School Success Beyond Black and White
In 1986, researchers Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu published a widely read study suggesting African American students often take on “oppositional identities” in school, rejecting academic excellence in order to avoid being ostracized for “acting white.” This premise, unlike the vast majority of educational research, managed to find its way outside the halls of academe. Over the next two decades, it gradually attained the status of conventional wisdom—not only in scholarly circles but in principals’ offices and teachers’ lounges, as well.
That won’t be the case much longer if Prudence Carter’s compelling new book gets the audience it deserves. Carter, an associate professor of sociology at Harvard University, says the problem of low achievement among many African American and Latino students isn’t due to an association of school success with acting white. Instead, what Carter found in surveying and interviewing 68 low-income black and Latino students in Yonkers, New York, is that most subscribe to mainstream ideas about the value of education and its connection to economic mobility and career advancement. Nearly all the students surveyed, for example, agreed with the statement “Education really pays off in the future for young (Black/Hispanic) persons like me.”
The real problem, Carter argues, is that for too many of these minority students, schools are unsupportive, alienating spaces that devalue kids’ “cultural codes” and disregard their academic concerns. To succeed in such an environment, African American and Latino students must find ways to acquire “dominant cultural capital”—the knowledge, interaction styles, preferences, and attitudes that enable students to “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” of “high-status social groups, organizations, or institutions.”
Students respond to this demand in different ways, and Carter categorizes the youths she studied into three groups: cultural mainstreamers, cultural straddlers, and noncompliant believers. The third group, which includes more than half the kids in Carter’s study, views conforming to the dominant cultural practices of schools as tantamount to denying their own. Instead, they seek to “keep it real” by maintaining a strong affiliation with their cultural background. But in doing so, they often become disengaged from school and perform poorly academically.
So what can be done to reengage such young people? Among other suggestions, Carter emphasizes the need for teachers or mentors to serve as what she calls “multicultural navigators”: adults who understand students’ need to “keep it real” but who are equally familiar with the cultural tool kit required to thrive in mainstream institutions. Kids who fear losing their identities in what they perceive as hostile school environments, Carter writes, need “interactions with people who are multiculturally adaptive and fluent.”
In part, that means stepping up efforts to recruit African American and Latino teachers who’ve learned from experience how to bridge two cultural worlds. It also means overhauling teacher-prep programs to help prospective educators develop critical multicultural competencies. Single courses on “diversity” or surface-level nods to multiculturalism, Carter warns, just won’t cut it.
Some may see Carter’s work as a mere splitting of hairs regarding the “acting white” thesis, but it’s far more than that. Taken seriously, it moves us away from blaming struggling minority students for their academic failures and toward an understanding of how the culture of schools may be the biggest obstacle standing in those students’ way.