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Four Black American Students: Coming of Age in a Multiethnic High School

by Alan Peshkin & Carolyne J. White - 1990

This article focuses on the variety of cultural meanings students articulate when asked about their experiences within the special context of a multiethnic California high school. The article presents excerpts from verbatim accounts in which four Black students, part of a three-year study, describe their worlds in their own words. (Source: ERIC)

Sometimes, I have to change and act white. [

Warren ]

The white people who were raised around here . . . they are being black in some way. [Muriel]

I don’t think there’s anyone here that really doesn’t like black people. [ Shane]

I had never [before] had anything taken from me because of the color of my skin. [

Charlotte ]

These are the words of four thoughtfully expressive students whose experiences and perspectives inform this article. Taken together, their words evoke the cultural landscape in which they live, and highlight their negotiation of ethnicity within the particular contingencies of that landscape.

In his popular text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes of a narrative sickness that often prevails in classrooms where “the teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or . . . expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students.” A cogent critic of this narrative sickness, Harriet Jones, provides the following observation in John Langston Gwaltney’s portrait of Black America, Drylongso:

Since I don’t see myself or most people I know in most things I see or read about black people, I can’t be bothered with that. I wish you could read something or see a movie that would show the way people just, well, as my grandmother would say, drylongso. You know, like most of us really are most of the time- together enough to do what we have to do to be decent people.

Harriet Jones tells us that her understandings of black people are far different from the stories she sees or reads about “black people.” There is a marked inconsistency between her experience and the cultural representations of that experience.

Expressing a similar concern about the representation of minority students within educational literature, Raymond McDermott charts the various theoretical slides that have characterized the portrayal of minority students within educational discourse from “deprived; . . . curiously different in language, skills, attitudes, and overall culture; [to] . . . passively reproduced, put through the mills of inequality, and shaped into a pap form marked only by cross-generational failure.” McDermott challenges us constantly to guard against accepting such characterizations and to study “the problems of people as those problems are organized in the institutional lives of the people with each other.”

In this article, we take up McDermott’s challenge by proposing a “changing of the subject” from the problematic and disadvantaged representations noted above to a focus on what we can learn from hearing minority students describe their worlds in their own words. Our focus is on the variety of cultural meanings students articulate when asked about their experiences within the special context of a multiethnic high school. We seek localized understanding of what these four students tell us that captures and contains their experiences. Though we will not draw generalizations from our cases, we mean to encourage reader generalizations to the particular sites and circumstances they inhabit.


Educational researchers identify black students as being “castelike” minority members who come of age in a society (1) where they acquire “cultural predilections that are incongruent with the socialization goals of mainstream America”; (2) where to be “fully functional they must develop skills to do well simultaneously in two different cultures, both Black and non-Black”; and (3) where because of the stigma nonblacks often assign to color they are “apt to fuse the negative images held up to [them] by the dominant majority with the negative identity cultivated in [their] own group.”

Within the adolescent literature, the older view of adolescence as a period of upheaval and crisis has given way to views that see it in more moderate terms. “Impending catastrophe” overstates its reality, according to Erik Erickson. In contrast, he describes adolescence as a “necessary turning point,” a time for “marshalling resources of growth, recovery, and further differentiation.” A common assumption within the literature on adolescence is that the tasks of adolescence are complex because they seem to center on the here and now where individuals establish a sense of their uniqueness as they construe it; a sense of their similarity or continuity with others; and a sense of the future that links them to the conditions of adulthood. Psychologists see the later stages of adolescence as a time of “psychosocial moratorium,” when alternatives are tried out and accepted or rejected in a continuing quest for coherence between personally conceived internal and external realities. This may be a disconcerting time for parents as they see their children experimenting with personas and their variant concomitants of dress, music, language, social affiliations, and so forth.

Given the nature of the biological and cultural factors that impinge on the life of adolescents, they must address a range of decisions about the selves they will “invent” in pursuit of identity formation. Some of the selves relate to the development of individual personal identity in response to concerns about what kind of friend, lover, child, student, worker, or parent each will become. Other developments relate to their reference group orientation, in response to concerns about religious, ethnic, and social affiliations.

The pervasiveness of individual and institutional racism in the

United States compels black adolescents to deal with the ethnic component of self. Ethnicity, according to McKay and Lewins, is “an identity which can be managed, negotiated, aligned, manipulated or somehow transformed for a variety of expressive instrumental reasons.” Ethnic groups, marked by shared descent, boundaries, and a sense of peoplehood, embody an array of values, social customs, perceptions, behavioral roles, language usage, and rules of social interaction. Thus, black adolescents can draw options from a substantial ethnic menu; they also can vary the extent and circumstances under which they will express their options, given the contingent or situational nature of ethnicity. Taken in aggregate, the literatures cited here purport a generalized understanding of black students. Within the remainder of this article we explore the applicability of this literature through the stories-actually, selfportraits-of four students from Riverview High School .



