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“Give a Brotha a Break!”: The Experiences and Dilemmas of Middle-Class African American Male Students in White Suburban Schools

by Beverly M. Gordon - 2012

Background/Context: Today, in the era of the first African American president, approximately one third of all African Americans live in suburban communities, and their children are attending suburban schools. Although most research on the education of African American students, particularly males, focuses on their plight in urban schooling, what occurs in suburban schools is also in need of examination.

Purpose/Focus of Study: This research focused on the lived experiences of 4 middle-class African American male students attending affluent White suburban schools. Through vignettes focusing on their various experiences and recollections, this study provides a preliminary snapshot, part of a larger study, of the schooling environments in the life stories of middle-class Black suburban youth.

Research Design: Qualitative methodology was used to explore the life histories of the 4 African American males. Each student participated in a tape-recorded interview to examine what it meant to grow up in White upper-middle-class suburban communities and to matriculate within suburban district schools from elementary through high school.

Findings/Results: The salient themes that emerged from the rich, interactive conversations and dialoguing address issues related to disillusionment and resilience; the presence or absence of racism; academic pressures; social bonding and identity development in racialized social and academic settings; and the gatekeeping role of athletics.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Suburban education may not be the panacea that African American families had hoped. The socioeconomic status of African American families who live in affluent White suburban communities may not be enough to mitigate against the situated “otherness” that Black students—in this case, males—experienced in affluent White suburban schools. More research is needed to understand the positionality of Black male students in suburban schools; relationships between suburban Black adolescent males and females; school life beyond athletics; the role of the family and community in combating racism and otherness; and how student agency can be a force for change.

Snips & snails & puppy dog tails,

And such are what little boys are made of. . .

(Opie & Opie 1997, pp. 100–101)

A Black middle class1 has existed in America longer than many realize (Anderson, 1988; Du Bois, 1899). From the mixed-race mulattos freed and educated by their slaveowner fathers to the first generation of college-educated Blacks who attended HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) like Howard University, Hampton University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College, small groups of the descendents of enslaved Africans, through tenacity and hard work and in the face of openly racist policies and practices, made great sacrifices to achieve the academic and industrial advancements that gave them financial benefits, political influence, and social mobility—at least within the African American community and sometimes outside of it. They were the pioneering shopkeepers, teachers, physicians, lawyers, literary figures, newspaper editors, and publishers, among others, who served the Black community in a racialized America (Pollard & Vaugh, 1993).

According to Woodson (1919/1968), African Americans received literacy training at least as early as the 1700s. However, White concerns about the purpose of education for African Americans, the type of education Blacks should receive, and the societal roles educated Blacks might play in American society thwarted efforts to ensure that the masses of African Americans could receive a high-quality education and its accompanying accessibility to upliftment through economic advancement. Nevertheless, through education and intellectual pursuit, some African Americans were able to improve their socioeconomic status, so much so that by 1930, in a commencement speech delivered at Howard University, W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the stellar African American intellectuals and philosophers of that time, chastised the graduating class for mimicking the behaviors of their White “Roaring Twenties” counterparts—parading about in raccoon coats, partying and drinking, focusing on college sports, and pledging into Greek societies—when they should have been about the business of uplifting their race. He called upon Scripture to forewarn them as the nation entered the throes of the Great Depression: “It was the ever new and age-young problem of Youth, for there had arisen in the South a Joseph, which knew not Pharaoh—a black man who was not born in slavery. What was he to become?” (Du Bois 1930/1973, p. 62). Du Bois’s overriding concern was that the burgeoning middle class, whose ranks the college-educated Blacks of the 1930s would supplant, was poised to abandon its responsibility to the Black masses. He challenged the newly graduated among the educated Black elite to prepare themselves in both the industrial and liberal arts in order to build the institutions of commerce, industry, and banking so sorely needed in the African American community.

Woodson (1933/1977) too would issue a scathing critique of the hegemonic education that African Americans were receiving in the early 20th century and express his disdain for the way in which some educated professional Blacks of his day perceived themselves. Woodson railed against those middle-class educated Blacks who separated themselves socially and geographically from their working-class counterparts through exclusive organizations, clubs, societies, and neighborhoods.

One outcome of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was that more Blacks of means were able to relocate from predominantly Black communities to virtually all-White suburban communities. Today, approximately one third of all African Americans live in suburban communities (Eggleston & Miranda, 2009). Yet, even in this new millennium—the “age of Obama,” the era of the nation’s first African American president—the pejorative conceptualization of African American male K–12 students as academically and socially problematic is so much a part of the dominant belief in education circles that it has become commonplace. Conditions that produce and perpetuate racist, deficit-based understandings of African American male deviance and violence are rendered increasingly invisible as the social reform policies and practices aimed at addressing these males’ purportedly irreconcilable waywardness become more and more punitive. In such an environment, critiques of deviancy theories are obfuscated, and problematized conceptualizations of African American male students are normalized (Kambon, 1992; Wilson, 1993).

