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Volume 19, Number 2
March/April 2003

How Racial Identity Affects School Performance

A Harvard professor connects research on race and schooling to his experiences as a student and father


When I am asked to speak or write about the relationship between racial identity and academic performance, I often tell the story of my eldest son, Joaquín. Joaquín did extremely well throughout most of his early schooling. He was an excellent athlete (participating in soccer, basketball, and wrestling), played piano and percussion, and did very well in his classes. My wife and I never heard any complaints about him. In fact, we heard nothing but praise about his behavior from teachers, who referred to him as "courteous," "respectful," and "a leader among his peers." Then suddenly, in the tenth grade, Joaquín's grades took a nosedive. He failed math and science, and for the first time he started getting into trouble at school. At home he was often angry and irritable for no apparent reason.

My wife and I were left asking ourselves, "What's going on with our son? What's behind this sudden change in behavior?" Despite my disappointment and growing frustration, I tried not to allow his behavior to drive us apart. I started spending more time with him and started listening more intently to what he had to tell me about school and his friends. As I did, several things became clear to me. One was that all of the friends he had grown up with in our neighborhood in South Berkeley, California (one of the poorest areas of the city), were dropping out of school. These were mostly Black, working-class kids who didn't have a lot of support at home or at school and were experiencing academic failure. Even though Joaquín came from a middle-class home with two supportive parents, most of his reference group—that is, the students he was closest to and identified with—did not.

The other thing that was changing for Joaquín was his sense of how he had to present himself when he was out on the streets and in school. As he grew older, Joaquín felt the need to project the image of a tough and angry young Black man. He believed that in order to be respected he had to carry himself in a manner that was intimidating and even menacing. To behave differently—too nice, gentle, kind, or sincere—meant that he would be vulnerable and preyed upon. I learned that for Joaquín, part of his new persona also involved placing less value on academics and greater emphasis on being cool and hanging out with the right people.

By eleventh grade Joaquín gradually started working out of these behaviors, and by twelfth grade he seemed to snap out of his angry state. He became closer to his family, his grades improved, he rejoined the soccer team, he resumed playing the piano, and he even started producing music. As I reflected on the two years of anger and self-destructiveness that he went through, I came to the conclusion that Joaquín was trying desperately to figure out what it meant to be a young Black man. I realized that, like many Black male adolescents, Joaquín was trapped by stereotypes, and they were pulling him down. During this difficult period it was very hard for me to help him through this process of identity formation. While he was in the midst of it the only thing I could do was talk to him, listen to him, and try to let him know what it was like for me when I went through adolescence.

As a high school student, I coped with the isolation that came from being one of the few students of color in my advanced classes by working extra hard to prove that I could do as well as or better than my White peers. However, outside of the classroom I also worked hard to prove to my less studious friends that I was cool, or "down" as we would say. For me this meant playing basketball, hanging out, fighting when necessary, and acting like "one of the guys." I felt forced to adopt a split personality: I behaved one way in class, another way with my friends, and yet another way at home.

The Emerging Awareness of Race

Awareness of race and the significance of racial difference often begins in early childhood. We know from psychological research that the development of racial identity is very context dependent, especially in the early years. Children who attend racially diverse schools or reside in racially diverse communities are much more likely to become aware of race at an earlier age than children in more homogeneous settings. Interacting with children from other racial and ethnic backgrounds in a society that has historically treated race as a means of distinguishing groups and individuals often forces young people to develop racial identities early. However, prior to adolescence they still do not usually understand the political and social significance associated with differences in appearance. For young children, being a person with a different skin color may be no more significant than being thin or heavy, tall or short.

In adolescence, the awareness of race and its implications for individual identity become more salient. For many young men and women of color, racial identity development is affected by some of the same factors that influence individual identity development in general. According to Erik Erikson and other theorists of child development, as children enter adolescence they become extremely conscious of their peers and seek out acceptance from their reference group. They become increasingly aware of themselves as social beings, and their perception of self tends to be highly dependent on acceptance and affirmation by others. For some adolescents, identification with and attachment to peer groups takes on so much importance that it can override other attachments to family, parents, and teachers.

For adolescents in racially integrated schools, racial and ethnic identity also frequently take on new significance with respect to friendship groups and dating. It is not uncommon in integrated settings for pre-adolescent children to interact and form friendships easily across racial boundaries—if their parents or other adults allow them to do so. However, as young people enter adolescence, such transgressions of racial boundaries can become more problematic. As they become increasingly aware of the significance associated with group differences, they generally become more concerned with how their peers will react to their participation in interracial relationships and they may begin to self-segregate. As they get older, young people also become more aware of the politics associated with race, becoming more cognizant of racial hierarchies and prejudice, even if they cannot articulate what it all means.

Theories of the Identity/Achievement Connection

For educators, understanding the process through which young people come to see themselves as belonging to particular racial categories is important because it has tremendous bearing on the so-called achievement gap. Throughout the United States, schools are characterized by increasing racial segregation and widespread racial disparities in academic achievement. Despite overwhelming evidence of a strong correlation between race and academic performance, there is considerable confusion among researchers about how and why such a correlation exists.

