Searching for Answers

By Peter Schmidt — August 01, 1993 6 min read

As Signithia Fordham looks back at her four years at a Washington, D.C., high school, she recalls going to class, to basketball games, to the arcade, and to just about anywhere else students would go. Fordham was not a student but rather a student of students. As an anthropologist, she hoped to understand why so many African American children appeared to be failing in school.

Nearly a decade after she entered the school she now calls “Capital High School,” Fordham continues to analyze the data she gathered there. Although her influence on national discussions of the problem has grown, her basic findings—that African-American students often do poorly in school because they cannot reconcile being academically successful with being black—have not become any easier for many to hear or accept.

The students Fordham studied did not believe academic success would gain them acceptance by white Americans, but they did believe it would alienate them from other African Americans and leave them, as the researcher puts it, “forever sitting on the fence.”

“Success, and especially academic success, was extremely costly,” Fordham says. Even today, she notes, “students say, ‘I wonder how important it is to transform my identity as a black person in order to achieve success?’”

Although she doesn’t believe her findings can resolve such inner struggles, Fordham does express hope that her research will help sensitize society to the problem and weaken some of the forces that cause such struggles to take place. “I think it is about time to say, `We need to make some changes in terms of the norms,” Fordham says. “The norms are not appropriate for the varied populations that we must serve.”

Currently an assistant professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, Fordham believes that a different attitude prevailed when she went through elementary and secondary school, during the civil rights years. “I had parents who were extremely pushy about education, who saw it as a commodity, as a way of altering the limited future that I otherwise may have as an African-American woman,” Fordham recalls.

Perceived as academically successful, Fordham felt some pressure to shun such success, but it did not seem nearly “as intense or pervasive” as the pressures she later observed at Capital High. The prevailing pressures then, she says, were “to get good grades and be good citizens.”

But as she went on to college and studied to be an anthropologist, Fordham watched young African Americans move in a direction she had not anticipated. Instead of seeking the integration with white society that the civil rights movement had promised to make possible, many chose, instead, to cling more tightly to the black identity that white society stigmatized. Although she had been raised to believe that academic achievement was simply a function of hard work, Fordham seemed to hear only about academic failure among black children.

“Why would black kids resist the values and norms of the larger society?” Fordham wondered. “Why is it that resistance to `acting white’ has become so prevalent among African-American students?” Eager to find explanations, she began her work at Capital High in 1982 and plans to embark on new studies soon.

Fordham refuses to disclose the true identity of Capital High School in order to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the students she observed there. But in her studies, Fordham describes the school as located in a predominantly black section of Washington, D.C., and functioning essentially as a “magnet school,” with students coming there from distant neighborhoods and all socioeconomic segments of the city.

During the first year of her study, with the permission of parents and school officials, Fordham designated as “key informants” a group of 33 male and female 11th graders—12 of them considered high achievers, 21 underachievers. She interviewed and analyzed them and spent almost every day, including weekends, observing them both in school and out.

In the second year of her study, Fordham surveyed 600 students in grades 9 through 12. During the subsequent two years, she did follow-up research and conducted additional interviews at the school. Her goal, Fordham writes in one recent journal article, was to try “to understand why, how, and at what cost African-American adolescents achieve school success.”

Looking back on her field work, Fordham says she was “flabbergasted” by the amount of resistance to “acting white” that she encountered among black students at Capital High. “I never believed it would be so pervasive, and so pronounced, and so academically stifling,” she says. While many students had parents who, like hers, pushed them to get good grades, almost all appeared to feel a countervailing force, the pull of “fictive kinship.”

Anthropologists generally define fictive kinship as a kinship-like relationship among people who are not related by blood or marriage. Among black Americans, Fordham says, it symbolizes a sense of “peoplehood” in opposition to white society and is closely tied to behaviors that are culturally patterned and tend to separate whites and blacks.

In contrast to the individualistic, competitive ethos that characterizes most schools, the fictive kinship of black Americans tends to lead them to see their own chances of success as linked with the success of their peers and community. As a result, they emphasize group loyalty in situations involving conflict or competition with white Americans.

When black students seek to reaffirm themselves as members of their culture, she contends, they tend to unwittingly ensure their academic failure, primarily because aspects of African-American culture are viewed negatively in the school context and in the larger context of American society. For example, black students may run afoul of educators by using their culturally sanctioned speech patterns or interactional styles, or by working cooperatively on projects when asked to be competitive. Conversely, black students often disparage as “acting white” such school sanctioned behaviors as using standard English, spending time in the library, writing poetry, or working hard to get good grades.

To enhance their possibility of academic success, Fordham points out, many black students pragmatically distance themselves from their fictive kinship and instead seek to develop a sense of “racelessness.” But that can lead them to be stigmatized by peers and to feel an erosion of self-confidence and a loss of their sense of belonging. Well-intentioned educators, she notes, sometimes speed up this process, and stir up the internal conflicts within black children, by removing them from their regular classrooms and placing them in more homogeneous, higher-level classes where white students often predominate.

One of Fordham’s more recent studies, published in Anthropology and Education Quarterly, focuses on one academically successful Capital High student, Rita, and her struggle to maintain her identity in an environment where achievement casts doubts on her not just as an African American but also as an African-American woman.

At Capital High, Fordham notes, high-achieving black females tend to be silent. Their overriding goal is to be taken seriously in a male-dominated society. Underachieving females, by contrast, tend to be highly visible and well-known and to embrace their fictive kinship. Their grade point averages are often far below what they could be.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Fordham currently is examining quantitative data from her surveys, as well as her ethnographic research, in an effort to gain a better understanding of the lives of young black women. “I am extremely interested in looking at women and competition,” she says. “I want to uncover some of the problems that come about as a result of how women are socialized.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Searching for Answers