Such perspectives are even more insidious in the 21st century because this normalized deviancy can easily be generalized to cause all African American children to be labeled “the usual suspects” in matters relating to disciplinary action and educational deficiency. When, for example, contemporary national studies assert that middle-class African American students are not performing as well as their European American counterparts in school (Elrich, 1994; Polite, 1993), the explanations sound curiously familiar. Sample (1997) and Swain (2006), for example, attributed the deficient academic performance and behavioral issues of Black schoolchildren, in both poor and middle-class African American households, to pervasive social ills such as crime, violence, drug abuse, and illegitimacy. The pathological image of African Americans, particularly African American males, has infiltrated American education so completely that African American advances in socioeconomic status, occupation, and academic achievement in the past decade seem neither to erase nor to mitigate the powerful impact of race.


When educational research begins with the assumption that the group being studied is problematic, such assumptions speak volumes about the perspectives and paradigms employed as well as the probable outcomes of the work. This is particularly troubling because, until recently, little illumination has been focused on the academic and social experiences of African American middle-class male students in suburban schools, and the few aspects of these students’ realities that have been investigated, such as academic disengagement, are pejorative at best (Ogbu, 2003). Educational stakeholders are only beginning to hear the voices of these students and to illuminate their educational experiences and contexts (Beard & Brown, 2008; Eggleston & Miranda, 2009). This study problematizes assumptions about these boys’ experiences that typically (and perhaps stereotypically) situate them as academically and socially aberrant, regardless of their middle-class suburban status. When this subtle but overridingly negative view, which King (1991) described as dysconscious racism, is coupled with racial tension and conflict involving teachers, other school staff, or other students, particularly White male peers, these environments can have a powerful influence on suburban Black male students. Negatively, it can have a devastating impact on the boys’ self-image and self-esteem. But it can also serve to make them more determined to prove themselves academically and elevate the quality and output of their schoolwork. Another response to racism, especially given that Black male adolescents are in the minority in societal communities and schools, is a reliance on one’s racial/ethnic group (i.e., other African American students) for support in stressful situations (Zaff, Blount, Phillips, & Cohen, 2002). According to Scott (2004), “racial socialization and racial identity are specific race-related factors suggested to foster the resilience, adjustment and adaptation of African American adolescents in the face of race-related hostile environments” (p. 126). The stresses of growing up and attending school in suburban communities are palpable ones for Black males. As such, this discussion will illuminate racial identity, disillusionment, and resilience issues in the suburban school lives of Black male students in America.

The 4 young men who participated in this study lived in the target suburban community for the entirety of their academic lives. Thus, they were neither newcomers nor strangers to predominantly White academic and social communities. Each, however—some as early as elementary school, but all by middle and high school—evidenced a dawning awareness of the various manifestations of “Pharaoh” (alluding once again to Du Bois’s 1930 critique), coupled with a firm understanding of the differences that existed between themselves and their school and neighborhood peers and of the differences in the way they were perceived, academically and socially, vis-à-vis their White classroom peers. To engage these boys in interactive dialogue, to listen to and “hear” their “voices” in the pages of this article, is to learn how they came to know and understand the world around them, who they are, their disappointments, and their resilience as they struggle to overcome the obstacles before them.


As part of a larger investigation of African American students in suburban school districts, this discussion focuses on the school-based lived experiences of 4 young Black men who grew up in suburbs and attended suburban schools. It engages an educational life history approach to explore these boys’ dawning awareness of the racism, identity development and transformation, and racialized social interactions that were coupled with their K–12 experiences.

The life history approach, one tool of qualitative methodology, was most appropriate for the type of ethnographic educational study I envisioned. Given that the study of culture—in this case, the lives of African American boys in suburban schools—is concerned with the subjective (Bruyn, 1966; Cicourel, 1964; Glaser & Strauss, 1967), this approach also provided me, as the researcher, with the most flexible research posture to interpret my subjects’ academic, social, and cultural lives. This study employed critical qualitative methods that privileged data collected directly from the students themselves, as per the examples of Lindlof (1995); G. A. Fine and Sandstrom (1998); M. Fine (1998); and Guba and Lincoln (1998). The resulting interviews reveal the voices, dawning awareness, and understandings of these young African American males as they reflected on their lived experiences in the suburban school district.


The suburban school district in which the study’s interview respondents attended school was located outside a large mid-Atlantic metropolitan area of just under 1 million people. African Americans constituted about 20% of the metropolitan area’s total population. Census data revealed that the target suburban community comprised 94% European Americans, 2.8% Asian Americans, 1.7% African Americans, 1% Hispanic or Latino Americans, and 0.1% Native American and Alaska Native populations, with the remaining 1.4% consisting of either another race or multiracial residents. A total of 84% of the district’s adult population were homeowners, compared with only 15.9% renters; 96% were high school graduates, and 59.7% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median family income in the district was $83,074 in 1999; only 1.4% of its families lived below the poverty level.

Established yet small African American communities also were served by the suburban school district, although they technically were part of the larger metropolitan area. These communities were built during the 1960s by middle-class professional African Americans who moved from the area’s urban centers to the suburbs in search of upward mobility: newer communities with better housing options for their families and schooling opportunities for their children.

When this study was conducted, the target school district enrolled almost 9,600 students in its nine elementary schools, five middle schools, and three high schools (two academic and one alternative). At the time, the district had one of the most ethnically diverse student populations among all the suburban school systems surrounding the metropolitan area, with enrollments of approximately 82.1% European American, 7% Asian American, 6% African American, 2.7% Hispanic American, 2% multiracial, and 0.2% Native American students. Academically, the district’s schools were ranked among the top 5% in the state, and it was the largest school district in its county to achieve an “excellent” rating on the state’s educational performance “report card” for 6 consecutive years. The composite score for all district seniors taking the ACT college-entrance exam in 2008 was 24.4; 2008 composite scores on the SAT were 551 on the Critical Reading scale, 592 on the Math scale, and 532 on the Writing scale.


