Resilience and Refusal: African-Caribbean Young Men's Agency, School Exclusions, and School-Based Mentoring Programmes

Resilience and Refusal: African-Caribbean Young Men's Agency, School Exclusions, and School-Based Mentoring Programmes
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  Race Ethnicity and EducationVol. 8, No. 3, September 2005, pp. 243–259  ISSN 1361-3324 (print)/ISSN 1470-109X (online)/05/030243–17© 2005 Taylor & Francis Group LtdDOI: 10.1080/13613320500174283 Resilience and refusal: African-Caribbean young men’s agency, schoolexclusions, and school-based mentoringprogrammes Simon Warren * University of Sheffield, UK  TaylorandFrancisLtd CREE117411.sgm10.1080/13613320500174283Race,EthnicityandEducation1361-3324(print)/1470-109X(online)OriginalArticle2005Taylor&FrancisLtd  In this paper I attempt to do three things. Firstly, I explore the concept of resistance in the sociologyof youth and education. I raise questions about the power of this concept to provide a descriptivelanguage for understanding the way young people generally, and in this paper, young African-Caribbean men in London schools, deal with the contexts of institutional racism. I then go on tosuggest the concepts of ‘resilience’ and ‘refusal’ as providing a more appropriate descriptivelanguage. Drawing on the narratives provided by 15 African-Caribbean young men in three Londonschools, I explore the power of this descriptive language to capture the sense of youthful agency, butalso the ambiguity of that agency. Thirdly, in light of the concepts of ‘resilience’ and ‘refusal’, I askthe question as to whether the school-based mentoring programmes these young men participatedin can be regarded as emergent counter-hegemonic projects. Introduction By almost any indicator young people of Caribbean or African heritage receive theleast benefit from their participation in English schools, whether that be in terms of attainment, exclusions or entry into labour markets. Perhaps the most telling statisticis that on average Black youth enter the English school system performing as well asor above their peers, but that on leaving compulsory education they are 20 percentagepoints below their peers (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000). Another statistic, and the onemost pertinent to this paper is that Black students in some Local Education Authority(LEAs) areas are 19 times more likely to be excluded 1 from school than their Whitepeers (Commission for Racial Equality, 1997; Blair, 2001). An Audit Commission * Institute for Lifelong Learning, 196–198 West Street, Sheffield, S1 4ET, UK. Email:  244 S. Warren report on youth offending and the justice system pointed out that 42% of youngoffenders sentenced in court had been excluded from school (Audit Commission,1996). There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the strong correlationbetween poor educational performance, in particular the very strong link betweenexclusions and the propensity to commit crime, and contact with the criminal justicesystem (National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders, 1998). AsMaud Blair states, ‘The human rights implications of school disciplinary exclusionsare clearly profound’ (2001, p. 39).This appalling situation has occurred in light of full knowledge by education profes-sionals and administrators in England of the facts and processes of exclusion. Sincethe publication of the report Recent research on the achievements of ethnic minority pupils (Gillborn & Gipps, 1996) there has been growing official concern about the numberof Black students excluded by schools (Ofsted, 1996; Osler, 1997; SEU, 1998). Sincethen, research has enabled teachers and education administrators to understand inmore detail the processes that lead to the disproportionate presence of Black studentsin the exclusions figures (Ofsted, 1996; Hayden, 1997; Osler, 1997; Audit Commis-sion, 1999; Pomeroy, 2000). LEAs and schools have also been provided with a rangeof guidance on how to manage the exclusion process (Commission for RacialEquality, 1997; Ofsted, 2001). The importance of dealing positively with the issue of exclusions is further underlined by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the Race Relations(Amendments) and Human Rights Act and the new framework for school inspection(Home Office, 1998, 2000; Macpherson, 1999; Ofsted, 2003). Given this knowl-edge, it is difficult for the education community to claim ignorance, and therefore anunwitting responsibility for the racialized and racializing effects of educational prac-tices. It could be argued that the system is guilty of institutionalized racism—theprocesses that lead to exclusions, referred to above, are the kind of ‘common-sense’professional practices defined by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (Macpherson, 1999)as ‘institutional racism’. For the most part these are not the consequences of inten-tional racism, but the latent effects of deeply embedded cultural assumptions thathave emerged out of an historical context of empire and colonialism (Blair & Cole,2000). They are latent because the ‘normal’ processes of selection, pedagogy, curric-ulum and assessment—the circuits of power in schooling are self-consciously colour-blind, driven by a meritocratic principle. Yet, these apparently normal practicesconsistently produce racist effects. We can conceptualize them as both instituting andinstituted practices of racial formations (Lewis, 1996; Lewis, 2000; Gilroy, 2002).Castoriadis (1997) offers a dual understanding of the term ‘institution’ as capturingboth the social institutions that make any imagined community real, and the practicesof these institutions that act to institute a particular social imaginary. We can thenview the ‘normal’ practices of schooling as processes of instituting particular racialimaginaries. Schooling should be seen as a product of historical and contemporarystruggles to construct particular kinds of ‘racial settlement’. The post-war period inthe UK can be seen as a period of struggles to construct a new post-empire racialsettlement, in particular an attempt to disarticulate ‘race’ from (White) Britishidentity and to locate ‘race’ as the property of immigrant populations (Hesse, 1997).  