Race Matters

Race, class and teenage subcultures

If you send your children to an ethnically and socially diverse school, are they going to mix?

This issue was the starting point for my doctoral research. On the surface, the students at the schools I observed generally seemed to mix well. However the schools featured distinct subcultural groups which were patterned in terms of race and social class. Mixing was happening, but it was also not. I wanted to explore who really gets to mix in diverse schools and how the process works.

One school I focused on, Eden Hill sixth form*, featured a tight-knit group of students, who often spent their time outside the school gates smoking. The group were predominantly white girls and boys from more middle class backgrounds. A proportion of the group had joined from other schools, including fee-paying schools. They wore a sort of London hipster style but with elements of the ‘preppy’ style of American college ‘grads’. The other prominent clique was the ‘football crowd’; a looser-knit group of minority ethnic boys: this group is where the black (Caribbean and African) boys tended to be found.

Subcultures are not just groups of people of the same race, class and gender. Subcultures involve people performing the characteristics associated with these attributes.  For example, the Football crowd performed a certain ‘black, working class masculinity’.  This involved a passion for football; what they referred to as ‘loudness’ and ‘jokes,’ ascribed to black Caribbean culture; and prioritising sport and sociability over their academic studies.

An ‘exception’ was Tristan*, a white British boy who loved football and was actually at the centre of the crowd. Tristan successfully performed the identity of the football crowd: he dressed the part (in football shirt, trainers, tracksuit bottoms), he played football for a professional club, was well respected, and could perform the jokes and banter of the group. Indeed, Tristan performed this black working class masculinity so well that he admitted people often assumed he wasn’t white.

These exceptions such as Tristan might lead us to think that social mixing is therefore happening. But these performances do not carry an equal value, which means that not everyone is equally able to access the different groups.

To elaborate, in the context of an academic sixth form, such as Eden Hill school, the rebellious cigarette-smoking outside the school gates by the white, middle class group was read differently by the school authorities to the ‘laddish’ behaviour of the football crowd. This smoking outside of the school gates in full view of the public, was turned a blind eye to. On the other hand, the school did prioritise dealing with another type of ‘bad’ behaviour: the ‘rowdy’ behaviour of younger students waiting at the bus stop after school, on a bus route taken predominantly by black students. Despite the fact there had been no complaints, the school council decided that a school behaviour officer would patrol the bus stop after school.

So while the black students’ presence is read as aggressive, the Smokers’ group are able to use their whiteness as a resource to offset their bad behaviour. Their aesthetic has them read as middle class and academically high achieving, whether or not the individual members of the group are high attaining or not.  Consequently, their bodily presence outside the school gates is actually a selling point, rather than a threat.

Drawing on Bev Skeggs (2004) work, if we can see aspects of these identities as resources, we can understand how others may not be able to cash in on these resources in the same way. In this example, blackness, and a certain demeanour - of being loud and gregarious - are resources which cannot be traded in for the school authorities’ acceptance, while whiteness, its hipster aesthetic, and smoking, are exchangeable for approval by the school authorities.

In terms of the possibilities for social mixing, embodying particular kinds of resources can help or hinder. For example Tyler*, a black African boy from an ostensibly working class background, appeared to be much less able to traverse into the white middle class smokers group, than Tristan did into the Football crowd.

Tyler initially made friends with two ‘smokers’ when he joined the school. He ‘jokes’, ‘jams’ and ‘pops’ with the smokers outside the school gates, but this does not buy him full entry to the group. Meanwhile, in order to win acceptance with the Football crowd, he made an effort to lose weight, perfect his football skills, his jokes and his ‘party-lightener’ approach. He felt naturally more comfortable with this group and this time, the performance does buy him entry. It is easier for Tyler to work to get into the black football crowd than the white middle class smokers because of his racial embodiment but also the embodied resources that go with it.

Conversely, another girl called Lara*, who was South American heritage could more easily traverse into the white middle class group, despite living on a local council estate. She was in the top academic sets, performed the hipster style, and perhaps most importantly could pass as white.

As Sara Ahmed argues: ‘when we face others, we seek to recognise who they are by reading the signs on their body, or by reading their body as a sign’ (2000 p.166). So these subcultures act as a quick-guide. The smokers group can be read as white, middle class and high achieving and in this context as therefore safe or non-threatening. Whereas the Football crowd, their embodied blackness, and perceived boisterous demeanour is read as threat.

These identities keep those out who do not, or are not able to perform to reproduce the caricature. The ‘wrong’ kind of body displaying the ‘wrong’ kind of performances would only dilute the group. Tyler inhabiting a black body, performing the joking footballer does not fit in the smokers group, while Lara in her pale-skinned body, performing the hipster high achiever is better able to fit, despite being neither white nor middle class herself.

So race and class work together in processes of inclusion and exclusion. The racialising of bodies is part of a class process, where certain identities accrue more value.

Should we be blaming these cliquey subcultural groups for preventing social mixing? Not really. Race, class and gender inequalities persist in academic attainment and across wider society. While this is the case, we will continue to see these patterns being reproduced in school-based subcultures, as the competition for academic success is fought after, on the level of the symbolic.

*The names of schools and students have been changed to protect their identity. References are i) Ahmed, S (2000) Strange Encounters: embodied others in postcoloniality, Routledge, and ii) Skeggs, B (2004) Class, Self, Culture, Routledge.

Sumi recently joined the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research at London South Bank University from IPSE at London Metropolitan University, where she was a senior research fellow in education. She graduated in Sociology (BA, MSc) from the University of Reading in 2003, and recently completed her PhD at London Metropolitan University. Sumi has worked in an academic research environment for ten years, working on collaborative, externally funded research in education and social policy. She has also taught at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in sociology, education, cultural studies and social research methods. Sumi is a sociologist of youth and education and her research explores intersecting inequalities of social class, race and gender in the context of education and compulsory schooling. Her work is interdisciplinary, drawing on sociology; youth studies and geography. Her doctoral research was on social mixing and friendship formation amongst urban youth.

Photo credit: Flickr, Tom Hickmore
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