The participants in this study were 4 African American male youth—Ethan, Kyan, Crawford, and Kojo2—who lived with their families in the target suburban district’s neighborhoods. All the interviewees were selected based on the following criteria: they were African American; they had attended suburban schools for a majority of their schooling or had transferred into and attended school within the target district for at least 3 years; and they were enrolled in one of the suburban district’s middle or high schools. Living on the western side of the district, 3 of the boys (Ethan, Kyan, and Kojo) attended the newer high school; living on the eastern side, 1 boy, Crawford, attended the original district high school. Although none of the young men attended the district’s alternative high school, one boy (Kojo) took morning classes at an adjoining district’s vocational school and then was bused back to the district high school to complete other classes, such as English and mathematics, in the afternoon. At the time of the interviews, 3 of the boys (Ethan, Kyan, and Kojo) were in high school, and 1 (Crawford) was in college.

Ethan had attended the target district’s schools since second grade. Prior to coming to the district, he and his family lived in two other cities around the state. He received all As during his seventh- and eighth-grade years and was an honor roll student with a 3.7 grade point average in high school. He was a member and later president of his middle school’s student council, and he studied three foreign languages simultaneously during his high school years.

Kyan’s entire educational career had been spent in the target suburban school district. His multiracial entourage of friends lived close by in his immediate neighborhood. He and his family were Muslims who attended a mosque in the city.

Crawford, the son of a physician father and a corporate accountant mother, had lived in the same house and attended public school in the target district for his entire K–12 career. At the time of his interview, he was a sophomore at an HBCU. He had graduated from high school with what he described as “pretty good” college entrance examination test scores, even though he claimed not to have applied himself fully during most of his high school years. Nonetheless, he had received honor roll recognition during both years of his HBCU experience.

At the time of his interview, Kojo, a junior in one of the suburban district’s high schools, was 3 weeks shy of his 17th birthday. Prior to moving to the district with his American-born mother, Ghanaian-born father (who died when Kojo was young), older sister, and older brother, Kojo attended first and second grade in the small town where he was born in another part of the state.


The data for this study were collected from January to June 2004. As the principal investigator, I solicited and identified my subjects through contacts with various parent organizations in the school district and through referrals from district personnel based on the above-stated research criteria. I received parental permission to interview the boys in their homes. The audiotaped interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and were transcribed. From each transcription, I crafted the narrative biographies and educational histories that follow in the ensuing sections.

Following the example of Fontana and Frey (2000) and Gubrium and Holstein (2000), I developed and used a list of benchmark questions during the course of the interviews to engage the interviewees in free-ranging conversational discourses, as opposed to rigid one-question/one-answer exchanges. The interviews were informal, relaxed conversations in which students were encouraged to communicate their perceptions and address the important issues of their lives in school. My operating premise was that the students were expressing their personal knowledge of how they were interacting within the school environment. The interviews consisted of the following benchmark items that were discussed during the course of the interview: (1) schools attended (elementary, middle, high school)—areas of school location and racial balance; (2) overall memories of school days, teachers, friends—relationships with teachers and school administrators; (3) perceptions of self in school—positive or negative experiences and reasons for this description; (4) school curriculum and facilities; (5) information about peers and issues of race or racism; ( 6) student reflections on their educational experience; and (7) future plans. These benchmarks guided my interviewees to reflect on and flesh out their remembrances of multiple school incidents, people, interactions, and experiences. Follow-up questions helped the interviewees to illuminate and clarify their points in conversation. The resulting narratives were far from sterile discourses; my subjects and I talked with, not at, each other. The result was rich, interactive conversations and dialoguing between researcher and subject, replete with in-depth narrative accounts of the experiences of the young men selected for the study.



Ethan recalled that until second grade, when his parents enrolled him in the target district’s suburban schools, all his classmates and out-of-school peers were Black and Latino children. By the third grade, after attending school in the suburbs for a year, he claimed, “It kind of just hit me that I really didn’t have any Black people, like, around me.” Being the only Black student in many of his suburban school classrooms was an isolating and alienating experience. To him, it meant that he had to work hard not only for himself but also for all the other Black people whom he alone represented in the eyes of his White teachers and classmates:

When you look around and you’re the only minority in the classroom, you soon become a “minority poster boy”. . . . You’re working for other people because if you do well, then [Whites] can see that other minorities can do well, and so it [counters] their stereotype of lazy Black kids. . . . [Whites] don’t just see you as one individual because as soon as you step into the classroom . . . they don’t see one Black person. They see [all] Black people!

Middle school brought additional challenges, many of which Ethan believed were racially motivated. Although he stated that none of his suburban district teachers had made blatantly racist comments in his presence, he was quick to point out,  “Teachers are people, and some people are still racist.” He recalled, for instance, one of his middle school teachers asking him to stop talking while other class activities were taking place. When two of his White male classmates began talking in the class, the teacher did nothing to quiet them, so Ethan asked them to stop talking in a voice loud enough to draw the teacher’s attention. To his surprise, the teacher reprimanded him and referred him to a counselor without addressing the other boys’ disruptiveness. Although the counselor insisted that the teacher’s actions were not racially motivated, Ethan suspected the school’s insensitivity to racial issues even then: “I just didn’t appreciate how she [the teacher] tried to single me out and make me look like I was being the disobedient one in her classroom when I obviously wasn’t. . . . [The counselor] couldn’t even understand . . . what I was saying.”