The scholars whose work has had the greatest influence on these issues are John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham. Both have argued that Black students from all socioeconomic backgrounds develop "oppositional identities" that lead them to view schooling as a form of forced assimilation to White cultural values, and come to equate academic success with "acting White." For these researchers, such perceptions lead to the devaluation of academic pursuits and the adoption of self-defeating behaviors that inhibit possibilities for academic success.
My own research challenges Ogbu and Fordham's "acting White" thesis. While carrying out research among high school students in Northern California, I discovered that some high-achieving minority students are ostracized by their peers, but others learn how to succeed in both worlds by adopting multiple identities (as I did). Still others challenge racial stereotypes and seek to redefine their racial identities by showing that it is possible to do well in school and be proud of who they are.

Claude Steele's work on the effects of racial stereotypes on academic performance helps provide a compelling explanation of the identity-achievement paradox. Through his research on student attitudes toward testing, Steele (twin brother of the more conservative Shelby) has shown that students are highly susceptible to prevailing stereotypes related to intellectual ability. According to Steele, when "stereotype threats" are operative, they lower the confidence of vulnerable students and negatively affect their performance on standardized tests. He also notes that the debilitating effects of stereotypes can extend beyond particular episodes of testing and can have an effect on a student's overall academic performance.

As Steele's research illustrates, in the United States we have deeply embedded stereotypes that connect racial identity to academic ability, and children become aware of these stereotypes as they grow up in the school context. Simply put, there are often strong assumptions made that if you're White you'll do better in school than if you're Black, or if you're Asian you'll do better in school than if you're Latino. These kinds of stereotypes affect both teachers' expectations of students and students' expectations of themselves.

Beyond these stereotypes, the sorting practices that go on in schools also send important messages to students about the meaning of racial categories. For example, in many schools students in the remedial classes are disproportionately Black and Brown, and students often draw conclusions about the relationship between race and academic ability based on these patterns. They might say to themselves, "Well, I guess the kids in these 'slow' classes are not as smart as those in the honors classes." They also notice that the students who are most likely to be punished, suspended, and expelled are the darker students.

Too often educators assume that, because of the choices Black students make about such things as whom to socialize with or which classes to take, they are anti-intellectual. However, the vast majority of Black students I meet express a strong desire to do well in school. The younger students don't arrive at school with an anti-intellectual orientation. To the degree that such an orientation develops, it develops in school, and from their seeing these patterns and racial hierarchies as permanent. Because a great deal of this behavior plays out in schools, educators can do something about it.

What Can Educators Do?

First, educators can make sure that students are not segregating themselves, sitting in racially defined groups in the classroom. For teachers, this can be as simple as mixing students and assigning them seats. Or, if work groups are created, students can be assigned to groups in ways that ensure that students of different backgrounds have an opportunity to work together.

Second, educators can encourage students to pursue things that are not traditionally associated with members of their group. If students of color are encouraged by adults to join the debating team or the science club, to play music in the band, or to enroll in advanced courses, it will be possible for greater numbers to challenge racial norms.

Third, teachers can find ways to incorporate information related to the history and culture of students into the curriculum. This is important in helping students understand what it means to be who they are, an essential aspect of the identity formation process for adolescents.

Finally, an effective teacher who is able to inspire students by getting to know them can do a great deal to overcome anti-academic tendencies. They can do this by getting students to believe in themselves, to work hard and persist, and to dream, plan for the future, and set goals.

For many years to come, race will undoubtedly continue to be a significant source of demarcation within the U.S. population. For many of us it will continue to shape where we live, pray, go to school, and socialize. We cannot simply wish away the existence of race or racism, but we can take steps to lessen the ways in which the categories trap and confine us. As educators who should be committed to helping young people realize their intellectual potential as they make their way toward adulthood, we have a responsibility to help them find ways to expand their notions of identity related to race and, in so doing, help them discover all that they may become.

Pedro A. Noguera is the Judith K. Dimon Professor of Communities and Schools at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom,” Harvard Educational Review 62, no. 1 (1992): 1–24

    William E. Cross, Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991)

    Jean S. Phinney, “Ethnic Identity in Adolescents and Adults: Review of Research,” Psychological Bulletin 108, no. 3 (1991): 499–514.

    Erik H. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (NewYork: W.W. Norton, 1968).

    Barry Troyna and Bruce Carrington, Education, Racism and Reform (London: Routledge, 1990).

    Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton, Dismantling Desegregation (NewYork: New Press, 1996).

    BelindaWilliams, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” in Milli Pierce and Deborah L. Stapleton (eds.), The 21st-Century Principal: Current Issues in Leadership and Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2003)

    Pedro Noguera and Antwi Akom, “Disparities Demystified,” The Nation, June 5, 2000.

    Signithia Fordham, Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and Success at Capital High (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)

    Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu, “Black Students and School Success: Coping with the Burden of Acting White,” Urban Review 18 (1986): 176–206. Also see other works by Ogbu and Fordham.

    Claude Steele, “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape the Intellectual Identities and Performance of Women and African Americans,” American Psychologist 52 (June 1997): 613–629.

    John H. McWhorter, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (NewYork: New Press, 2000)

    Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).