Riverview is a primarily blue-collar town of about 35,000 in northern

California that has been settled since the late nineteenth century by successive waves of northern and southern Europeans, blacks, Mexicans, Filipinos, and, most recently, South and Southeast Asians. Because of Riverview’s several decades of open housing and its ethnic diversity, and because it has only one high school, both community and high school are integrated.

Table 1 shows the percentage of

Riverview High School ’s 1,600 student population in each of the five ethnic categories the State of California uses to classify its students.

Table 1. Percentage of

Riverview High School Students by Ethnic Classification, 1984

Ethnic Classification %

Asian 2

Filipino 12

Hispanic 20

Black 33

White 33

Riverview is the only town in its section of a large county that has a sizable minority population. As such, it is derided by wealthier white neighbors in nearby communities whose children face Riverview students from opposing ends of playing fields, gymnasiums, and, occasionally, classrooms. An image of Riverview as black and troublesome was etched by the much-publicized “riots” following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, Ten years of intense racial animosity followed the 1968 disorders. The next decade (19781988) was marked by increasing ethnic peace. The school district’s robust affirmative action policy has resulted in hiring as many black as white principals, and its top-level administrators express educational policy in terms of its impact on all students. Everyone we talked with in Riverview commented on the high school’s positive ethnic interactions. However, despite the prominence of Riverview’s black cultural and political organizations, and the contribution of black elected officials to the town’s political and educational life, Riverview is plagued by its negative image.

Notwithstanding its considerable social success,

Riverview High School is far from utopian: Black students dominate the ranks of special classrooms and the statistics of expulsions, detentions, and absenteeism. Still, Riverview High School is part of a school system in which students can advance from kindergarten to high school commencement in classrooms where ethnic diversity and black achievement are commonplace. Accordingly, when Riverview High School ’s black students are admitted to West Point or Berkeley , are elected homecoming king or queen, and assume leadership roles, nonblacks are pleased but not surprised. Their various successes are sufficiently routine to be taken for granted. This is no small accomplishment. Indeed, the prominence of black students at Riverview High School establishes them as decidedly and positively visible. This is in contrast to the historic black invisibility Ralph Ellison portrays in his classic novel Invisible Man. Within the school environment their salience is expressed in music, dance, fashion, language, communicative style, and stance; it is, however, notably absent in the curriculum. There are no ethnic studies courses in history or literature and the textbooks used in the available courses offer only token reference to the nation’s nonwhite population. The Black Student Union is a long-standing extracurricular activity, but it is poorly attended (as are the school’s other ethnic-based student organizations).

Marked by extensive cross-ethnic borrowing and social exchange, Riverview High School is, indeed, an integrated school, one in which nonblack peers view black students as individuals, rather than as faceless members of a stereotypical group. White students can adopt black behavior knowing that it is black and do so without explanation or apology, unlike in the nation at large where the behavior has been so laundered that the origins of the adopted behavior may be unknown. Similarly, black students in the continuing process of fashioning their identity adopt behavior from different ethnic groups, as well as from other groups defined by life-style (new wave, mod, thrasher) or by activities (performing arts, computers, travel). By having ethnic behavior as another source from which to draw, all students at Riverview High School can select from an expanded pool of alternatives for determining who to be and with whom to affiliate.


This section contains two long and two short stories. They are presented in the voices of the four students whose conversations were a part of a threeyear study. This investigation included a year of full-time participant observation in 1985-1986. These students were selected from among the 125 students who participated in the multi-session, open-ended interviews. Nonblack males conducted the interviews. The contents of the following stories are excerpts from verbatim accounts of tape-recorded sessions. By re-presenting the words of the four youths, we seek to extend the ethnographic commitment that endorses listening to the “natives,” that is, to the student’s point of view.

Representativeness and typicality are imposing criteria to apply to the selection of students and, moreover, possibly inappropriate ones. We selected these four students because of the heuristic promise of their observations. All four are juniors. Shane and Charlotte are in one of the school’s two academic tracks (the college-prep track); Warren and Muriel are in the general track, though Muriel was in college prep during her first two years. Only

Warren is not a native of Riverview. He grew up in a nearby town, which is also multiethnic, and moved to Riverview prior to entering the seventh grade.

In keeping with established transcription conventions within traditions of qualitative research, we have retained students’ use of slang and vernacular vocabulary in the stories that follow.


Up until, like, a few months ago, I hardly seen black guys with white girls. Nowadays, I seen a whole mix of people, you know, going with other people. I was going “Dang, I never thought stuff like that was possible,” you know. I never thought about it ‘cause my mother, she wants me, you know, to marry somebody black. My father doesn’t care. See, the way I feel about it, I’m gonna marry whoever I love. My mother, she says, “

Warren , grow up and marry a nice sister.” I go, “Sure, Mom,” whatever. Well, its just up to fate who I marry. She wants me to keep her side of the family going, you know, black on black. Before, you know, I just went with girls of my race. Now, it’s like everybody just exploded, and said, “I don’t care, I’ll just go with whoever I want.” I just said, “Ok, my turn. I’m gonna have fun.”

