The Culture Trap
Today we explore the experiences of Black Caribbean youth in the United Kingdom and the United States. My guest is Derron Wallace, an assistant professor of sociology and education at Brandeis University.
Derron Wallace’s new book is The Culture Trap: Ethnic Expectations and Unequal Schooling for Black Youth.
Citation: Wallace, Derron, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 314, podcast audio, March 27, 2023.https://freshedpodcast.com/wallace/
Will Brehm 0:17
Derron Wallace, welcome to FreshEd.
Derron Wallace 0:59
Thank you so much for having me.
Will Brehm 1:00
Congratulations on your new book. It’s really fantastic. In the book, you talk all about living in London and in New York, how on earth did you come about spending so much time in these two rather different contexts?
Derron Wallace 1:13
So, I spent a fair amount of time in these global cities but prior to living in these global cities, I was born and raised in Jamaica. I spent a fair amount of time much of my childhood in the Caribbean, and then moved to New York City to complete secondary school, went to university in the US and then came to the UK to pursue what are called postgraduate studies here, what we call graduate studies in the US. And in the process of doing much of this work, I’ve been in the classroom, I’ve been an after schoolteacher or after school program manager, I’ve been a sort of a nonprofit leader, I’ve done a fair amount of work in and outside the classroom. But during my time in London, I came across what for me seemed like a perplexing paradox, where I one day in a chance conversation with a Black Caribbean teacher with salt and pepper hair, I call Miss Belle, she expressed to me in no uncertain terms, her surprise that as a Black Caribbean person that I could study at the University of Cambridge. She was shocked by that. And I asked her about why that was the case, and she revealed this sort of persistent negative framing of Black Caribbeans in the UK contexts. And I remember being shell shocked by that because in the US, or at least in New York City, where I went to secondary school, the dominant framing of Caribbeans was quite different. It was largely positive. Black Caribbeans in New York were perceived to be hardworking, high achieving, stereotyped as having multiple jobs, chasing the American dream. And so, I remember being really shocked. And I just remember going home, and I was talking with everybody I could talk to, to figure out this issue. I remember leafing through my sociology books, and my Black studies books and my comparative and international ed books, and I was talking to faculty members to say, surely someone must have explored how the same ethnic group can be framed so differently across two national contexts. And then what was really peculiar in all of this was that in both national contexts, it was being argued -both in sort of common-sense articulations, and even sort of public political expressions- that the dominant reason for their high achievement in the US, as it were, and underachievement in the UK was Caribbean culture. And I kept thinking, well, how could it be Caribbean culture when the same people with the same culture are framed differently across two national contexts? That’s what brought me to this work was really an attempt to answer this question because I didn’t see it in any comparative international ed studies. I didn’t see it in sociology. I didn’t see it in Black studies. And though I didn’t anticipate it being a book, to be very honest with you, this work, nonetheless, was my answer. First to Miss Belle, that five-foot one firebrand Black teacher in South London. First it was an answer to her. She was very interested in understanding this again, perplexing paradox. But it was also an attempt to sort of assuage the restless provocations my conversations with her provoked. I know this may sound odd, but I remember the first night. I literally couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t still my mind because I remember just working with students. Now this wasn’t abstract to me. This wasn’t a sort of statistical data point. I’m thinking about students I’d worked with, and their faces would run across my mind. And I was trying to understand better or more about that students’ experience. Why they were being framed so negatively, particularly in the London context. And what I came to learn was that there was a deeper, richer history here. And it’s not just about London and New York City, it’s also about the Caribbean, right? And that’s one of the core arguments I make in the book that: you cannot possibly understand the experiences of Caribbean immigrants to either London or New York City if you don’t understand their perceptions of the US and the UK from the Caribbean. So, you have to go back home in order to better understand the perceptions these immigrants will have about the US and UK state schools.
Will Brehm 4:57
When you were spending time in both of these places, in London, Black Caribbeans were sort of seen and perceived as this notion of like a failing minority. But in New York, they were sort of seen as the model minority -over achieving, doing really well in school, etc.