Ethan also noted that, in his experience, several of his White suburban peers had proffered “offhanded” yet stinging classroom assessments and stereotypes of Black people and other people of color. As if adding insult to injury, he claimed that when teachers and other school officials allow White students’ stereotypical or racist comments to stand without challenging their validity, those adults were often co-conspirators in perpetuating racist ideas and attitudes. For example, he recalled an occasion when one of his teachers returned from a vacation to a major amusement park and casually noted to her class that she had not seen any Black people at the park. The teacher further alluded that the reason for this was that the park’s admission tickets were so expensive. Ethan, who described himself as someone who stood up for himself and others and as one who made a conscious effort not to be intimidated by teachers and staff, challenged his teacher’s unspoken assertion: that all Blacks were poor and thus could not afford to vacation like Whites. He also told her that it was “not appropriate” for her to share such comments “with a classroom full of students” and informed her that her remarks could be construed as racist.

The absence of a critical mass of African American faculty and staff in the suburban district, especially at the high school level, was an issue for some of the interviewees, but it was not a problem easily remedied by the mere presence of African American adults in the school. Ethan, for example, spoke of the negative opinions he held about the lone Black female counselor at his middle school. His perceptions of this woman, he claimed, differed dramatically from those of his mother, who trusted and felt good about her. According to Ethan, his reservations were based on the counselor’s background and acculturation in a setting very similar to the one in which he himself was being educated:

[She] was completely adapted to being around White people. And in some way . . . I don’t really think she understood what it was like to have any sort of African American struggle. . . . She just had adapted to the White people so well that it wasn’t even hard for her any more. She was just basically one of them. I mean she dyed her hair blonde. She had contacts . . . she tried to appear to be Caucasian when she obviously wasn’t. . . .

Despite such encounters, Ethan remembered his early suburban teachers, all of whom were White, fondly—that is, until a conversation with a former teacher years later gave him pause. When he was in 10th grade, he explained, he ran into his former fourth-grade teacher. After they exchanged greetings, she asked Ethan if he was still in school, a question that shocked him and that he found highly troubling:

I really didn’t know how to take that question. I didn’t know if she [assumed] that I had dropped out or what had happened, but the way she said it . . . and it was kind of condescending. . . . Like, I’m only in the 10th grade, what else would I be doing? It was kinda like a punch in the face. . . . Ever since then, I have never really been quite fond of [her].

Ethan concluded the following about his White peers and teachers: “You can just tell when some [White] people, they just don’t like Black people or they don’t like minorities, for that matter. . . . It’s just the way that they’ll [look] at you or they’ll look at you like you’re completely . . . I hate to say it, retarded.”

Kyan maintained that race had been a factor in his educational history in the suburban district since elementary school. He recalled the following incident:

Some kid kept calling me the “N word” over and over. It was like for a month . . . so [my parents and I] had a meeting with the teacher. . . . She kind of just said, like, “This is the way the world is. People aren’t going to change their views about you, and you can’t change [that].”. . .  My parents were really upset . . . they actually got into an argument with the teacher . . . and they didn’t handle it too well.

Until the fifth grade, Kyan claimed, he basically lived in his “own little world” and never had any issues with his White teachers or classmates. He fondly recalled having one African American male teacher and was proud to note that he still remembered the teacher’s name. Upon reaching middle school, however, he began noticing a change:

I guess in middle school you don’t think about things as much, like, in terms of race, but  . . . [there were] these little cliques of people, and you see the White people hanging out, and the Black people hanging out, and the Asians . . . what’s the word I’m looking for?—kind of segregated. Not segregated, but like sectioned off into different [groups of] people . . . like, little communities within themselves.

High school brought Kyan even more encounters with a subtler, less overt, form of racism: “I’m at school, and I’m in, like, a real smart class. . . . I’ll be the only African American in the class. . . . They [his White classmates] might look at me and [think] how did he get in that class, you know? It’s like little subconscious things.” Kyan also described incidents of obvious racial tension at his suburban high school, noting that the school’s racially charged atmosphere was “pretty bad at times”:

There’s this thing that happens at school where the Black people will be in one place, and the White people will be in one place, and a White student might make fun of another Black student and it becomes like a race thing. . . . [A]ll the Black people will get mad, and all the White people will get mad. So when you see these two groups, there’s always tension between them. It doesn’t happen very often, but there are some racial issues there sometimes.

Kyan indicated that he generally avoided becoming personally involved in such racial confrontations, which typically involved clashes between White and Black males. He noted that he usually did not “get into all that stuff,” nor did he “go near” the “racist people” in his school.