My white girlfriend’s parents, her mother likes me, you know. We been going out for pizza, but, see, her father is the one who kinda looks down on me. He’ll take her out of the room and say, “Tell Warren to go home,” stuff like that.

At school, I’m always conscious of being black when I’m in class. Yeah, I know I’m not white. It comes to my attention on the way some people act. Mexicans, you know, they don’t say nothing except talk about students. Well, the white kids, you know, tend to be the ones who like to excel. So, sometimes, I want to be like that. I feel that because of the fact I’m black, I’m not gonna get called on. Half the time I know the answer before everybody else. Man, I know it. In some classes, the teachers, they know you know: “Who’s black in here? Who’s white ?” Not that they’re racist, but, you know, they do pick favorites over the other students.

Still, I never wished I belonged to a different ethnic group. Never. Sometimes, I have to change and act white; sometimes, I have to act black. Say I go downtown talking like I am now. They will just stare at me, sayin’, “Look at that nigger trying to act white. What’s wrong with him? I ought to go poke him in his head.” So, like, you know, when I’m around them I’m goin’, “Yeah, what’s up man? What it is ?” And then I go around whites and say, “Yeah, hello.”

I can dress black. Right now I’m just dressed normal. If I were dressing black, I’d wear a starter jacket, you know, sweats. Say I want to dress like a white, I’ll put on a pair of turquoise shorts with elephants on it, longsleeved shirt, and, you know, just depends. Once after a concert I heard through the grapevine that some niggers, as I call them, niggers, hoodlums, you know, thuggish people, was talking about me and was about to jump me because they said I dressed like Michael Jackson. They think it’s sweet to dress like Michael Jackson, and that’s not acceptably black.

Half the time I just walk normal black, but when I get around, you know, like my all-black hoodlum friends- well, they aren’t friends of mine- I just know them, I just kick back, “What’s up, man?” and dip. I dip. The old term for it was the quote “pimp” walk, laid back to one side, and you dip. That’s weird, because I be going, “Dang, I gotta go through all these changes just to fit in.”

Like my best friend, he say, “

Warren , are you black or are you white?” I change, others change, also, but they don’t notice it because I don’t tell them. Around different people you have to act, you know, a different way.


You can have any kind of races you want right here in Riverview. Everyone, like, congregate together. It’s nice being around everyone. The white people who were raised here, they talk the way I talk, they do the things I do. They are being black in some way. It’s like when someone acts the way you act, it’s easier to get along. Yeah, that’s how it is. They just have a lighter skin tone than I do.

For the last three or four years, I lived in the project. People say it’s so terrible, and this. It’s just that dope is being sold there. It’s not like it’s bad, killing and stuff every day. It’s low income, you know, but its nothing terrible, like the way people look at it. Like we be in class, for instance, second period, and this one guy, he’s always saying something about the project. He’s white and it makes me upset, because I know when I be out there, nothing happens. When they talk about the project, I feel like they’re coming down on black people, you know.

Some people who have dollars look down, you know, on others who don’t. Like, for instance, me, I don’t feel I have dollars and I don’t feel I don’t have, but most of my friends don’t have, you know. Well, welfare, they’re on welfare. That’s not really poor, but they’re making it. I don’t look down on them because their mother’s on welfare; it’s not their fault.

My mom told me that when she first had me, she was twenty-two, and she said if she could turn that clock back, she would wait. She was on welfare for over four months; that’s all she wanted to go on. She said, “I found me a job.” She said, “I can’t just sit up,” you know. I think it’s the lazy ones, so to speak, who just sit up, can’t do nothing all day, you know.

I feel good about myself, about what I am. I was born in this world as I am, you know, and that’s the way I would like to stay. So, I don’t have any hard feelings about being black, like some people do. Like one girl, she said that she would like to be Mexican, you know. I told her I wouldn’t want to be nothing else.

Well, black people are different, you know. They are closer, down to earth. They don’t try to be all proper, and all of this. Like I kinda speak proper; it depends on who I’m around. It just comes out naturally. Guess from being around my mom, because she does that. When my mom goes to work, she changes, you know, her tone of voice. You call her on the phone, sometimes, you don’t even recognize her voice because she gets real, real proper.

My stepmother, she acts white. She moved to LA and she had to be black there, you know, and then she want to Crawford, the next town from here. Has basically all white people, so you can’t go there acting black, you know. My stepmother, we go over there and she, like, tells you, “We don’t do that,” or “You look black,” or “You really acting your color.” My mom says that too, but she don’t mean it as a put down. She’ll just say, “You’re acting your color. You’re acting like a nigger,” you know.

