Oppositional Culture Theory Essay

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Oppositional culture theory primarily explains the academic underperformance of young African American males. It holds that black youth have constructed an oppositional collective identity in response to a society they perceive as racist and antagonistic to their general well-being. From this oppositional perspective, black youth interpret the institution of education as a tool of oppression controlled by whites who serve as the gatekeepers of racial inequality. They therefore perceive academic success as conforming to a society that is antagonistic to their cultural moorings and a symbol of “acting white.”

Oppositional culture theorists place the adoption of stereotypically white behavior (“acting white”) as appearing at the end of the Civil War period and again after the civil rights movement, as African Americans increasingly integrated into the cultural and social life of white Americans. For some African Americans, “acting white” became a way of wielding power in a society that deemed black people as an inferior social group. For other African Americans, particularly in the civil rights era, a collective black identity emerged criticizing the practice of “acting white” and embracing a sense of cultural and racial pride, as evidenced by the Black Power movement. According to oppositional culture theorists, today’s collective oppositional identity of black youth emulates the sentiment of this racial and cultural pride.

According to oppositional culture theorists, young black males are skeptical of schooling as a vehicle toward success, have a general distrust of the U.S. labor opportunity structure, and also believe that academic achievement is not masculine and not “authentically” black. The negative assessment—coupled with the positive assessment of illegal activities, sports, and entertainment as rewarding enterprises—results in many young black males coming into conflict at school and/or dropping out. Their peers reinforce and reproduce this oppositional framework, while academically successful African American students experience internal psychological stress and general feelings of alienation. Accordingly, the stigma of academic excellence is greater for African American males than for African American females and females in general. Therefore, many young black males consider resistance to schooling as a masculine trait and academic success as a feminine one.

Critics of oppositional culture theory argue that (a) when controlling for socioeconomic factors, the relationship between the oppositional culture of black youth and academic achievement significantly diminishes; (b) ingroup differences reveal “resilient” African American students who reject an oppositional relationship to schooling; and (c) the oppositional culture of African American males does sometimes include the importance of schooling as a vehicle to racial pride, as evidenced in the hip-hop artistry of Tupac Shakur. Hip-hop music, to some, is the embodiment and reproducer of an oppositional black identity.


  1. Gosa, Travis L. and Hollie Young. 2007. “The Construction of Oppositional Culture in Hip-Hop Music: An In-depth Case Analysis of Kanye West and Tupac Shakur.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Lundy, Garvey F. 2003. “The Myths of Oppositional Culture.” Journal of Black Studies 33:450-67.
  3. Ogbu, John U. 2004. “Collective Identity and the Burden of ‘Acting White,’ Black History, Community, and Education.” Urban Review 36(1):1-35.
  4. Ogbu, John U. and Astrid Davis. 2003. Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Engagement. New York: Erlbaum.

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