Unlike Ethan and Kyan, Crawford, the only interviewee who had graduated from the suburban district and who attended an HBCU, shared only pleasant memories of his early school years growing up in the predominantly White suburban district. He recalled participating in several academic and athletic activities without encountering, to his recollection, any overt signs of racism or prejudice. By the time he got to middle school, he observed a number of academic and social changes in terms of student clique formations, but he recalled nothing of a racist nature that directly affected him or his relationship with his White teachers or school peers. He admitted, however, that he had “heard” of a few instances in which Black students requested a transfer out of a particular classroom because they could not tolerate a teacher’s racist attitudes or actions, and he suspected that several incidents at the school might have been racially motivated:

I think there [was] definitely a little bit of [racism] going on. Definitely. . . . Certain teachers seemed like they were always on a Black kid’s case about, like . . . real picky-type things . . . like what they were wearing . . . I don’t know, it just seemed like certain teachers would treat the Black kids differently, but for the most part . . . I personally never experienced that happening to me.

Even though he recalled an early classroom incident in which a teacher literally threw a book at him in the third grade, Kojo, like Crawford, also claimed to have had only minimal personal encounters with racism during his suburban school experience. He stated that he liked all his elementary school teachers and believed that they genuinely cared about all students regardless of race. In elementary school, he noted, he and his classmates “never thought about” race. On the other hand, he suspected that his suburban peers’ social awareness of racial differences started to became a factor in middle school, especially with regard to social gatherings such as school dances, and when “the Black kids would hang out all together and people would notice.” He also admitted feeling uncomfortable and unsettled talking about race or civil rights in class when he was the only Black student in the classroom.

Although Kojo described his high school as “a nice school” with “computers and everything,” and claimed to have good relationships with all his teachers, he described the level of racial tension at his high school as sometimes “scary.” He noted that the various social and other “races” at the school frequently spoke disparagingly about each other, escalating racial tensions:

I can sit at the table with my friends, my White friends, and . . . they’ll say “Chinks” or whatever about the Chinese kids. . . . Then [I] can sit at the “Black table” and . . . they’ll be talking about White people. . . . And I know White people talk about Black people because . . . [I] always hear about the . . . White kids saying the “N word” and how a bunch of Black people are going to beat them up or something like that. You hear about that a lot. . . . The teachers don’t even realize how much . . . racial tension is [at the school].


Going to a good suburban high school, Kyan noted, especially a highly rated one such as the school attended by 3 of the young men interviewed for this study, “puts a lot of pressure on [students] to do good. . .  [and] make it to the next level.” Kyan believed that African American students constituted only 4.5% of the high school’s student population, a paltry quantity that amounted to, as he stated, “less than one Black person in a class.” To succeed as a minority in that kind of environment, he claimed that he had learned to turn even the negative pressures of racism, prejudice, and cultural ignorance into positive personal motivating forces: “I’m going to make good grades! My parents moved out here so I could get a good education, so I’m not going to waste what they’ve already given me. . . . I don’t know whether [Whites] want me to shine or not, but I’m going to shine!”

When asked if he or other Black students equated getting good grades with “acting White,” Kyan’s response was as follows:

[We Black students in suburban schools are] trying to survive, so I don’t think there’s anybody that looks down upon you for getting the grades that you get. But, at the same time, you want to fit in with the rest of the [Black] students and be cool or whatever, so there’s a little pressure to fall behind in your work. . . . It’s actually sad. A lot of [Black students] don’t focus on academics as a whole . . . they’re getting into other stuff, but there’s some that are really trying to work hard.

Ethan concurred, noting that the high-stakes pressures of qualifying for higher education generally makes the high school experience even more challenging for African American students in suburban schools. To advance to college and career success, he felt that his performance had to be twice as good as that of his White peers: “I can’t just make the A. I have to make the high A because if [I] make the low A, that means that [I] spent time slacking off; and the second [I] start slacking off, someone is always judging [me].”

In his interview, Kojo, who indicated that he wanted to be an engineer or architect, often mentioned his late father’s wishes for him to attend college. He admitted, however, that he did not have great grades nor much athletic ability to qualify for attention or scholarship aid from the colleges of his choice. Nonetheless, he believed that if he “kept his head on straight,” he could go on to higher education and a good career: “If, you know, [White kids] can start at the top and drop to the bottom, then a lot of people can start at the bottom and go straight to the top. I mean, I know it’s a weird way of thinking about it.”


In middle school, Ethan explained, he transitioned from one group of friends to another, as did many of his peers. Such a change was not very hard for him: “It was just trying to find a group that you fit in with that you could do things with and talk with and things like that.” He also reported seeing another change in his peers as they transitioned from elementary to high school, recalling the life paths of two of his friends, who went from rollerblading with him in elementary school to being sent to drug and alcohol rehabilitation camps during high school. Another friend tragically died in an alcohol- and drug-related traffic accident; yet another’s older brother introduced his younger brother to marijuana, and that boy, in turn, tried to get his friends to use it. Ethan claimed that his suburban schoolteachers were aware of students’ experimentations with alcohol and drugs but did little to intervene, noting that “there wasn’t really a lot of guidance to stop [students] from doing all sorts of things.”

Kyan related an experience of social bonding and identity development that was more complex and challenging. He explained that in his early school years, he had friends from a wide range of races and backgrounds. As he got older and became more involved in sports, however, his circle of friends got bigger, and he reported feeling less comfortable around his White school peers and more socially “connected” to other African American students. Of the latter, he indicated,

I like [other Black students and youth generally], their personality. There’s just something, like, I have a connection to them. Even if I don’t know them and I get to know them, I feel like I have a direct connection to them more than the suburban kids I do know here.

Kyan also reported having established a number of friendships with other African American boys his age away from his suburban schools and settings. Most he met from the mosque and through the city-based basketball league in which he and his older brother played.