Some people say that some of the teachers at Riverview are prejudice against certain colors, so that’s why they didn’t get a good grade. Even though they feel as though they’re doing good work, the-teacher degrades them. So, it makes them feel down. So, I don’t know, they just don’t try as hard. Sometimes I feel that way, also, but I just ignore it. I just say, “Well, that must’ve been what I deserved,” you know.

Well, we all have the same chance, I suppose, you know, because we all start at the same level. Yeah, but seems like at a certain grade level that the black kids sort of slip down, whereas the white kids go up. In ninth grade, I had college prep and another girl - she was Filipino - she had college prep. Then tenth grade, I had college prep, she had college prep. Then, like, eleventh grade, I went to general track and she’s, like, in honors. So, I guess it’s my own fault, though, for what happened. I would have liked it not to happen, but now it’s a little late for all that.

At school everyone, you know, they associate with each other; you might see all races together. Like, most black guys up here are talking to white girls or Mexican girls. You can hear people say, “Look at that nigger with her.” It don’t bother me at all. I guess they feel more important when they’re with a white girl. “Wannabe,” yeah, that’s what they call the white girl who’s with a black guy. She wannabe black. When you’re with someone, you try to act like that person, you know. Like some of the black guys with the white girls, they change their tone of voice, the way they talk, you know. Like one day they’ll say, “What’s up, cuz? What’s happening?” Then they say, “Hello.”

A lot of people like black girls, you know, but some don’t. As far as getting serious, like the white man or white guy, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable. Don’t ask me why, because I can’t explain that. It’s not their skin color, but it’s something else about . . . Values? Maybe. Beliefs? History? That might have a lot to do with it, ‘cause my great-grandparents were slaves, and the way they were treated by the white man, it’s still there, you know. I think that’s in all black kids’ minds. That stays in your head, you know.

There’s a lot of progress compared to what it used to be, ‘cause before, blacks weren’t nothing at all. White men are still at the top. The black man is gradually trying to get there. White man started out with something, you know. So, they were always ahead. Well, me, personally, I don’t really think about stuff like that. I just concentrate, really, on making it and getting where I want to go. I don’t try to let no one stand in my way, black, white, or otherwise. Still, as far as I get, that’s all on me. I just need something to get me by you know; that’s basically all I’m looking for. I’m not used to being high and mighty like the white folks who live up on the hill.


I don’t think there’s any one here that really doesn’t like black people. There’s probably some, I mean; you could always expect that in every town. You know, if you go to towns like Crawford, Stilton, there’s a lot of people who are racial. We don’t like going up there. Riverview, that’s just about the only place that you can walk in and . . . it’s like a welcome: “Come, we don’t care, we don’t care who you are.”

I know a lot of people, but people that I consider my best friends are black. I think I trust them. I still have friends that aren’t black, that are white, mixed skin. At this school, color is so vague it doesn’t matter what color you are. See, like there’s people just don’t hang with their own color, because I don’t. A lot of people consider me as a preppie: It’s the way you talk, the way you carry yourself. We have college prep classes, get respectful grades. The group I hang with, we don’t yell out loud and run down the halls. We lunch together. Then there are the thugs. It’s a large group of black people: The girls get pregnant; they grow up to sell dope; they grow up with no hopes, no dreams, ‘no aspirations. My sister kinda hangs with some thugs, but I’m not going to let her go too far because I don’t want her getting pregnant and dropping out.

We’re not saying that we’re smart and the thugs are dumb. We’re just acknowledging that we’re more motivated than they are to continue what we always wanted to do. I go to my house and I do my homework. We were all friends in kindergarten. In elementary, the smarter ones advanced; the not-sosmarter ones sit there with each other. And junior high, everyone separates. In high school, it’s totally different because that’s when you go to who you’re gonna be. The preppies are the ones who usually grow up to get a job, go to college, or, at least, own a house by their thirty-second year of life.

My dad, he says, well, I have to play by the white man’s game. He goes, “Well, I have to do that.” And the way he talks to white people, you know, you can just tell his falsity, because I know him. He doesn’t talk like that. When we’re alone, that’s when he tries to talk black, See, he’s an actor. It’s like talking in two languages. My understanding was that to win in the white world you have to kind of go by the white rules; you got to play by them. I can act like I’m black and I can act like I’m white. It’s just what you gotta do in certain cases; see, it’s like you gotta come from both worlds. I have both black parents, and, yet, I can do it. It’s just that I grew up in the black world and I left. I learned that I can beat white kids out in the spelling test and eat fried chicken with the black kids.

My people, my relatives, they wonder why I talk proper, why I iron my clothes everyday, why my room is so clean, why I do my homework. I plan to go to college. Well, I’m probably gonna be the third person in my family to go to college. I do not talk ya’ll, ain’t, and all that stuff it shows you’ve been in school twelve years and you’ve done nothing. It says black people are stupid. Why still be back when they ate soul food? I can’t eat that stuff. I don’t think I should have to eat that stuff. And, see, what makes it soul food? Where’s the soul?