Derron Wallace 5:13
Or what I call -not a model minority- a Black model minority, which is framed differently, right? And politically, relative to other ethno racial groups,
Will Brehm 5:23
Right. So, a Black model minority, because I guess it’s in distinction to African Americans in this case?
Derron Wallace 5:23
Exactly right. Exactly. Not to whites, not to Asian Americans, but used quite strategically to speak to the culture of specific groups and why they achieve or not.
Will Brehm 5:40
And then in both cases, the reasoning given why there’s these different perceptions is based on culture of potentially the same ethnic or national group in these two different contexts. So, I mean, it’s quite a paradox, as you say. So, I guess thinking about London, how big is the Black Caribbean population? Like how big of a group is it in the country and in the city?
Derron Wallace 6:05
What I argue, essentially, in this book is that the use of culture to explain Black students’ success or failure in schools is not only tricky, it’s a trap. And it’s a trap, because we overemphasize the importance of culture, right? And we undermine the importance of national policy contexts, the order of migration, a range of structural and institutional factors that alongside culture can shape what students experience in schools or what their success or failure might be in schools. To your question about the size of the Black Caribbean population. It’s a really, really important one. First, we need to understand that the UK is much smaller than the United States. That London and New York City are global cities, yes, but that they also differ in size and population. It’s also really important for us to understand that up until the 2011 census, that was the first time that Black Africans outnumbered Black Caribbeans as now the majority of the Black population in the United Kingdom. Prior to that, Black Caribbeans had been the sort of largest Black ethnic group. Nevertheless, if we think about the numbers, they are still quite small, right? We’re not talking about millions of people here; we’re talking less than 500,000 people. And we’ve seen ebbs and flows of this. Now, if we were to look at data now where sort of gentrification is sort of, you know, pushing Black Caribbean families out of London, those numbers are dwindling, and we still see strongholds in particular boroughs. But what I’m trying to get at is that we’re not talking about significant numbers here. Nevertheless, what’s more powerful than the numbers are the sort of the strength of the representation. What Stuart Hall calls the politics of representation. That we can see in the United Kingdom from the late 40s to present, this persistent, negative misrepresentation of Caribbean people and Caribbean culture as being an underachieving group. So, Black Caribbean’s in education now are disproportionately represented as having and I quote, emotional and behavioral difficulties. They are more than three times as likely in London to be excluded from schools relative to their white peers. They do not fare as well on national GCSE attainment. So, for our international audience, I’m referring to sort of a nationwide end of secondary school exam in key subjects. They fare less well than almost every other ethnic racial group, except the Gypsy and traveler communities. And we know because of their migration patterns that often informs instability in schooling for gypsy and roamer people. But for Black Caribbeans, they consistently remain this group that people can’t figure out why it is that their quote unquote, underachieving. Not paying so much attention to the disadvantage that has been structured, which I get at in the historical analysis, I provided the book but really thinking that this is a matter of culture. And if we have these national blinders on, it’s easy to give into this notion that is culture, right? It’s easy to think that there’s something peculiar to this group here. But what this book opens up, it pushes us away from the national blinders and helps us to see how it is in fact, the context of perception that informs the perception of the culture and the power it has in that specific national and institutional contexts.
Will Brehm 9:20
And so, before we get into some of the differences in history between the US migration and UK migration of Black Caribbean’s, what’s the population size of Black Caribbeans in New York City and in the US, by way of comparison?
Derron Wallace 9:34
So, to your question, it’s really important to pay attention to these figures. As I mentioned to you, in the case of London, we’re not speaking about it -in 2011, we had just about 300,000 Black Caribbeans in London. In New York, however, there were very many more. And you can say, Oh, that means it’s a radically different experience. Well, there’s a reason for that. The waves of migration from the Caribbean to the US are ongoing. Immigration policies permit every year swaths or groups of Black Caribbeans to continue to enter the United States. Immigration policies to the UK, however, from the Caribbean are much more restrictive. And so, migration from the Caribbean has really slowed to a trickle. The sociologist Philip Kasinitz suggests, whereas it’s ongoing in the US. And that’s what another sociologist of immigration, Tomás Jiménez refers to as replenishing ethnicity. And ultimately, in the book, I talk about how the sort of ongoing migration flows of Black Caribbeans to New York City, and the sort of trickle, as it were, from the Caribbean to London has a profound impact on the representation of success or failures. What we are seeing is sort of immigrant success in one context, as we’ve seen for a number of different groups around the world. But that nuance gets collapsed under the guise of culture. That is part of what I’m saying this trap is. Culture becomes the sort of catch all category that sort of conceals the complexities of what’s actually at work in a particular school institutional context or national context. So, once again, the numbers to your question they matter. But what’s more important, to go back to Stuart Hall, is the representation that occurs. Whether or not that be 300,000 in London, or nearly 700,000 in New York, what matters is the political work of the representation done in each city context with that specific ethno cultural group.