Resilience and refusal in African-Caribbean young men 245Institutional racism and struggles to construct racial settlements provide thecontext within which the empirical data needs to be considered. This paper drawson discussions with 15 African-Caribbean young men in three secondary schools inone Inner London borough who participated in mentoring programmes aimed atreducing the exclusions of African-Caribbean students. The school-basedprogrammes formed part of a strategic response by the LEA to both the growingawareness of the link between ‘race’ and school exclusions, and the disproportionaterate of exclusions suffered by African and African-Caribbean students within theLEA. The LEA encouraged schools to devise strategies and early interventionprogrammes aimed at preventing exclusions. The small-scale research this paperdraws on was commissioned by the LEA to identify aspects of successful work inschools by exploring the experiences of African-Caribbean students who had beenidentified as being ‘at risk’ of potential exclusion from schools, and who benefitedfrom the school-based projects. The schools or programmes themselves defined‘success’. The nature of data collection and analysis systems in the schools at thetime of the study were not robust enough to provide predictive information onindividual students. Therefore, it was not clear whether the students identified byschools to take part in their programmes would have faced exclusion if they had nottaken part in the programmes. Students were usually identified by teachers andreferred to the programmes in order to provide remedial action. The data wascollected between April–June 2001. The research involved semi-structured inter-views with programme coordinators to identify programme objectives and identifi-cation processes. Students were selected by programme coordinators on the basisthat they had benefited from the programmes. In this sense the sample can beregarded as self-selecting, and therefore biased. Schools were not required to partic-ipate in the research. The LEA, as the commissioning body, believed that a moreobjective and rigorous methodology would not win the consent of schools. Thispaper then is not a presentation of ‘findings’. Below I present extracts from bothacademic texts and the young men’s narratives as a form of dialogue. I have tried topresent the young men’s narratives faithfully while recognizing that the authorialvoice remains my own. My intention in using extracts from the young men’s narra-tives is to illustrate the complexity of their own perceptions and experiences.In looking at school-based projects to reduce exclusions, I view schools as insti-tuted forms of struggles to construct racial settlements in a post-Empire context. Ialso view the counter-hegemonic potentials of these projects as localized struggles toconstruct racial settlement based on an equality of respect and dignity. Similarly, as Iwill discuss later, the various performances that the young people themselves engagein, that which I will call resilient acts and acts of refusal, can be conceptualized aspersonal struggles to construct localized racial settlements. ‘Virtuous cultures’ of resistance I situate my theoretical work here in relation to resistance theory because I amconcerned with identifying the counter-hegemonic potential of the school-based  246 S. Warren projects, and the ways in which they may constitute particular subjectivities in thecontext of struggles to construct different racial settlements in schools. The focus onthe experiences of the students has a specific purpose. I am mindful of Mac anGhaill’s warning about the potential essentializing and problematizing of Black youthby turning the research gaze on them, particularly as White researchers (Mac anGhaill, 1994). Edward Said (1993) has made the point that he studies the represen-tations of the ‘Other’ in ‘Western’ literature because it offers a ‘point of entry’ forunderstanding the formations of nation and empire: I suggested that studying the relationship between the ‘west’ and it’s dominated cultural’Others’ is not just a way of understanding an unequal relationship between unequalinterlocutors, but also a point of entry into studying the formation and meaning of Westerncultural practices themselves. (Said, 1993, p. 33) While the experiences of these students can be highly individual, they belong to alarger formation of teacher attitudes and practices towards Black students ( Mac anGhaill, 1988, 1994; Gillborn, 1990, 1995; Mirza, 1992; Connolly, 1998; Wright et al. , 2000), which are themselves part of a larger formation of Empire, nation andcolonialism. The core problematic I deal with concern the instituting practices of particular oppressive racial settlements in schooling—the ‘normal’ processes of schooling that produce discriminatory