Why do the white children grow up and use what they’ve learned, and the black people grow up, get through, and sit around? None of my friends are on welfare, none of them, but I have family on welfare, and I think it’s pretty sad for them. I go over to their house and they’re asleep, or doin’ nothing. I think it’s pretty cold to the taxpayers. Why should we give them our money and these people aren’t trying to get a job? See, I tried; I always try; I succeed. The white people aren’t really trying to push us out, but they’re not going to try to help us get in there.

I grew up in a prejudiced home where, you know, I was always taught you stay with the black people and the black people will always help you. My mother, she grew up in Riverview, but back then there was a lot of racism. Then, again, she grew up in areas where black stick with black, white stick with white. They try to bring it on their children, but I think the people here at the high school, that’s been in and coming, they are different. I never really brung, let’s say, a white girlfriend home. I don’t think my mother would like it, but her basic opinion is, “If that’s what you want to do, you do it.” Now, more than ever, my mother likes the fact that we go to school with white kids. She’s realized that not everything is best when it’s black. A’ certain unity is, but, OK, like she sees that my academics are higher that I stay with my peers, being that they’re white. My friend Belinda’s parents see it that way, too. We’re like, you know, the chocolate chips in our cookie group.

We always have pride. I don’t want to be white. I think that if I was white, I just wouldn’t be happy, and I don’t think it’s because being the color. I just think it’s because as a black person I’m accepted in the black community and the white community. What enthuses me most is black successes, like Marian Anderson, Charles Drew. I have a big fat book about blacks in white

America , and I’ll never let anything happen to it. It’s nice to know that a black person did something successful besides say ain’t, ya’ll, and you be doing.


If you’re a black teenager in Riverview and people see you in jeans and a T-shirt, tennis shoes, no makeup, maybe a ponytail, hair not really combed, they will assume that you aren’t too smart, and that you don’t have very much. You go in a store like Bankcroft’s, they will watch you every step, assuming that you might take something. You might have $300 in your purse, but they don’t know that. As a black teenager, they will watch you. If you come in looking rich, they would be really nice, but they wouldn’t be as nice as they would be to somebody white.

Riverview black people can deal with other races because that’s what’s here. My mother says Riverview white girls have a little bit more soul. They’re different from being around so many black people, Mexicans, and all the different groups. And there are some who probably don’t even realize it, but they’re not seditty [uppity], you know, they won’t snub you. I never knew the difference until my mother pointed it out to me at the shopping mall. Some white girls were dancing. They were obviously from Crawford, because Riverview white girls can dance like black people dance. My mother looked at me and said, “Riverview white girls have more soul. All of them do, and they always have.”

I had a boyfriend the entire last year. He’s white. His parents did not know I was black until we were together eleven months. I’d call him, but I speak well on the telephone, and they would expect me not to, you know. They’d never seen me. He told me in the beginning, he said, “I don’t think my parents are going to like me seeing you.” He didn’t know they would react the way they did. When his mother found out, she told him to keep it in school: “Don’t let,” you know, “my friends see it.” “Fine, we’ll keep it at school.” Then, I guess, somebody said something to her. Then, it was, “You can’t see her.” He told her, “Fine, I’ll move,” you know, “I’ll leave.”

My boyfriend’s parents took everything away. He couldn’t go anywhere on weekends. Yeah, then he started sneaking. When his parent were at work, I was over there. My family liked him; he was a good person, so he would come over to my house whenever he felt like it. His friends would cover for him, because we have a lot of racially mixed boyfriends-girlfriends. For a long time we were sneaking and I got tired of sneaking. We would go to a basketball game and be sitting together and here comes somebody: “Oh, oh, gotta move.” It was frustrating me constantly, because I had to watch my back. I couldn’t go anywhere with him without looking around and seeing others looking at us. I got to where I couldn’t do that anymore, because it was frustrating me. And he didn’t like it either; he said it was unfair to me.

That was the end of that. It wasn’t easy. It hurt for a while because I had never had anything taken from me because of the color of my skin. The first time I had actually cared for anything and here it is, because I’m black, I can’t go to his house. He can come to my house and eat dinner and watch TV, but if I was to go to his house, I’d get the door closed in my face.





Warren ’s ability to call on different selves for different occasions, we see the workings of “situational ethnicity.” He acts as the situation warrants, negating critics who accuse him of acting “white” by saying that all people switch behavior even when not consciously aware of it. His careful cultivation of what linguists call “code switching” is an important survival skill that he is proud to have mastered; for Warren , the switching involves more than just language.

He reminds us of the burden low teacher expectations can place on a minority student’s intellectual growth. He must unravel the unfounded assumptions of this negative assessment if he is to defuse its potential negative impact on his self-fashioning process. When such encounters facilitate

Warren ’s questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions, they enhance his intellectual growth; however, when such encounters become reified into a negative perception of self, they constitute an immoral assault on his right to an equitable education.

