Fordham, Signithia. (2016). Downed By Friendly Fire: Black Girls, White Girls, and Suburban Schooling. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Reviewed by Sarah Bruno
Following her ethnographic study of a predominantly Black high school at Capital High, Signithia Fordham’s new book, Downed By Friendly Fire: Black Girls, White Girls, and Suburban Schooling, explores suburban schooling at Underground Railroad High School.. She focuses on the pervasive aggression that Black girls face in their cross-cultural exchanges while navigating a school that ignores them. Fordham spent two and a half years doing various school and classroom observations, as well as individual phone and in-person interviews with twenty participants who she combined into five composite characters. She highlights how symbolic violence against Black girls is often acted out through the language used in conflicts, and how school officials often overlook its traumatic effects, focusing solely on policing physical altercations.
Fordham relies heavily on Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic violence, misrecognition, and habitus as she illustrates the world that these girls must navigate while striving to gain their high school degree. Drawing on an intersectional analysis, she shows the routine symbolic violence endured by young Black women. For example, Fordham traces the repercussions of an instance when a White girl calls a Black girl “n***** b****” and the Black girl responds by punching her. The predominantly white administration did not understand the symbolic violence that warranted the physical reaction and accordingly only disciplined the Black girl. Fordham explains how this inability to recognize the weight of weaponized language results from the misrecognition Black girls face as they navigate a racialized and gendered social world that refuses to see them in a victim role. On the other hand, their White counterparts are readily understood as the feminine docile archetype and victim, and then protected accordingly.
Through her use of composite characters Fordham examines how Black girls cope with academic achievement, social competition, and female bullying. She describes the constant misrecognition that Black girls face from the people around them. As Black girls are thought to be far from the normalized American standards of femininity, they embark on a process of adultification. This allows them to either dissociate emotions to thrive in an academic environment or confront the institutional tensions created by the Eurocentric learning environment through their perceived personal autonomy through vocal advocacy or physical defense.
Fordham’s five composite characters are representative of the twenty girls in her study. At times this composite caused confusion; it was not clear what patterns were shared among partiipants and what parts were distinct to one person. At the same time, the use of a composite is a testament to the author’s dedication to her study and the anonymity of her participants.
Fordham continues her legacy of strong ethnographic fieldwork at Underground Railroad High. Fordham’s argument for school official’s attention to the symbolic violence endured by Black girls and perceived nice White girls is beautifully demonstrated throughout the book. Her advocacy is extremely pertinent to those studying educational policy, race and schooling, gender and schooling. Fordham does a lovely job of showing how anthropological attention to meaning can be useful to affront structural inequalities. This study is applicable not only to secondary schools but also within higher education, particularly given what Black girls face at predominately White institutions.