Will Brehm 11:29
And as you said earlier, it also matters about the perceptions within the Caribbean about these two global cities. So, how do people in the Caribbean understand these two different cities?
Derron Wallace 11:40
I love this question because I have to admit to answer that question, I had to go speak to Caribbean parents and that was not what I anticipated do with this project. So, anybody who’s done sort of ethnographic work or qualitative work with young people know that you give consent forms, they often don’t return them. And so, one of the things I tried to do was to sort of engage their parents to see if they had any questions or concerns, or had their parents call me and it was in conversation again, with Black mothers both in London and New York City, Black Caribbean mothers who would say, tell me the questions, you’re going to ask my child? And they would say, Oh, they can’t answer that you need to come talk to me. And so, I did go talk to them. And in the process, I realized something I did not even anticipate, even though I grew up in the Caribbean myself, and this was also true for me. And yet I didn’t recognize it’s significant for these parents. The influence of the British Empire in shaping Caribbean education, afforded Caribbean parents who came to Britain a sense of Britain, as another home, they were familiar with the British educational system because the Caribbean educational system is structured to mirror the British educational system. So, why they anticipated for the children entering new schools, they thought it would be better than the schools they had in the Caribbean. And these parents described in great detail the sort of material resources they anticipated would be better. So, what sociologist Prudence Carter calls the hard structures of schooling, right? So, they were looking forward to better buildings, greater technology, state of the art facilities, no tuition. These are the things that the parents spoke up because they anticipated, based on colonialism, that British schooling would be better than Caribbean schooling. They also in some cases, took for granted the differences between Caribbean education in the British educational system because the structures were often so similar, right? By that I mean, primary school in Britain goes from years one to six, same in the Caribbean, right? And secondary school starts from year seven to 12, same in the Caribbean. Then you sort of move up to lower sixth and upper sixth, same thing. Then you go on to university, very, very similar. So, that’s again, the influence of what I would call the educational legacies of the British Empire, right? That Britain didn’t simply bring to the Caribbean, this colonial rule of law, they also brought with them a model of schooling that shaped the perceptions Caribbean parents had of what schooling might be like for their children in different contexts. They anticipated that British schooling would be better but that the structure of schooling would be the same. So, their children with better facilities should fare well. And they had to learn over time that that didn’t work out quite well for their children. They learned to distrust the British educational system. That despite structural similarities between Caribbean education or Caribbean schooling and British schooling, the soft structures of schooling, that’s what Prudence Carter calls it, the sort of relational dimensions of schooling were very, very different. Teachers didn’t necessarily believe that Caribbean students were going to be high achieving. They didn’t hold positive perceptions of the students. And as a result, parents had to learn over time, often through error to be hypervigilant in support of their children’s education. But they learned that through trial and error or after failing a child or two, that they could not trust the British educational system in a way that they anticipated doing owing to colonialism.
Will Brehm 14:54
And what about the Caribbean perception of US and New York City and the school systems there?