The racism that Warren and other black students experience is contained within an institution replete with countervailing nonracist experiences that communicate to blacks that they are persons first. As a result,

Warren says, he can date and be friends with whoever he wants. He understands that being black, and the way he acts as a black, will elicit varied reactions from white and black students and teachers.

Although parents do not systematically imbue their children with a commitment to black values and behavior, they appear to communicate elements of commitment. “Marry a nice sister,”

Warren ’s mother tells him. For better or worse, parents have experienced the meaning of being black in America , but not in the way their children have. Warren knows of his mother’s concern “to keep her side of the family going, you know, black on black,” but this knowing seems not to moderate the attractiveness of nonblack girls to him. His mother would wish they were more absolutely “forbidden fruit,” as would the father of his white girlfriend. This father joins Warren ’s mother from a world that their children, at least at this time, know about but do not fully share.


Curiously, the self of Muriel who is conscious of historic white educational advantages and historic black disadvantages does not emphasize present-day systemic inequality. She places blame for success and failure on her own and others’ personal acts, rather on those of institutions, past or present. Her portrayal of life in the project reflects a high identification with her community and an eagerness to defend its realities in the face of competing interpretations. She lives in a world of alternatives, many of them negative: She could get pregnant and have an abortion, she could have a baby and go on welfare, she could blame her problems on white-run institutions and conclude that she is powerless to affect her future. She does none of these things. By not deriding those of her black peers who do, she stays connected to them.


Warren , Muriel expresses discomfort with situational ethnicity. While seeing the need for some code switching, she prefers to keep it to a minimum. She claims her ethnicity more dominantly than do the other students in the study. Having a palpable model for taking a particular path is far from assurance that adolescents will accept the model, but Muriel says she follows her mother’s advice: She uses birth control and means to wait until she is older to have babies, she hopes to avoid going on welfare, and she values working.

Muriel’s observation about white people that “they are being black in some way” verifies our sense of Riverview as a special place. In this setting, she makes a number of distinctions about black people: “Acting your color” means something different depending on who the speaker is; to “wannabe” something you are not-white, if you are black-is reprehensible, but speaking “proper” English is functional; and a slave past remains a fact of consequence-“that is in all kids’ minds”- but blacks are making progress and she is determined to be among those who are “making it.”


We hear much more ethnic anxiety, confusion, and ambivalence from Shane than from the other three students. Of the whole that constitutes Shane, one self is clearly proud of the accomplishments of the black community, while another self finds it essential to “try on” behaviors, like “preppiness,” if he is to create success for himself. His preppie self distances him from many of his black peers, and also from black welfare recipients and “thugs” about whom he moralizes, quick to see weakness and contradiction in their life choices.

His achievement-focused self is at war with his emotion-focused self, each one conducing to far different life options, and with no arbiter in sight. In his attachment to his book of black successes we sense a search for such an arbiter within life histories that could be reworked into tools for resolving his present dilemma. At this point, preppiness is chosen as the best means at his disposal for efficiently learning and winning a “white man’s” game. It remains to be seen whether what for now is a white man’s game will evolve, as well, into being his game, his in the sense that it becomes so natural to be and speak “proper” that he shunts to the periphery of his life the distinctive black world where the antitheses to being proper is found. He labels his dad’s use of proper English “falsity”; however, with great pride he told us that he would bet $25,000 that he could speak in such a way that no one would know he is black.

Powered by aspirations that direct him toward school-oriented achievements, and closer to the “high and mighty” than classmate Muriel thinks she wants to be, Shane remains anchored in his black heritage, albeit selectively: He scorns black dialect, soul food, and “niggers,” used here in the deeply pejorative sense common to both blacks and nonblacks in Riverview. “I grew up in the black world and I left,” he tells us at one moment, but “I don’t want to be white,” he tells us at another. The ambivalence referred to earlier derives from two facts: that he does genuinely well in the world identified as white, and that being black connotes home, family, and friends. Fitting these facts together is more than just a problem of adolescence. Further, he knows that the white world beyond Riverview contains abhorrent discrimination and segregation, while his black world contains thugs, the cribmates he left far behind at school who threaten to get his sister pregnant. If self-hate is not now a reality for Shane, aversion for a portion of the black community he knows appears to be-and self-hate may be somewhere in his future.


No rigid defensive or cynical posture accompanies

Charlotte ’s contact with the realities of prejudice within her public and private relationships. She acknowledges pain, anger, and loss, but is not determined by them. She regards the social injustices she experiences as “customer” and “girlfriend” to be part of her ethnic reality, but refuses, we sense, to be needlessly deterred by them. Her multiple selves seem to have found a harmony that pulls her through difficult circumstances.


Warren ’s observations, Charlotte ’s account of her white boyfriend’s parents provides a fuller flavor of the strong parental antagonism to black-white relationships. Unlike most of what happens in school in its formal aspects, black and nonblack parents do not sanction this ordinary school-based relationship. Thus, to the usual strains associated with adolescence, Riverview adds one more: with whom in racial terms it is acceptable to be intimate.

