Black Fish in a White Pond: Identity Development of African American Students in Predominately White Suburban Schools

By Jones, Lisa A. | Multicultural Education, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Black Fish in a White Pond: Identity Development of African American Students in Predominately White Suburban Schools


Jones, Lisa A., Multicultural Education


Introduction

The issues that African American students face daily in suburban schools are different from what their White counterparts as well as other African American students living in urban areas face. Such issues are grounded in the cultural and social identity development of individuals.

Not only do African American students have to learn to deal with the pitfalls of school but they must navigate the murky waters of identity development at the same time. This notion is underscored by Tatum (1997), who pointed out that "the search for personal identity that intensifies in adolescence can involve several dimensions of an adolescent's life: vocational plans, religious beliefs, values, and preferences, political affiliations and beliefs, gender roles, and ethnic identities" (p. 53).

Adolescent identity development, whether racial and/or ethnic or social, is defined by the perceptions that young people have of themselves and the perceptions that others have about them. How adolescents think others see them is very important in the framework of identity development, particularly for African Americans. As with most people, African American students want to feel accepted and validated as they figure out "who am I?" and "what does it mean to be a young African American in the 21st century?"

Since we do not form our identity in a vacuum but in the context of our surroundings and with the people we know (Koppelman, 2011), finding a balance between identity development and effective schooling for minority students is essential.

One cannot discuss identity development without mentioning cultural and social development. Students' cultures are not separate from their identities. Our identities and who we perceive ourselves to be are intertwined with the aspects of our culture. African American children who are being raised in predominantly White, middle-class, suburban environments, who have no other frame of reference to quantify that identity, face some special challenges presented by the school environments of those suburban areas.

Venzant Chambers and McCready (2011) underscored this notion with findings from their case study research. They concluded that African American students can be potentially marginalized on the basis of their racial and class identities and also on the "basis of and in combination with other identities" (p. 1373). Thus, it is important to understand the impact of identities on the education of students.

Nieto and Bode (2018) lent support to this statement by offering that "there is often a direct connection between culture and the sociopolitical context of schooling" (p. 148). In other words, the social, economic, and political salient factors of schools affect the learning of minority students.

Thus this article briefly explores the sociopolitical context of school as it applies to the cultural identity development of African American students and their education in predominately White, middle-class, suburban schools. Topics of discussion include (a) cultural and social identity development, (b) sociopolitical context of schooling and multicultural education, (c) minority students and the classroom, and (d) addressing the needs of students of color, particularly African Americans, in predominately White, middle-class, suburban schools.

Cultural and Social Identity Development

African American students and other students of color are faced with myriad challenges in school. Many of these challenges are certainly different than those challenges encountered by their White counterparts. Such challenges include navigating the school dynamics in the classroom where the majority group does not look like them. The school dynamic is all-encompassing in that it includes every aspect of the environment, from a ride on the school bus to participation in extracurricular activities.

Since African American students have to function in such environments, it is important to understand how the sociopolitical nature of these environments affects their schooling. …

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