip-hop underground."

She noticed that when she came home on visits from school, some of her friends treated her differently. "I don't know if it was out of jealousy or resentment or whatever," she said, "but they would actually say to me, 'You're acting white now.' They'd say that. They'd say, 'You act white.' Or, 'You act proper.' "

Ms. Jhingory had come face to face with the dilemma that many black youngsters encounter as they try to improve their lives by studying, going to college and making other efforts to escape the swarming tentacles of poverty and ignorance. Old friends and sometimes even relatives may see those courageous efforts as a threat, and react bitterly.

"I knew that it would happen because other friends had told me it would happen," said Ms. Jhingory. "But I was surprised that it would happen with friends that I was so close to, people I had grown up with from the time I was maybe 6 or 7. I actually ended friendships because of comments like that. We just couldn't connect anymore because it was just a really negative situation."

I have no idea what the stats are, but I know this perverse peer pressure to do less than your best in scholarly and intellectual pursuits is holding back large numbers of black Americans, especially black boys and men. The other day I had a long conversation with a 15-year-old named David Blocker, who also happens to be from Washington. Until January, when he was expelled, David was a student at the Hyde Leadership Public Charter School.

"We were so lackadaisical," he said. "One-third of our school was failing three or more classes. The pressure from my friends was mostly to chill and, like, do what you want to do. People were not doing their work, just coming to school for fun, coming to school high, just playing sports, not really knowing what school was for."

David said he went right along with the crowd. "It's hard to come in and really do work when everybody is just chillin' and playin' around. If everybody's doing that, then you're going to want to chill and play around, too."

What was interesting was that David took a summer math course at a highly regarded private prep school and got an A-minus. But when he came back to Hyde, which was not as rigorous academically, he promptly failed math.

"I guess I'm responsive to how my environment is," he said.

David's parents have responded by home-schooling him since his expulsion. He said he expected to be enrolled soon in a school in which not only the teachers but also the students take academics more seriously, perhaps outside Washington.

The cultural pressure to behave in ways that are detrimental and even destructive go well beyond the classroom. Several young boys have told me about their desire to gain experience as street hustlers so they can someday cash in as "authentic" gangsta rap stars.

David's older sister, Nomoya Tinch, who lives in Brooklyn and is an intern at Essence magazine, said there was a time when she so craved the approval of her peers that she had turned into "this all-out wild child, this ponytail honey who was out there cursing and being bad and just didn't care."

Then comes the flip side: the all-out wild child has to walk onto a college campus or into a professional environment, and suddenly the feelings of inadequacy swell up like a wave that is about to overwhelm you.

These are not small issues. They are the day-to-day reality for millions of people, in most cases good and talented people who have had an already tough road made tougher by self-imposed roadblocks, and bad advice from their peers.   


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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