When Warren, Muriel, Shane, and Charlotte speak about the particular contingencies of selfhood they encounter as black students attending a multiethnic high school, what do we hear? Each individual has a personal interactive cast of characters -that is, the multiple selves that comprise them- struggling together, but not inevitably in competition with each other. Their struggle is a quest for meaning and clarity. Each self demonstrates different ways of knowing and, therefore, contributes different information to the cast taken as a whole that can be understood as “selfhood.” A key component of effective selfhood for these students (and all of us) is the extent to which the various selves are able to “converse” with each other and thus become allies for fashioning a composite they can claim as the unity “me.”


At the outset of this article we cited three circumstances that castelike minorities presumably confront in the

United States . Stated here as questions, we turn now to comment on them in light of our cases. Have the four black adolescents been socialized with “cultural predilections” at odds with the goals of “mainstream America ?” No, they do not appear to have been. The nation’s mainstream encompasses a broad band of behavior. We see little of consequence in the goals of these students that places them beyond this band. Their experiential differences are those of variants, not of deviants. Have they developed skills to be “fully functional ” in black and nonblack cultures? Most definitely so. They seem to successfully traverse the boundaries between a greater number of cultural groups than typically live in close, geographical proximity. Have they accepted a “negative identity” of their own ethnic group? Each of the four students reports being personally subjected to negativism by members of the “dominant majority.” All but Charlotte indicate that they, too, hold a negative view of some types of black people. We read this when the students refer to blacks as niggers, thugs, and hoodlums who will beat them up, consider them nerds, abuse welfare, and threaten to get a sister pregnant.

In different ways, each of the four students comments on what black people share with regard to the roots that join them. For example, Muriel’s and Shane’s consciousness of a black past demonstrates their connectedness to historic elements of black identity. This supports anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup’s observation that the “ultimate prerequisite of ethnicity . . . is that an idea of a shared history exists.” When

Warren speaks of teachers not calling on him when he knows the answer, and Charlotte speaks of losing her boyfriend because of her color, they are clearly linked with a shared history that inevitably shapes the consciousness- and thus the identity-of black Americans.

Multiethnic Riverview High is relatively free of supposed-to-be models (advocated either by peers or adult educators) of the sort that insist on certain behavior as orthodox, and thus correct. It is a school where no ethnic group is blatantly denigrated and where easy cross-ethnic contact appears normal.

Consequently, students are encouraged to try on different behaviors and change reference groups, regardless of the origins. Students borrow discrete items, such as music and dance, and more complex behaviors and attitudes, as do the “wannabes,” who act as if they have changed their ethnicity. Sometimes students appear to be adopting the more pathological behavior of rejecting their ethnic heritage and literally meaning to have another. The latter is uncommon at

Riverview High School ; the first two are not.

It is a distinction for any student at Riverview to be in the college-prep track and to continue on to a four-year college or university. Because so few blacks are in college-prep classes, it is an even greater distinction for those who are. College-prep students are together in class for a large part of each day over a period of several years; they also become out-of-school friends. The college-prep group thereby becomes a distinctive reference group for students such as Shane whose other reference groups do not necessarily accept or reinforce preppie behavior and aspirations. Given the class structure of Riverview’s black community, and the location of most black students in the general academic track, the college-prep experience may be the most substantially complicating factor a black student in Riverview can undergo.

Though the high school is not notably successful in making a difference in the life chances of its students (black and nonblack alike) who fall outside the small, charmed circle of academic success, it does not foreclose success to those who aspire to it. If black students wish to be academically successful, their ambition is supported and nurtured by teachers, counselors, and administrators. The school’s major limitations lie in not knowing how to effectively encourage academic ambition in students and in not understanding how its present practices help perpetuate the injustices of the status quo. The four students are aware of managing their blackness-and of the need to do so. All four take pride in speaking proper English. “Proper” is a pejorative designation when applied by those who believe that the intonation and expressive intensity of so-called proper-speaking blacks is really improper. Proper and improper speakers face each other across a widening chasm marked in several ways, but at this age quite obviously by language distinctions. Those who regard proper English as improper feel left behind (possibly even betrayed) by fellow blacks who, somehow, are talking white. Those who speak proper English consider it an accomplishment, part of moving up and, perhaps, moving away. Speaking proper English, therefore, signifies more than a change in language; it may indicate a change of life as well.

Does the adoption of behavior perceived as nonblack represent a yearning to be white? We think not, though in some few cases it may. There is evidence of “race dissonance,” of what Spencer refers to as “the White preference behavior of Black children.” Language change is more accurately regarded as one of several changes that are instrumental as means to ends the students themselves value. However easy it is for black students to cross the racial boundaries of

Riverview High School ’s ethnic groups, they have sufficient reminders of where home is and who “my people” are, if such reminders are necessary.

