Oppositional cultural identity

In some cases dominant cultural attitudes can oppress or alienate particular students to the point where they feel they have no choice but to put themselves on the margins of mainstream activity. Such students may develop an oppositional cultural identity, meaning that they define themselves not by who they are, but by how they differ from or oppose mainstream culture (Ogbu & Davis, 2003; Carter, 2005). Instead of aspiring to do well in school, for example, or to get along well with teachers, the students may aspire not to do well and not to be liked by teachers. Obviously this sort of attitude poses problems for teachers who try to motivate the students, it also poses problems for the students’ long-term success in life. Oppositional identity is especially likely in so-called involuntary minorities—groups that emigrated to or joined a society against their will and who may have been given few resources with which to participate in society. In the United States, for example, African-Americans and American Indians may have been involuntary minorities originally, although many present-day individuals from these groups may now feel very much a part of American culture. As cultural groups, however, their experiences have been quite different than so-called voluntary minorities—groups that chose to emigrate to a society in order to create better lives for themselves. The latter groups are more likely to work actively to fit in to their newfound culture. Learning to fit in to a new culture is a challenging task itself, but on the whole it is an easier task for teachers to work with than oppositional motivation.


Cater, P. (2005). Keepin’ it real: School success beyond black and white. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ogbu, J. & Davis, A. (2003). Black American students in an affluent suburb: A study of academic disengagement. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.