Crawford, who claimed that most of his school friends were African American, explained that middle school in the suburban district brought more opportunities to meet new students from different feeder schools. It also brought increasing social segregation among students in the suburban district. Evidence of this, in his view, was the existence of “minority-group tables” in the school cafeterias and clusterings of same-race students at assemblies and sports events.

Kojo recalled that his earliest memories in the target school district community were of being welcomed into his new neighborhood by a group of local boys, all of whom were White except for one other African American boy. These boys quickly became his principal school playmates and friends. Kojo remembered that they were inseparable until middle school, when they regrouped into what he called “social races”—“skaters,” “preps,” “jocks,” “druggies,” “soccer kids,” and more—divided by different interests, by the types of drugs each group preferred, by whether they were sexually active, and, of course, by race. In elementary and middle school, for example, he claimed he was a member of the “White preppie” group of suburban school students. By high school, he indicated that he felt he more closely identified with the “‛hood” kids—who, though also themselves suburban, were primarily African Americans. He continued to socialize with many of his White childhood friends throughout high school, yet he refused to socialize exclusively with other Black students.

That’s one thing different at [the high school] is that all the Black kids seemed to hang out together, and then I still hang with my friends from before. At the same time, I hang with a lot of my other friends who are Black, but it’s not so much like not being accepted, but it’s like almost as if they’re all what some people call “ghetto” . . . I’m not ghetto [or] as ghetto as they are, so I really don’t hang out with them.

When one of his White childhood friends started “acting shady” in high school—that is, hardly speaking to or interacting with him either inside or outside of school—Kojo claimed neither to dwell on the loss of this friendship nor to attribute it to any emergent racism on the boy’s part. Nonetheless, he acknowledged feeling hurt and slighted by the rift.

Kojo’s comments on the high prevalence of drug use among students in certain social groups at his suburban high school were as troubling as Ethan’s earlier recollections. As he pointed out, however, “it was mainly the White students” who were doing drugs, and at an alarming level:

It was a different experience really because . . . a lot of my old friends . . . started experimenting with drugs. I hadn’t really thought about them or anything in elementary school, and then people were talking about them every day. That was something new. . . . There’s so much [drug use] in the suburbs. . . . People just don’t realize how much . . . goes on. . . . I’ve never been in any inner-city school, but I think it’s getting just as bad as inner-city schools . . . because you can go . . . to [my high school] right now or next week, and I can point out five people who snort coke up . . . do acid. . . LSD. . . marijuana . . .I swear that 85% of the school smokes marijuana and it’s just . . . so bad, you know? . . . these are the people who are going to be kind of running our country? It’s scary. I mean, it’s crazy!

My interviewees did not talk a lot about dating, and when they did, interracial dating—that is, Black males dating White females—dominated the discussion. As a Muslim, Kyan explained that dating issues were moot for him because he was not allowed by religious mandate to “do any social things with girls” until he was ready for marriage. Kojo, on the other hand, explained that his mother had “encouraged” his siblings and him to “stay within [their] own race” when dating. To her dismay, he noted, neither his brother, who was dating a White girl, nor his sister, who was married to a White man, had heeded her advice. For his part, he claimed that he dated both Black and White girls and indicated that he was comfortable with and around both so long as they were compatible and “liked each other.” He nonetheless acknowledged that most of the Black girls at his high school “hung out with” or dated Black males from other schools.

Although he claimed that he did not do any “serious” dating during middle school, Crawford also pointed out that the interracial dating at his middle and high schools was often a one-way proposition: “There were never a whole lot of Black girls. There were always more Black guys with White girls . . . I can’t ever remember the White guys ever dating the Black girls. [The Black girls] either dated some of the Black guys or they didn’t date anybody in school.”


The mix of academics and sports was viewed as a toxic one by most of my interviewees, who overwhelmingly indicated that Black males’ self-esteem and self-confidence in suburban settings frequently were shaken or diminished by their participation in both. On one hand, some noted, White suburban school faculty members and staff did not expect a lot from them in class. On the other, the boys reported being held back from demonstrating what they were capable of on the sports field or court.

Ethan, for example, explained that he was very interested in participating in high school sports such as football, but he complained bitterly about the biases he felt his school’s White coaches had against Black athletes, both male and female, in all sports. He also disparaged his White teachers’ and peers’ attributions of the athletic successes of Black students to racial characteristics rather than to the hard work and training those athletes put into beating their competition. He argued that many White coaches simply did not want their star players to be Black:

When [Black players] donate all of [their] time to be the best and [coaches] still don’t play [them], then there’s obviously a problem. . . . I mean, they will play their White boys until the end of the day! They would rather lose than put some of us in! And it’s absolutely ridiculous because a lot of us, we’re really good. [Yet] they would rather use their own than to use our talent. It’s ridiculous!

