Sunday, March 6, 2011

Natasha Kumar Warikoo's "Balancing Acts"

Natasha Kumar Warikoo is Assistant Professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City, and reported the following:
In Balancing Acts I reveal the cultural lives of children of immigrants attending multiethnic schools in two global cities: New York and London. I describe and analyze the aspects of youth cultures that adults most worry about: attitudes, music tastes and styles, behaviors related to conflict, and influences on peer status. These are dimensions of children’s cultural worlds that immigrants are most concerned about, and that academics emphasize when trying to understand how the second generation will incorporate into US society. Parents, policymakers, and academics alike hope that children of immigrants will not develop negative attitudes toward schooling; that they won’t learn to listen to music and don styles that signal a counterculture or rebellion; and that they won’t get into fights and become as outspoken and defiant as many of their American peers. These behaviors, according to both conventional wisdom as well as some academic writing, are the determinants of whether children of immigrants will succeed in their lives. So I took some time to focus on the cultural lives of second generation teenagers, to find out what their attitudes are, what music and styles they prefer, what their tastes mean to them, how they deal with conflict, and what determines peer status. By delving deeply into not only what students are doing, listening to, and wearing, but also why they make the choices they make and what meanings those cultural symbols have to them, I paint a very different picture of urban youth cultures from the one perceived by those who fear urban youth cultures.

Although academic achievement is quite low in both of the high schools I studied—less than half of students graduate in the New York school, and less than half in the London site leave school eligible to apply to university—I found little evidence for oppositional peer cultures, and no evidence that perceptions of discrimination lead to low aspirations. Students engaged in behaviors thought to signify disinterest in education—they got into fights, talked back to teachers, and came late to class. However, I found that these behaviors coincided with positive orientations toward school. What explained them was the high importance that teens placed on peer status, for which they needed to socialize, defend self-pride, show toughness among peers, wear the ‘right’ clothing, and listen to the ‘right’ music. This was especially true for boys.

Students were attempting a delicate balancing act between school success and peer success, and some demonstrated greater “code-switching” skills in that balance, while others favored either peer status to the detriment of school success—kids who got into fights even if it meant getting suspended, for example—and others favored school success to the detriment of peer status—for example by wearing unstylish clothes, and not socializing with their peers. The similarity between taste cultures in New York and London suggests a global urban youth culture in which American hip-hop and rap are popular, and which leads to black racial identity having high peer status in both urban settings.

On page 99 I explain the role of fighting among boys in both schools. In order to maintain one’s pride and seem tough, an essential element of peer status, boys had to demonstrate a willingness to fight if provoked. Moreover in tough, under resourced schools such as these, fighting is not just a source of peer status, it is a necessary tool for survival.

Page 99:
Many boys in both cities told me about instrumental fights in junior high or ninth grade that "proved" to peers that they were tough and, as in Robert's experience, prevented future harassment and the need for future fights. The threat alone that one is willing to fight when necessary—as demonstrated by a ninth-grade fight—was enough to prevent future conflicts. This finding may explain why school violence seems to be more commonly experienced in the early years of high school. A national survey in the United States showed that ninth-grade students are more than twice as likely to report being threatened or injured with a weapon in school than are twelfth-grade students ( 12.1 percent versus 6.3 percent) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007, table 4.1).

A fine line divided instrumental narratives that described a student engaging in peer conflict to prevent further bullying and narratives that more explicitly referenced the need to demonstrate toughness and to maintain self-pride in front of peers. Pradeep's story is one example. Pradeep came to New York from India at age thirteen and got involved with local gangs soon after he arrived, which was just three years before I met him. He wore a bandana over his long hair (required by his Sikh religion) rather than a turban—the bandana looked somewhat like the do-rags that many of his peers wore. Pradeep told me that he did not engage in "all that bad stuff" in India. I asked him to explain why he changed when he came to the United States. He told me: "I have to get involved. Because if you don't, they tease you for no reason, like the big boys. Yeah, anyone—like big boys. . . . He's gonna be like, 'You're this and that. You cannot fight.' And you know, I used to be like that in middle school, but when I came over here [to high school], I met boys like him [points to friend], big boys, and that's all." A tall and brawny boy himself, Pradeep later emphasized: "There is no other option; you have to fight, because if you don't fight, you get insulted, you get beaten up by other kids. If you want to stay alive over here, you have to fight."

Pradeep's earnest explanations for his fights demonstrate his perception of the necessity of fights to prevent real, physical violence from peers; it is an instrumental explanation. However, in response to his middle school experience, he got involved with a gang as a means of protection. He went from being a victim of bullying in junior high school to a member of a gang that may bully others. During his interview he described with excitement an instance of rivalry between his gang and another, in which he was shot in the leg at a distant park.
Boys who regularly got into fights—including Pradeep, a former gang member—expressed high aspirations and value in education as a means for social mobility. Pradeep told me he wants to become an engineer in the future, and that he wanted to change his ways. This is the puzzle I explain in Balancing Acts. Many adults take a superficial look at inner city schools as assume children attending them do not want to learn and do not have high aspirations for themselves. A deeper look shows that this is not the case at all. Read Balancing Acts for a deeper understanding of just what youth cultures are all about in global cities like London and New York.
Learn more about Balancing Acts at the the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue