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Oppositional identity refers to any attitudes or behaviors intended to challenge schooling. These attitudes and behaviors range from mild opposition, such as not doing homework or becoming the class clown, to more disruptive opposition, such as defying and striking teachers or walking out of class. The most extreme form of opposition is dropping out of school. The high dropout rates and low academic achievement of racial and ethnic minority and lower-class students is often explained as a result of their adoption of an oppositional identity.
An oppositional stance to school develops because students believe that education will not lead to social mobility or because school requires behaviors that are deemed incompatible with their racial, ethnic, or class identity. Historically, racial and ethnic minority and lowincome students have been subjected to discriminatory practices that deny them opportunities for social mobility through education. Knowing that schooling does not lead to social mobility shapes their attitudes toward and responses to school. Since there are scant opportunities for social mobility, they develop an oppositional stance toward school that leads to disengagement and low achievement (MacLeod 1987; Ogbu 1978; Willis 1977). Oppositional identity is a form of cultural inversion in which minority and lower-income students regard certain attitudes and behaviors as “white” or “middle class” and thus inappropriate for their group. Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu (1986) identified speaking standard English, listening to white music and white radio stations, going to the opera, getting good grades, doing volunteer work, going camping, and being on time as “white” behaviors. While subscribing to these behaviors may lead to school success, it also constitutes cultural or racial suicide because it entails the rejection of their culture in favor of white culture (McLaren 1994).
Ogbu refers to the “burden of acting white” as the price that black students pay when they assume these “white” behaviors and do well in school. Fueled by peergroup pressure, fear of being accused of disloyalty, fear of losing friends, and fear of not being accepted by whites, black students engage in oppositional behaviors that lead to underachievement (Fordham and Ogbu 1986). High achievers run the risk of being perceived as “acting white” or as being “sellouts.” Peer chastising can include verbal taunting, ostracism, and physical aggression. To avoid peer harassment, high-achieving students must mask their accomplishments by engaging in some form of opposition, such as hiding or downplaying their grades, clowning or acting crazy, pretending to put little effort into school, or having friends who can protect them. A more socially costly alternative, and one that can lead to social isolation, is to assume a raceless persona, disassociating and disidentifying from their group (Fordham 1988).
Many scholars argue that the effects of the “burden of acting white” may be overstated (Lundy 2003; FloresGonzalez 2005). Many students manage to maintain a racial, ethnic, or class identity while being academically successful. Some develop dual identities that enable them to meet peer demands at school and in their neighborhood or to act differently with different peer groups (Mehan, Hubbard, and Villanueva 1994; Horvat and Lewis 2003). Others are immersed in peer networks or academic tracks that foster academic achievement. Furthermore opposition to school is not necessarily the result of peer pressure to underachieve but of structural factors that make schooling a painful and identity threatening experience for racial and ethnic minority and lowincome students (Flores-Gonzalez 2005). Discrimination ensures that these students attend highly segregated schools that are usually overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded. There they are subjected to subtractive schooling, the practice of devaluing the students’ culture by administrators and teachers who sort, select, and reward students based on their proficiency with dominant “white and middle-class” culture (Carter 2003; Valenzuela 1999). Students who display minority culture are believed by the staff to be opposing school, which leads to their being further marginalized into the lower tracks and labeled as dumb or troubled and to their punishment (detention, suspension, expulsion) for their lack of knowledge and display of the dominant culture. Prudence Carter (2003) adds that while minority students possess and make use of both dominant and nondominant culture, they often experience difficulty enacting dominant culture. It is their inadequate display of dominant culture that is found problematic and inappropriate by teachers, leading to their negative appraisals. Furthermore one must differentiate between behaviors that are truly oppositional and are intended to challenge or resist some aspect of schooling and behaviors that may be expressions of power or triggered by other issues such as sexism or racism (Giroux 1983).
Adopting an oppositional identity almost always leads to negative consequences, such as low academic performance, grade repetition, detention, suspension, expulsion, and dropping out of school. Yet it can also protect a student’s sense of self. Michelle Fine (1991) shows that students who conform to school tend to be more depressed, less politically aware, less assertive, and more conformist than those who take on an oppositional stance. In a stratified schooling system where opportunities are structured to lead most students to failure, developing an oppositional identity may shield students from the negative effects of schooling on their sense of self and may also reinforce their sense of collective identity.
- Carter, Pr 2003. “Black” Cultural Capital, Status Positioning, and Schooling Conflicts for Low-Income African American Youth. Social Problems 50 (1): 136-155.
- Fine, M 1991. Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban Public High School. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Flores-Gonzalez, N 2005. Popularity versus Respect: School Structure, Peer Groups, and Latino Academic Achievement. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 18 (5): 625–642.
- Fordham, S 1988. Racelessness as a Factor in Black Students’ School Success: Pragmatic Strategy or Pyrrhic Victory? Harvard Educational Review 58 (1): 54–84.
- Fordham, Signithia, and John O 1986. Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the “Burden of ‘Acting White.’ ” Urban Review 18 (3): 176–206.
- Giroux, 1983. Theories of Reproduction and Resistance in the New Sociology of Education: A Critical Analysis. Harvard Educational Review 53 (3): 257–293.
- Horvat, M., and K. S. Lewis. 2003. Reassessing the “Burden of ‘Acting White’ ”: The Importance of Peer Groups in Managing Academic Success. Sociology of Education 76 (4): 265–280.
- Lundy, Garvey. The Myths of Oppositional Culture. Journal of Black Studies 33 (4): 450–467.
- MacLeod, 1995. Ain’t No Makin’ It: Leveled Aspirations in a Low-Income Neighborhood. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- McLaren, P. Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education. 5th ed. New York.
- Mehan, , L. Hubbard, and I. Villanueva. 1994. Forming Academic Identities: Accommodation without Assimilation among Involuntary Minorities. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 25 (2): 91–117.
- Ogbu, J 1978. Minority Education and Caste: The American System in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Academic. Valenzuela, A. 1999. Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. Albany: State University of NewYork Press.
- Willis, P. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.
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