effects. I therefore make a distinction betweenthe cultures of resistance of Black communities and the sociological concept of resis-tance (Back & Keith, 1999; Gilroy, 2002).Resistance theory has provided an explanatory language for understanding thepractices of subordinate groups in the context of schools. This article represents acontribution to the development of a more nuanced articulation of ‘resistance’ as asociological concept (Aggleton & Whitty, 1985; Aggleton, 1987; Sultana, 1989;Wright et al. , 2000; Zine, 2000). This contribution therefore also attempts to respondconstructively to critiques of resistance theory (McRobbie, 1978; Hargreaves, 1982;McFadden, 1995; Finnegan, 1998; Holmwood, 1999). I don’t intend to rehearse thesedebates in this paper. Rather I will reference particular aspects of the debates aroundresistance theory where they are more directly relevant to my emergent argument.I want to deal with two aspects of resistance theory; the production of ‘virtuouscultures’ of resistance, and the problem of the ‘responsible’ agency it accords youthfulidentities. The virtuousness of White oppositional cultures There is a tendency within resistance theories to define all forms of oppositionalbehaviour in schools as resistance (see McFadden, 1995 and Wright et al. , 2001 fordiscussions of this tendency). Heidi Mirza (1992, p. 1), for instance, makes the obser-vation that the notion of ‘subcultures of resistance’, developed from Willis’ srcinaltheoretical work on White working class youth (Willis, 1977), has come to framemuch of the research on ‘race’ and education. Importantly she questions the analyti-cal power of the basic equation of resistance theory: counter-school subculture  Resilience and refusal in African-Caribbean young men 247= resistance. She poses the question, similar to Brown’s (1987), of how resistancetheory helps us analyse the ordinary students who engage relatively positively withschool, but still face discrimination in the labour market. Although an extremely widerange of performances may be captured by the category of resistance, it is the oppo-sitional performances of particular agents that are actually focused upon in the foun-dational texts of resistance theory. The model of resistance is therefore given initiallyby ethnographic accounts of White male working class youth, where resistance isinvoked as an aspect or potential of working class youthful practice, of particularkinds of class politics. This almost inevitably leads to the equating of certain kinds of popular White masculinity with the category of resistance. While the gendered natureof these depictions has been critiqued (McRobbie, 1978; Skeggs, 1993), an equiva-lent critique of the particular racialization of resistance is less developed. Hewitt(1990) is concerned with the way the British ‘race and youth’ studies of the 1980shave constructed Black identities as reactive, in particular as constructed as ‘antago-nistic polarities’ (Hewitt, 1990, p. 187). Hewitt is critical of the way the categories‘Black’ and ‘White’ are constructed as singular cultural phenomena, where any heter-ogeneity is collapsed within the idea of two closed cultures where Black people arealways subordinate. He points to the inability of many commentators and sociologiststo provide adequate explanations for the presence of White youth in the inner cityuprisings of that decade. Hewitt ascribes this analytical silence to the dominance of the ‘antagonistic polarities’ model. This model also appears inappropriate in explain-ing the shift in Black youth from the more readily ‘revolutionary’ Rastafarianism tothe more consumerist ‘hip-hop’ culture (Back & Keith, 1999; Gilroy, 2002). Morerecently Frosh et al. (2002) have explored the way particular Black masculine formsmay come to be hegemonic forms of masculinity in local sites.In her discussion of young Black women Mirza (1992, p. 114) forcefully argues thatunlike Willis’ ‘Lads’ these young women do not reproduce ‘their inequalities throughtheir cultural values’. The girls’ positive engagement with achievement is consequentlypresented as an emergent form of resistance, disrupting the traditional formulation.The under-theorized nature of the racialised characteristics of resistance as a socio-logical concept means that it is applied to the oppositional performances of Black youthas if the category provided an equally applicable explanatory language (Mac an Ghaill,1994; Connolly, 1998; Wright et al. , 2000). It would appear that the underlying logicof this is that the collective experience of slavery, colonialism and racism provides asimilar basis for the dominance–subordination couplet as found in class antagonism.If this is so, then it suggests that not only are all oppressions similar, but also that Blackcommunities, whether their heritage is of Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria or Somaliapossess a singular experience of slavery, colonialism and racism. Others have soughtto draw on more nuanced articulations of resistance, especially attempts by Aggleton(1987) and Viegas Fernandes (1988) to distinguish between ‘contestation’ and resis-tance (see also Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Wright et al. , 2000). However, within these textsthe two terms are often collapsed into each other, the attempted distinction dissolving.Resistance theory is important in the way it tries to ascribe a transformativeagency to young people’s social performances. However, the inclusion of a wide
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