Derron Wallace 15:01
Thanks so much for that Will, because that was also another surprising element. It was almost the complete opposite. Caribbean parents did not trust, not just New York City public schools -and again, when I say public schools here, I’m referring to state schools or government sponsored schools. Not only did they harbor some element of distrust for schools writ large but urban or quote unquote, inner-city state schools, in particular, in New York City, they had very, very little trust in. And that’s because, again, the cultural influence of the American empire, right, its media culture, as it were. So, the dominance of the US media in the Caribbean through its cable networks, exports to the Caribbean, this perception of these dilapidated schools, with conflict ridden, drugged torn neighborhoods that these schools are in, right through movies, like Lean on Me. These are the movies that these parents were referring to that had already schooled them about what schooling would be like in New York City before they even got there. So, they came in being hypervigilant and not wanting their children to even go in some cases to New York City public schools. And when they did have to send their children to New York City public schools, or as I note in the book, when, quote, unquote, those public schools, as they described them, based on the movies they saw became their public schools because of the segregation they experience in their neighborhoods, they were hypervigilant about the kind and quality of education their children received in those schools because they didn’t trust them to begin with.
Will Brehm 16:24
Very, very different perceptions going in. So, then you spent so much time doing these sorts of comparative ethnographies in these two different schools. What is it like for Black Caribbean youth today to go through schools in London and in New York?
Derron Wallace 16:40
It’s a complex picture and I’ve conducted fieldwork over the course of three years. And what I realized, let me start first with London case, is that there is a long-standing narrative of Caribbean underachievement that shapes, both policy discussions, if you think about the more recent Sewell Report, which continued to frame Black Caribbeans as an underachieving group, but there’s a longer history here that still shapes the experiences of Caribbean students. I mentioned they’re still disproportionately excluded from schools, still disproportionately labeled as having emotional behavioral difficulties. But what I learned in the process of doing this work was that in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Black Caribbeans were framed as and I quote, “educationally subnormal”, that was the language of the state. I’m gonna let that sit in because I remember when I was, again, this was Miss Bell basically invited me to her Black supplementary school, and there was a pastor nearby, and she introduced me to him and he was the one who said, “Young man, you need to pay attention to our history”. I’m not a historian. And he was the one who said, you know, they used to label us as being educationally subnormal. And I remember being shell shocked. But yes, what I’m trying to share here is that the work of the state in shaping the representation of cultures needs to be accounted for when we think about culture as a formula for success or failure in a particular national context or a particular group, the experiences of Black Caribbean students are, to your question, incredibly complicated. Some might fare well, but the data by and large, still shows the group Black Caribbeans nationally, and in London in particular, as a largely, quote, unquote, underachieving group relative to other ethnic racial groups, what I was interested in, not simply the figures. I wanted to understand how do they experience this culture trap. This sort of over enunciation or over emphasis on culture as the formula for their failure in London. And so that’s what brought me into the hallways and into the gymnasiums, and on the sports fields and into the classrooms of state schools was to sit amongst these young people, and to not simply understand these figures, but to get a sense of how they experienced these perceptions.
Will Brehm 18:46
And so how did they? Did these students that you met, did they sort of reinforce some of these sorts of stereotypical understandings of what Black Caribbean means in London or what it means in the US?
Derron Wallace 19:00
What I find is that there are three dominant cultural strategies that shape the cultural logics that I saw at work in both London and New York City. The first is distinctiveness, the idea of being different from and in some cases better than a more stigmatized group. The second is deference, this believe that good behavior and comportment will shape high achievement and success. And the last is defiance, an attempt at pushing back against structures of inequality that they may sense or experience in school. What I did see, however, is that while these three cultural strategies were of important both London New York City, they didn’t play out the same way in London and New York City, right. And so yeah, so let me start first with distinctiveness. In the New York City context, where Black Caribbean students were largely framed as this high achieving Black model minority, they invested in what I called collective distinctiveness. By that, I mean, even when only one student was high achieving, or only two or three students were really high achieving, they claimed the success of that few as a representation of the collective. WE are distinctive, WE are collectively good because the dominant stereotype is one that is positive of the group. And that’s what I saw. I didn’t necessarily see that Black Caribbean students, at least in the school where I did my work, were necessarily all together high achieving, but they clung to the success of the few as a representation of the many and suggested that it was their culture that made it so. In London, however, it was quite different. Because what I saw play out was what I call individual distinctiveness. In a context where Black Caribbean identities were largely stigmatized, individual Black Caribbean students start to separate themselves from other stigmatized Black Caribbean students. They would say, I am different. I am not like these “yardies”. That was perhaps one of the most common lines. Yardies being this sort of working class, low income, largely stereotyped, highly criminalized group of Caribbean immigrants in London. And so, they would say, I am not like these yardies. What we see in both national contexts, however, is that both groups are finding a more stigmatized group in order to elevate themselves. So, in New York City, Black Caribbeans are saying we are collectively distinctive, and this is particularly true because of our culture relative to African Americans, right, particularly working-class African Americans. In London, even amongst their own ethnic group, Black Caribbeans would say, “I’m not like these yardies”, again, low income and working class, Black Caribbean people. And what I see through this cross-national analysis is that what makes the sort of distancing from stigma possible is the demotion of another stigmatized group. In this case, what we see across the two contexts is that it is low income and working-class Black people who are placed at the bottom in both city contexts. And that’s what happens when we remove these national blinders. We get to see a bit more about global class and racial structures that may play out quite differently across different national contexts.