The dualistic us-them thinking fundamental to racism is challenged at Riverview High, where black has become the color of people I like a lot, do not like at all, and all points in between. In this distinction, nonblacks join blacks in moving away from distorted generalizations that declare what blacks or whites or any groups are like. Such circumstances permit experiencing being a person without qualifying prefixes, such as black, Hispanic, or Asian. Accordingly, many students of different ethnicities claim that color does not “count,” and many teachers claim that they are color blind. These claims of students and teachers seem genuinely supported by the abiding facts of everyday life at

Riverview High School , but what we learn in the sheltered quiet of our interviews moderates, and perhaps challenges, the complete accuracy of these statements about color. When we listen to these four black students speak about being black, we hear them describe nonblacks as being like themselves, but not completely. They speak of being black and look at other blacks who truly are like themselves, but not completely. Surrounded by such ambiguity they try to come to terms with who they have been, who they are, and who they can, will, and ought to be.

Although the students’ comments and our discussion have not centered on curricular experiences, we conclude with a question that does. Would the self-fashioning struggles of these students have been different if the curriculum of Riverview High School had been alive with the possibilities that Maxine Greene conceptualizes when she writes that “curriculum ought to provide a series of occasions for individuals to articulate the themes of their existence and to reflect on these themes until they know themselves to be in the world and can name what has been up to then obscure”? We ask, is such a curriculum possible?


Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1970), p. 57.

J. L. Gwaltney, Drylongso: A Self-portrait of Black America (New York: Random House, 1980), p. xix.

Raymond McDermott, “The Explanation of Minority Student Failure, Again,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 18 (1987): 361-62.

Ibid., p. 365.

See J. Henriques et al. ,Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity (New York: Methuen, 1984), for a fuller discussion of the need for this change.

See M. Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977), for a discussion of the replacement of the general, the universal, and the eternal with focus on the particular, the local, and the specific.

John Ogbu, “Crossing Cultural Boundaries: A Comparative Perspective on Minority Education,” inRace, Class, Socialization and the Life Cycle (Symposium in honor of Allison Davis, Chicago, 1983); and M. B. Spencer, “Black Children’s Ethnic Identity Formation: Risk and Resilience of Castelike Minorities," in Children’s Ethnic Socialization, J. S. Phinney and M. J. Rotheram (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1987).

A. W. Boykin and F. D. Toms, “Black Child Socialization: A Conceptual Framework,” in Black Children, ed. H. P. McAdoo and J. L. McAdoo (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1985), p. 47.

McAdoo and McAdoo, eds., Black Children, p. 9.

E. H. Erickson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: Norton, 1968), p. 303.

G. S. Hall, Adolescence (New York: Appleton, 1904).

Erickson, Identity: Youth and Crisis, p. 16.

G. W. Goethals and D. S. Klos, Experiencing Youth: First-person Accounts (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970); J. E. Marcia, “Identity in Adolescence,” in Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, ed. J. Adelson (New York: Wiley, 1980); and K. S. Berger, The Developing Person through Childhood and Adolescence (New York: Worth, 1986).

Marcia, “Identity in Adolescence”; E. Erickson as quoted in E. Douvan and J. Adelson, The Adolescent Experience (New York: Wiley, 1966), p. 16.

J. McKay and F. Lewins, “Ethnicity and Ethnic Group: A Conceptual Analysis and Reformulation,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 1 (1978): 412.

16 For shared descent see C. F. Keyes, Ethnic Change (Seattle: University of Washington, 1981); for boundaries, F. Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969); for sense of peoplehood, M. M. Gordon, Assimilation in American Life (New York: Oxford, 1964); and for values, etc., see M. J. Rotheram and J. S. Phinney, “Introduction: Defintions and Perspectives in the Study of Childrens’ Ethnic Socialization,” in Children’s Ethnic Socialization, ed. Phinney and Rotheram.

See J. Y. Okamura, “Situational Ethnicity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 4 (1981): 452-65.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1947).

19 J. Stanlaw and A. Peshkin, “Black Visibility in a Multiethnic High School,” in Race, Gender, and Class in American Education, ed. L. Weis (Buffalo, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1988), p. 11.

See Clifford Geertz, “From the Native’s Point of View: The Nature of Anthropological Understanding," in Interpretive Social Science: A Reader, ed. P. Rabinow and W. Sullivan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

S. K. Watanabe, “Cast of Characters Work: Systematically Exploring the Naturally Organized Personality,” Contemporary Family Therapy 8, no.1 (1986): 75-83.

K. Hastrup, “Establishing an Ethnicity: The Emergence of the ‘Icelanders’ in the Early Middle Ages,” in Semantic Anthropology, ed. D. Parkin (New York: Academic Press, 1982).

Spencer, “Black Children’s Ethnic Identity Formation,” p. 106.

Maxine Greene, Landscapes of Learning (New York: Teachers College Press, 1978), pp. 18-19.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 1, 1990, p. 21-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 313, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:50:48 PM

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