Decoding Youth Culture and School Success

Natasha Kumar Warikoo takes a closer look at how students navigate culture and achievement within two racially diverse high schools

February 19, 2010
photo of teenagers

"Never judge a book by its cover," counsels Houston freestyle rapper Lil' Flip in "What I Been Through," revisiting the sage advice popularized in song by Bo Diddly a few generations back. Associate Professor Natasha Kumar Warikoo underscores the wisdom of that recommendation in new research that questions assumptions often made about the link between rap/hip-hop-influenced youth culture and underachievement in inner-city schools. Her book, Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City (University of California Press 2010), challenges teachers, administrators, and parents to look beneath the outward manifestations of youth culture  the clothing, music, and tough talk  to better understand the internal struggle faced by many minority students and children of immigrants as they try to fit in with peers while working to lay the groundwork for successful lives.

"The common assumption is that teens who dress in a certain way or act tough are in gangs or aspire to lives outside mainstream society," said Warikoo, a second generation Indian American who grew up in a working class town in Pennsylvania. "But when you talk with them, you discover that the way they dress or challenge authority in class often doesn't mean that at all." In fact, during her experience teaching the children of immigrants in New York City, Warikoo observed that "even my most difficult students, when I talked with them one-on-one, confessed sincere desires to straighten up, earn better grades, and finish school on time."

To gain a better understanding of the meaning of second generation youth cultures in urban schools, Warikoo, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Harvard, spent a year studying two racially diverse high schools with low achievement profiles, one in Queens, New York, and one in London, both in working class neighborhoods. "I chose London because it lacks the racial residential segregation you see in large U.S. cities," she explains. "The prevailing theory, which I didn't believe, was that immigrant kids in the U.S. pick up oppositional attitudes from African American peers who are supposedly entrenched in an anti-school counterculture."

Spending approximately six months in each school, Warikoo observed classes, walked the hallways, mingled with students in the cafeteria, and conducted extensive interviews with 120 students. Interviewees fell into four ethnic categories: U.S. and U.K.-born Afro-Caribbeans; U.S. and U.K.-born Indians; U.S.-born Indo-Caribbeans; and native whites in London. The latter group allowed her to determine which social processes are unique to second generation groups and which are common to urban youth in general.

Culture as Currency

Warikoo's research indicated that a great deal of culture on both sides of the Atlantic is common to urban youth in general, regardless of where they or their parents were born. She reports that hip-hop culture has become "a global currency for status among urban youth." The majority of her interviewees said they listened to well known, top-10 American hip-hop artists, while a smaller number favored hip-hop performers with messages more critical of mainstream society. Yet despite their music preferences and affectations, most of the students Warikoo interviewed had fairly traditional views of the link between academic achievement and success in later life. Even the minority who enjoyed rappers more critical of dominant society seemed less affected by their messages than their teachers or parents might think.

"Teen culture  how they dress and talk and the music they listen to  means a lot," said Warikoo, "but it doesn't necessarily mean what adults assume it does. I found no cause-and-effect connection between hip-hop culture and poor school performance or the propensity to believe that racial discrimination prevents academic success." Instead, she determined that peer-driven culture, with its script for certain kinds of behavior, clothing tastes, music, and styles, allowed the students in her study to establish symbolic boundaries among ethnic and racial groups and to gain peer status. "It's the same quest to establish identity that all teenagers engage in," she notes, "but when you are a second-generation kid trying to find your place, dressing or acting in a way that makes your peers think you are strong, tough, or cool takes on heightened importance."

Helping Students Find a Balance

Warikoo says that academic performance is at risk when students' preoccupation with peer status sabotages their intentions to succeed at school. Educators and parents who are interested in helping students reach their long-term goals  staying in school and getting good jobs  need to help them get better at "code switching" as they navigate their way through daily social and academic challenges. "The way many educators approach peer culture is to tell kids to leave their culture outside the school door," Warikoo said. "First of all, that's impossible, and second, what we really need to do is teach kids how to balance their goals of school success and fitting in with their friends."

Warikoo said that students need the same tools that adults use to switch behavior "codes" when they find themselves in various social settings. "If you were interviewing for a job, you would act differently from the way you would on an evening out with friends," she said. "Sociologists call it 'cultural capital': the unwritten ways of being that will get you ahead. For kids, it's learning that the way you act with your peers probably won't advance your cause when you interact with teachers."

To help students stay on track in school, Warikoo suggests talking openly with them about strategies for managing conflicts. "Role play strategies for what to do when a disagreement with a teacher or classmate arises," she urges. "Helping kids to anticipate difficult situations and to think in advance about responses that won't compromise their goals can lead to much better outcomes."

When it comes to avoiding conflicts  especially those with racial overtones  Warikoo found the size of the two schools she studied had a significant impact. Overcrowded and sprawling, the school in New York offered few opportunities for teachers and students to make meaningful connections or even for students to socialize with each other as they rushed between tightly scheduled classes. "Kids clung to their ethnic/racial identities because it was the only way to make sense of their environment," said Warikoo. "When asked to describe school social groups, who is popular, who their friends are, and who they feel comfortable with, New Yorkers were much more likely to use race or ethnicity to draw boundaries of us and them."

In contrast, the British school had a smaller enrollment, a homeroom system that grouped students together for multiple years, and regularly scheduled, schoolwide break times. "Kids defined their social groups by the interests they pursued at lunch and breaks  soccer [or] hanging out in the library, the computer room, or music room. They formed bonds based on interests rather than race or ethnicity alone. There's been a lot of research to indicate that smaller schools lead to better academic outcomes," she said. "I think they also lead to better race relations."

Warikoo also believes that integrating elements of youth culture into the curriculum can help kids navigate the disparate demands of school and peer society. Including rap lyrics in a unit on poetry, or graffiti as a jumping off point to talk about the history of art establishes a bridge between youth culture and academic pursuits. "If kids see their interests taken seriously in school," she said, "they, in turn, will be more serious in school."

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Diversity and Inclusion K-12 Social-Emotional Wellbeing