Will Brehm 22:09
The issue of social class becomes hugely important when thinking about distinctiveness because you need to other yourself from some group, right? And so that becomes a way to do it.
Derron Wallace 22:19
Or separate yourself from the other. That’s part of what I refer to in the book as the secret life of social class because in all these representations of culture, what’s at work here. I’d like to add a nuance here is that I saw that middle class Black Caribbean students were faring well in the two city contexts. But those students’ access were being represented as in New York City, it was being represented as an expression of your culture. And in London, interestingly enough, their success was being deemed an exception to their culture. Again, I would just say I found all of this quiet class work under the guise of culture fascinating. And what I wanted to illuminate was really what we ignore when we use culture as a master code for understanding inequality. It allows us not to pay attention to how social class might shape representations of culture.
Will Brehm 23:06
I think that’s such a great insight about how culture can actually erase, in a sense, some of our deep understanding as scholars. And also, about this issue of race too. You know, sometimes culture seems to have just sort of turned into another way of talking about race without talking about race.
Derron Wallace 23:23
Exactly right. Culture gets used as an alibi for race and racism, right? And again, in this moment, where antiracism is an increasingly popular Flashpoint or area of interest for folks, part of what I argue in the book is I need to go deeper to understand the relationship between race and culture. The quiet, clandestine, the tricky ways in which we talk about race without even using the word race at all right? And culture often gets used as a code for mobilizing that formula.
Will Brehm 23:50
And so, what about this issue of deference? You said that was another sort of cultural logic at play?
Derron Wallace 23:56
Before I get into that, let me just say, it’s really interesting to name these cultural logics, and they are of considerable influence, at least on the young people I spent time talking to, and hanging out with. But as a former youth worker, as a former teacher, as a former community organizer, I know it’s easy to blame specific groups for inequalities. You could hear this and say, Well, really what happened was that they just reinforce the inequalities themselves, right? And what that does is it reinforces, or it lays the blame at the feet of these young people. And I just want to make a note here, so that listeners may not do that. And I had to call this out in my own book. What these young people are doing they’re strategic and savvy political actors. I try to see school students as being not just school students; they’re political actors. They recognize and they’re in pursuit of power. They’re in pursuit of, in some cases, challenging inequalities when it challenges them or negatively impacts them. And like a number of us, they may not even see the inequalities when they benefit from them. In that respect, these young people who mobilize distinctiveness, deference, and defiance are no different from us. And I’m hopeful that when readers read the book that they see how we in our everyday lives -me as a man, right, I as a Black man, I’m cognizant of anti-Blackness and of racism because it has a negative impact on my life. But the structures of heteronormative patriarchy, I might not see because I benefit from them, right? I have to take responsibility for that, yes, but it also means I have to pay attention to the wider structures that shape my limited understanding of heteronormative patriarchy. And I share that to say these gender dynamics, then, to your point about deference are really important, right? And again, can be easily misunderstood, easily ignored when we pay attention to culture.