Kyan also related having some problems with the White athletic coaches in his middle school. He claimed that they would not give him much playing time even though he was a gifted athlete, and he attributed their resistance to racism: “I sat on the bench in seventh- and eighth-grade football and basketball. I was actually elected the team captain in eighth grade [but] I wasn’t even starting . . . I [don’t] think they wanted me to be, like, a leader . . . they always [wanted] to put [a] White kid in the spotlight.” The cruelest manifestation of this, in Ethan’s view, took place during a student athlete sports banquet, when he and three other Black classmates—honor roll students, all—were not recognized as scholar-athletes:

We were the only ones that didn’t get called! We kind of all three just looked at ourselves, and I said, “Well, I have a 3.7!” And T__ said, “Well, I have a 3.6!” And C___ said, “Well, I have a 3.9!” . . . .None of us got called. It’s just something that seems fishy, you know what I mean? I mean, you can understand one accidentally [being overlooked], but all three . . . and all three individuals being African American? Come on, now!


As Bronson and Merryman (2009) contended, the roots of discrimination based on skin color begin to form among American children as early as 6 months old. My suburban-school African American male interviewees’ recollections lend credence to that assertion. The young men’s pleasant memories of “normal,” uneventful lives in suburban schools were counterbalanced, and in some cases outweighed, by recalled episodes of increasingly more contentious racial antagonism and intolerance as they and their White suburban peers grew older. Their insightful comments also reveal a dawning awareness of their positionality within the suburban school setting—beginning in elementary school, when some recounted experiences of name-calling, particularly the use of the “N word,” and escalating to other acts and subtle expressions of racist aggression and pejorative social stereotyping by their White student peers (especially White males), teachers, and school officials. However, the willingness of most of these young men to openly challenge the racialized attitudes and behaviors they encountered emerges from these narratives as both a realization of the negative influence of racism on social relations in suburbia and as a positive motivational influence for these youth. The stories they shared, especially from their middle school memories, are overwhelmingly of change and transformation—in the academic demands placed on them, in their physical appearance and stature due to the onslaught of puberty, and in their social relations and groupings as awareness of race and racial differences gained increasing prominence in the suburban school setting.

It was evident from these narratives that these young men came to realize that they were not fully a part of the dominant White culture in which they lived. Several findings from the present investigation also comport with Lemert’s (2010) and Tatum’s (1997) assessments that children begin early on to generate social theory in their efforts to make sense of the world around them. Evidence of this was revealed further by interviewees’ reports of having to negotiate multiple social groupings or cliques as they progressed through suburban schools. It was confirmed additionally by their expressed needs to actively challenge teacher authority, particularly when they perceived racist or unfair treatment. Even further evidence was found in the young men’s assertions that they had to assume more ownership in and responsibility for their academic work than their peers if they were to achieve their desired ends—namely, graduation from high school, attending college, or pursuing careers.

Although these young men struggled with various forms of racism and discrimination in their school settings, they refused to abandon their ethnic identities or ways of being to achieve academic success. One African American male student, for example, who perceived that his own academic achievements influenced how his White peers and teachers perceived the academic abilities of Black students generally, maintained that Whites’ views incentivized him to try to do even better in his studies. This desire for individual achievement as a means of countering negative perceptions of African Americans as a group challenges Ogbu’s (2003) notion that Black students in affluent communities disengage themselves from academic work to retain or protect their racial/ethnic identities. The idea that Black students must, because of some notion of racial/ethnic necessity, bear the “ burden of acting white” (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986) if they wish to be academically successful—or that being academically successful, a prized behavior within the dominant White American society, demands that one reject or negate one’s racial/ethnic identity—was not evident in this study. Instead, this investigation supports the findings of numerous other researchers whose studies found evidence to suggest that African American male adolescent students in suburban schools who aspire to achieve academically do not view their academic success as a betrayal of their racial/ethnic identity (Becker & Luthar, 2007; Hamm, Bradford Brown, & Heck, 2005; Hughes, Witherspoon, Rivas-Drake, & West-Bey, 2009; Spencer, Noll, Stoltzfus, & Harpalani, 2001; Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005; Whiting, 2009).

Several interviewees spoke of their relationships with their parents, with other Black students at their schools (Tatum, 1997), and with other groups outside the suburban community (e.g., Kojo’s affiliation with his friends from his inner-city mosque) as providing them with the validation they needed but did not receive in their suburban schools. This finding echoes Suizzo, Robinson, and Pahlke’s (2008) conclusion that middle-class suburban African American parents frequently teach their children coping strategies for dealing with racism as early as age 3 by exposing them to the history and struggles of people of African descent and by promoting educational achievement as a weapon against racism. It further echoes Daddis and Smetana’s (2005) claims that Black suburban parents typically encourage their children to adopt strong autonomous stances with regard to relationships with their White classmates while maintaining close familial relationships.

All my interviewees had intentions of pursuing some type of higher education. One of the young men was already attending an HBCU; the others in high school were planning on starting the admissions process in the fall of their senior years. Three commented that they probably could have worked harder academically, but that the experience of suburban academic preparation would serve to their advantage in postsecondary education planning. Several, however, expressed reservations about whether they would attend school in this suburban district again if they had to repeat their schooling experience, or if they would recommend it for their own future offspring. When asked if he would attend his middle-class suburban high school again or recommend doing so to another African American student, Kyan’s answer at first was an emphatic “No!” He later tempered his remarks:

For academic reasons, yes, because colleges look up to _____ as one of the best places to go. . . . Socially, [and for]sports, I probably wouldn’t want to go to ______ . . .because I feel like I don’t fit in . . . with the people there. . . . In a negative way, I think that it’s hurt my confidence in a way because [Whites] don’t expect as much out of me because I’m African American or because they want to hold me back from my sports. . . . They look at me, and they don’t see a 3.5 student or above . . . they look at me and they [assume], “Well, you know, he’s a failure.” So in that way, it’s affected me negatively, but I use that as motivation to prove them wrong, so I guess in a way it’s positive, too.

