- Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White
Prudence Carter focuses fresh attention on the clash that occurs between dominant cultural expectations for achievement in school and the cultural styles of students from nondominant cultural backgrounds. She shows us how the variability in school engagement patterns among low-income black and Latino youth are influenced by their varying ideologies about their social identities and how best to deploy these identities in their response to the social inequities they encounter in school.
Carter draws from two well established theoretical frames – Bourdieu's cultural capital theory and Ogbu's cultural ecological theory – both of which have been used to explain the persistent underachievement in school of working class and minority youth. But she does not just draw from them, she addresses key limitations of each framework and moves us towards a deeper understanding of the cultural and social processes that give rise to intragroup variability in school performance. In so doing, she provides an important counter to the oversubscribed-to notion that African-American and Latino youth do poorly in school because they equate school success with "acting white." Rather, for the young people in Carter's study, academic engagement (or disengagement) was connected to their ideologies about how to negotiate the cultural borders that existed between their community and school worlds. Her work attends closely to the ways in which the devaluing of nondominant forms of cultural capital in school disadvantages youth of color (a shortcoming of Bourdieu's work) [End Page 869] and to the social dynamics of power relations within the school setting (a shortcoming of Ogbu's work). Carter's richly textured ethnography shows us how students' refusal to "act white" does not imply a devaluing of education or a rejection of schooling. Rather, refusing to "act white" is about maintaining a sense of identity and belonging and demonstrating loyalty to one's peers and community. It is also about resisting a school environment that systematically ignores and devalues students' nondominant forms of cultural capital and that demands conformity to white, middle-class cultural ways.
Drawing from surveys, interviews and a lot of hanging out with 68 low-income black and Latino youth, all but two of whom had attended desegregated magnet schools in Yonkers, New York, Carter identifies three distinct groups of students each with different school engagement styles. "Cultural mainstreamers" are those who adopt middle-class dominant cultural ways as the norm even when doing so may cause some of their fellow black and Latino peers to criticize them for not keepin' it real. "Cultural straddlers" are those who draw strategically upon multiple cultural repertoires to navigate across cultural borders and boundaries. "Noncompliant believers," Carter's third category, are those students who refuse to display the "right" cultural signals in class and at school (i.e., white middle-class cultural ways) as a way of remaining true to their social origins. It was this latter group of students who most frequently encountered conflicts with teachers, who appeared less engaged at school, and who performed poorly by standard measures of academic achievement.
Boys more often than girls fell into the noncompliant category. Likewise, far fewer boys than girls were identified as cultural straddlers or cultural mainstreamers. An important aspect of Carter's study is her careful attention to how gender is constructed by the schools, by the students themselves and by their families. To explain why many low-income African-American and Latino boys may have difficulty becoming cultural straddlers, Carter identifies a range of tensions that exist between the way masculinity is understood by these boys and the behaviors required by schools for academic mobility. A critical issue for educators, as Carter notes, is how to avoid labeling as deviant those students who refuse to conform to dominant white middle-class culture in school and who insist on keepin' it real.
Carter's work contributes to a growing body of literature finding that those low-income students of color who are the most successful in school are often those who...