What I realized was that in both national contexts -in the US and the UK, but in London and in New York City in particular- there is this national policy narrative, this sort of a public panic about boys, underachievement, Black boys under achievement in particular, often at the expense of Black girls, right? Or with us not paying as much attention to the educational experiences of Black girls. What I realized is that deference, this belief in sort of good behavior, and comportment play out differently for Black Caribbean girls in both London and New York City differently than Black Caribbean boys in both London and New York City. So, the comparison then shifts in that case. What I found was that for Black Caribbean boys, they practice what I call complimentary deference or deference for getting praised or for receiving praise, right? In this context, where these Black boys generally were deemed to be this group that was on the edge of failure, or that they were worried about -the slight adjustment in their behavior, earned them praise. But Black girls who perform the same kind of behavior, by which I mean showing up to class, sitting prepared, listening to the teacher, Yes, ma’am, no, sir. Black girls were not praised for this because of what I call compulsory deference. They’re supposed to be deferential. They’re girls. That’s what girls do. And so, we see how despite Black Caribbean boys and girls investing in this belief that their behavior will enable their success, they were rewarded differently based on whether or not they were a Black Caribbean boy versus whether or not they were a Black Caribbean girl. And we lose that when we just think that this is all a matter of culture.
Will Brehm 27:36
So, another way that culture sort of collapses some of this complexity, or veils it, or is a facade to a much sort of deeper engagement here. The last cultural logic that you brought up, and you write about in your book is this notion of resistance. So, the way in which Black Caribbean youth in these two different contexts sort of resist some of these, let’s say ethnic expectations, as you call them. How does that play out in these two different contexts?
Derron Wallace 28:01
Yeah. So, that’s a third cultural strategy, defiance. And what I found was that Black Caribbeans in New York practiced what I called interpersonal defiance. So, when teachers challenged them and said, You’re supposed to be hardworking and high achieving. In one case, a teacher said, and I quote, your mother told me not to let you settle, this student responded to that as and I quote, teachers, using our culture against us as what the sociologist of education Diane Reay would call as an ideological whip for getting them in line and pursuing achievement. In those cases, these students resisted the acts of those teachers, those individuals at an interpersonal level. The school wasn’t the problem, that teacher don’t like me. That teacher is the problem, right? Those are the sort of common quotes I heard from students, right. So, that’s what I call interpersonal defiance. In London, on the other hand, where a significant number of students wanted to leave this particular school where they felt as though they were being largely misrepresented in the school. They were not being given a fair chance. They didn’t necessarily think that the teachers were the problem exclusively, they thought the school was the problem. And that’s what I call institutional defiance. Now, to be clear, there are examples of institutional defiance in New York City and interpersonal defiance in New York. I want to nuance the argument here. I did see examples in either national context. Both played out in each city context. But what I emphasize are the dominant representations in each. What I saw was that interpersonal defiance was the dominant formula, right? Or the dominant cultural logic amongst Black Caribbeans in New York City and institutional defiance was the dominant representation or dominant formula amongst those in London.
Will Brehm 29:54
So, you started this journey you sort of talk about in the beginning of the book about your conversation with Miss Bell, who you introduced in this episode earlier. And after years of work, you go back to Miss Bell and sort of explain your findings. And you go through all these different logics, and you explain the culture trap to her. Do you think she was convinced? Like, did she agree with you that you sort of made sense of this paradox that you initially started out exploring all those years ago?
Derron Wallace 30:23
So, Miss Bell is not one who’s easily convinced. We had worked together for so many years, right? First, when she shared with me her thoughts, that sort of grim, gray, fall morning, I’d only been working with her for about a year at that point. And she’s a five-foot one dark skinned Black woman with salt and pepper hair. She’s a firebrand with a passion for racial and gender justice in the context of education. She led a Black supplementary school every Saturday and had done so for years, she frequently reminded me over and over again, that she’s been teaching for as long as I’ve been alive. This is a regular running joke with her. But what was really important, though, was that in the end, when I explained much of what I found, she both questioned what I had to say. And she affirmed some of what I had to say. So, in some cases about ethnic expectations for instance, when I mentioned that, her first line to me was, “That makes sense to me already, I can see that”.