Crawford, on the other hand, was convinced that his suburban school experiences had made a singularly positive impact on his life and future. When asked what he would do differently if he had high school to do over again, he expressed but one regret: “I would definitely have [gotten] a better GPA [grade point average]!”


. . . but often I hear a dry husk-of-locust blues

descend the tone ladder of a laughing goose,

syncopating between

the faggot and the noose:

Black Boy, O Black Boy,

is the port worth the cruise? (Tolson, 1965, p. 20)

After conducting hours of interviews with these 4 young men and with an additional sample of African American female students from suburban schools and a group of Black suburban school parents (Gordon, 2011), my assessment of the costs and the benefits of the suburban schooling experience for African American males is inconclusive at best. Although the findings gleaned from these narratives cannot be generalized to the entirety of the Black middle-class population living in predominantly White suburban communities, they do provide a much-needed sampling of these young men’s academic experience that may be more commonplace than extraordinary. Notwithstanding, this study only scratches the surface reality of what African American male students encounter during the course of their educational life histories in suburbia. By living, growing up in, and attending schools in suburban communities, these students cannot help but absorb the culture of the schools and society of which they are a part, yet in which they remain the “other.”


More research on what the sense of otherness really means for African American males in suburban schools and how its influence can be either minimized or optimized to ensure their successful negotiation of the suburban academic environment and beyond is an important direction for future study. Additional questions raised by this investigation that should be addressed in subsequent research include the following:

Are African American males matriculating successfully through White suburban schools, and what defines or is the measure of their success?

From what sources can and do young Black males in suburban school settings draw to acquire their sense of identity? What or who influences them, and do those influences come from inside or outside their learning environment? What role do African American teachers and other school staff play in this regard in suburban settings, and how can their presence work to the advantage of Black and White students alike, especially given that Whites reportedly will be the minority population in the United States by 2050 (Rodriguez, 2010)?

What kinds of home or other external preparation and reinforcement might African American male students receive to help them more effectively combat the racism and otherness they experience in their suburban school settings?

Is part of the acculturation process of blending Black males into White middle-class suburban society manifested by these males’ assertions that they typically ignore African American females as dating partners or find Black girls unappealing, even as they themselves are confronted with the racism of their teachers and other students?

Do suburban high school coaches minimize the “playing time” afforded to their African American male athletes, an action that can have serious consequences for a means of access to higher education and advancement for Black males that is quite real and powerful? If the possibility of using athletic sports achievement as a means of getting to college is lessened, does this represent yet another barrier for Black male advancement? Alternately, might it be a blessing or opportunity in disguise that could encourage these males to rely on academic work and discipline instead of sports to get into college?


Part of the American Dream is to live in an aesthetically pleasing, clean, safe environment with academically rigorous schools that can provide the next generation with the best chance for success in the world of work. African Americans want no less for their children, hence the roots of their struggle for education, fair housing, and economic opportunity. Suburban life, however, is a cautionary tale at best because its promises can be muted by the reactions of the dominant group to the presence of newcomers to suburban communities.

For the young men who participated in this study and scores of others like them, the “port” is worth the “cruise,” but at a heavy cost. The price of the assaults on their racial identity; on how they view other Black students, particularly Black females; and on their participation in academic and athletic endeavors is disproportionately high. Notwithstanding, as demonstrated in their resilience and determination to endure the slings and arrows of racism and discrimination, that cost is not so high that either these youth or their parents are willing to cease their pursuit of that dream. If African American males are to flourish in suburban schools, they should be involved with multiple activities—academic, athletic, civic, community service, and other—in both suburban and urban communities so they can benefit from, and contribute to, both worlds. African American parents must address these issues on at least two fronts, in the schools and the Black community at large. Students only get one PreK–12 experience, which necessitates that parents continue efforts with the school districts so their children are successful in ecologically friendly and welcoming environments. Concurrently, wherever possible, the parents of African American male suburban students might also consider enrolling their boys in Saturday schools (shulas) or after-school programs that specialize in reinforcing the history, cultural knowledge, and cultural traditions of people of African descent. Such programs can provide the “village” or nurturing, affirming communities that suburban American communities have yet to provide for these young “brothas.” And surely, it will take a village to raise them and subsequent generations for decades to come.


1. In this discussion, the middle-class African Americans will be defined as “the group within black America that, generally speaking, has had the most recent experience with whites across the broadest array of social situations. They are often the ones who are desegregating historically white arenas and institutions, including upscale restaurants and department stores, business enterprises, corporate and government workplaces, white colleges and white neighborhoods” (Feagin & Sikes, 1994, p. 26).

2. Pseudonyms are used throughout this article to protect the identities of all interviewees


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 5, 2012, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16416, Date Accessed: 7/30/2021 2:59:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Beverly Gordon
    The Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    BEVERLY M. GORDON is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University. Currently, she has three interrelated areas of research: African American students and issues surrounding suburban education and race; curriculum studies, especially the political and ideological aspects of knowledge production and dissemination, and teacher education, specifically the epistemological basis of classroom knowledge, student and teacher relations, and classroom ecology. She teaches courses in curriculum studies and African American educational history.
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