Again, there’s sort of distinctions we draw even among Black students based on their ethnicity to suggest that one particular group is going to be more high achieving than the other. And what that sort of ethnic formulation does even among the same racial group is it allows some leaders, some teachers, some school officials to escape claims of racism because it’s not all Black people that we don’t want to work with or that we think are underachieving, it’s this particular group, right? You know, she affirmed that. She peppered me with questions about the gender distinctions, right. And you will see that in the book, she was again, talking about her concern about Black Caribbean boys, she spoke about some of the boys I worked with as an organizer, some of whom became very close to me, actually. And she kept saying, but what about the boys? What about the boys? And I would say, Miss Bell, we’re doing what the politicians are doing. What about the girls? That’s a question we ought to be asking. We don’t have to think about the achievement of Black Caribbean boys as being over and against Black Caribbean girls. We have to hold space for both. They both have distinct strengths and needs. And to that that was one of those, I think. I described it in the book where she got up from her desk after I expressed because it was a back and forth for about 30 minutes, she wouldn’t let up. She just wouldn’t. And then she got up, and she was walking towards me. And she just gave me a fast firm, high five. And I mean, I thought maybe she was gonna hit me across the shoulder. But she was like, Yes, Mr. Wallace, you’re right.
More than just the affirmations, though, are the range of questions you asked about now, what are we going to do about it? That was the sort of organizing element. You know, we don’t just study inequality for its own sake, we are invested in doing something different. And so, I raised questions about the nature of teacher education. How in both the US and UK context, again, teacher education programs are quite different. We have a national model in the UK context, it’s really state specific, in some cases, it’s city specific in the US. And I don’t want to dive too much into that. But I was making clear to her that there’s too little emphasis placed on the relationship between race and culture in teacher education programs, both in the US and the United Kingdom. And that that needs to be completely transformed. Not only that, I spoke to her about the institutional structures of inequality, like tracking in New York City and setting in London, which sort of facilitate the sort of representations of Caribbean students as being high achieving in one context, or underachieving in another, and how core subjects like citizenship -we don’t need to be setting or tracking students for those classes. Students irrespective of ability can learn one from another. And we need to think about doing away with setting. More than that too, I encouraged her to sort of focus and to be deeply committed to sort of the everyday introspective work of challenging these cultural logics of distinctiveness, deference and defiance that many of us harbor some of these in our own everyday lives. And that we ought to think about, not these young people as these sorts of distant social actors, but the ways in which we may adopt those cultural logics ourselves in ways that sort of undermine the influence of structure and overemphasize the importance of culture in shaping students’ success.
Put it this way, Will, we’ve come a long, long way, in sort of rejecting the notion that there’s a relationship between genetics and intelligence. You mention that to anybody on the street, and by and large, I can almost bet my bottom dollar, they would say, No, there is no bearing to that. And if people admit that many people would turn their heads on the streets and almost immediately say, Wow, that’s pretty racist. Commonplace, right? But we’ve also come a long way based on sociological research from the 80s the 90s in knowing that success knows no discrete color, by which I mean, Black students, Asian students, white students, all students can succeed, right? It is not peculiar to any specific race. What we have not yet done, the myth we have not yet busted, is about how culture shapes success or failure. That’s what I’m trying to do with this book. I’m trying to help us to understand our culture is important, and I have to acknowledge that, but culture alone does not shape success or failure. National policy contexts, institutional structures, like tracking in New York City or setting in London, have a profound influence. The order of Black migration, immigration policies, whether they’re you’re open in one national context versus closed in another national contexts. Immigrant selectivity, to what extent did a particular group that’s more middle class move to one country context versus a group that’s more working class moving to another country context? These nuances have to be taken into consideration when we’re thinking about the influence of culture in shaping success. It is culture and structure that informs student outcomes. That’s what’s at the heart of the book. And when we don’t acknowledge that, I argue we’re falling into the culture trap.
Will Brehm 36:08
Derron Wallace, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Congratulations on your book. It really is fantastic.
Derron Wallace 36:14
Thank you so much, Will. I’m delighted to be here.
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The culture trap: Ethnic expectations and unequal school for Black youth
How, still, is the Black Caribbean child made educationally subnormal in the English school system
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The racial politics of cultural capital: Perspectives from Black middle-class pupils and parents
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Have any useful resources related to this show? Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org