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The Reproduction of Inequalities Through Emotional

Capital: The Case of Socializing Low-Income Black Girls

Carissa M. Froyum
Published online: 9 October 2009
Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009
Abstract The concept of emotional capital suggests that adults transfer emotion
management skills to children in ways that are consequential for the social reproduction
of inequalities. Using ethnographic data from a popular after-school program, this study
analyzes the emotional capital transmitted to low-income black girls by staff. They passed
on four aspects of emotional capital: stifling attitude, being emotionally accountable for
peers, sympathizing with adult authority figures, and emotional distancing from cultural
dysfunction. Staff intended to teach girls to manage their emotions as a way to counteract
racism, but the socialization largely promoted emotional deference, thereby reinforcing
racialized, classed, and gendered ideologies.
Keywords Emotion management
Social reproduction
African Americans
Emotion management is the power-infused way individuals cultivate particular feelings
among others or themselves. It entails stir[ring] up a feeling we wish we had, and at other
times [trying] to block or weaken a feeling we wish we did not have (Hochschild 1983,
p. 43). In Arlie Hochschilds The Managed Heart, company scripts increasingly determined
how workers were supposed to think and feel, alienating them from their true emotions.
Since then, research has focused on the identity-related and emotional consequences of
adults emotional labor, but Hochschild said that individuals learn to manage emotions far
earlierin childhood. Whats more, she argued that adults socialize children to manage
emotions in classed and gendered ways that lead to inequality along class and gender lines.
Spencer Cahills (1999) and Diane Reays (2000) notion of emotional capital further
offers a framework to connect emotions to social reproduction through socialization of
youth. Studies on socialization and emotions suggest competing social processes may be at
work. If only individuals from dominant groups learn a detached emotional capital
Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
DOI 10.1007/s11133-009-9141-5
C. M. Froyum (*)
Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminology, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa
50614-0513, USA
e-mail: carissa.froyum@uni.edu
characteristic of high status, socialization likely recreates inequality across class, gender,
and race groups. Passing along the high-status form to marginalized youth may facilitate
social advancement. Alternatively, this socialization may create emotional dissonance
(Hochschild 1983), or gatekeepers may require deferential emotional capital by some but
not others. In turn, the unintended consequences of socialization are important to consider.
This study clarifies how inequalities get reproduced through emotions by examining the
emotional capital that mostly black women adult staffers taught to low-income black girls at
a popular after-school program. It makes three contributions. First, it integrates the
emotional labor and childhood socialization literatures to theorize what emotional capital is
and how it works to reproduce inequalities. Second, it pays particular attention to the
dynamics of racialization, which are largely ignored elsewhere, in relation to emotional
capital. Staff intended to equip girls to combat racism by socializing them to do four things:
stifle attitude, be emotionally accountable for peers, sympathize with adult authority
figures, and distance themselves from their dysfunctional pasts. This emotional capital
was largely deferential, even though it fostered emotional restraint. Third, it illustrates the
consequences of socializing children in emotional restraint versus deference. The former is
unlikely to translate into widespread social advantage because gatekeepers are less likely to
reward it among black girls. The latter comes at the cost of reinforcing racialized, classed,
and gendered ideologies that contribute to the girls marginalized statuses in the first place.
The socialization of emotional capital and social reproduction
Much of the emotion work research treats adults emotional lives as if they operate in isolation
from their lives outside of or before work. But Arlie Hochschild argued that families train
children to manage emotions (see, Chaplin et al. 2005; Garside and Klimes-Dougan 2002).
Other adults are important too. For example, teachers at a therapeutic school taught
emotionally disturbed children how to identify particular emotions and express them
appropriately (Pollak and Thoits 1989). This top-down direct form of emotion socialization
is only one sort, and it pertains to what adults teach and not to what children feel or do.
Corsaros (2005) interpretive reproduction framework suggests that children do not simply
imitate the adult world but appropriate, adapt, and reject information from it to create their
own cultures (see also Mayall 2002). Peers especially shape how children construct identities
and behaviors (Adler and Adler 1998; Thorne 1993). Nonetheless, as Pollak and Thoits
(1989) show, adult culture and socialization provide the background against which children
develop feelings and act. In this study, the didactic emotion lessons at the after-school
program Girlworks (GW) are especially relevant. The black female direct care staff intended
to teach black girls how to manage emotions given that they routinely encountered whites
who imposed their cultural standards upon them. The program provided a safe environment
for girls to practice responding to these cultural standards with few serious consequences. GW
further presumed that other dysfunctional socializing agents, girls families and
peers, ignored or misunderstood the broader racialized context.
The notion of emotional capital (Cahill 1999; Reay 2000) offers a framework for
understanding the socialization of emotions and the broader role that it plays in reproducing
I use the generic term adults to refer to both direct care staff (most of whom were black women) and
white male administrators. I use the term staff or workers to refer to the staff who worked directly with
girls. GW staff refers specifically to the all-woman staff at the Girlworks site, nearly all of whom were
38 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
inequalities. Borrowing from Bourdieus (1984; Bourdieu and Passeron 1977) theory of
cultural capital, emotional capital treats emotions and their management as skills or habits
that translate into social advantages. Emotions are thought of as interactional resources. For
example, in Cahills (1999, p. 111) study, mortuary science students were not horrified by
death because they had all lived, played, and/or worked in and around funeral homes.
Rookie book sellers in Schweingruber and Berns (2005) used their emotional investment in
family or religion to motivate moving on to the next call. Workers transformed their
emotion resources into job skills necessary for stability and advancement. GW adults had
similar intentions: to transfer emotional capital that would facilitate the girls educational
and workplace achievement.
According to Bourdieu, cultural capital plays a central role in reproducing social advantages,
especially by class. Families instill children with class-specific cultural capital; upper-class
families transmit the tastes of luxury that illustrate freedom of choice (Bourdieu 1984).
Because schools both embody and reward high cultural capital, upper-class students excel in
school and receive more education. Their credentials, in turn, allow them to get better jobs
and more capital. Thus, students reproduce their parents class status through the acquisition
of cultural capital. By extension, adults facilitate particular forms of emotional capital among
children by reinforcing group-specific emotion work strategies. Children internalize the
emotional capital of their group. Within a given context, gatekeepers either reward or punish
displays of particular forms of emotion management.
Scholars have critiqued Bourdieus notion of a universal form of high cultural capital
(Kingston 2001), illustrating that cultural hegemony varies by social context (Morris 2007;
Tyson 2003). Non-dominant groups establish their own cultural codes, which they use to
include or exclude others within their cultural milieu. It is unclear if there is a high
emotional capital. While high-status individuals seem to be free to express anger, they
develop a removed and restrained form of emotional capital that often appears effortless
(Erickson and Ritter 2001; Hochschild 1983; Pierce 1995; Smith 2008). Mortuary science
instructors, for example, train students to see cadavers analytically, as cases, rather than
as the body of someones beloved grandmother (Cahill 1999). Emotional control and
autonomy, in turn, may be universalized markersand requirementsof high status. Like
some of the cultural capital literature, this suggests the presence or absence of a particular
form of emotional capital may be a primary instrument of social reproduction. Adults, then,
could foster social advancement via its socialization among marginalized children.
The emotional capital literature on class points to the dominance of emotional self-monitoring
and self-control. Adults seem to foster this form of emotional capital among middle-class (and
higher) but not working-class youth. Basil Bernstein (2003) found that feelings were the
modus operandi for interaction and discipline in personal middle-class families. Parents
persuaded children to adapt their behavior based on others and their own feelings so that they
internalized their parents standards. Kohn (1977) also found that middle-class adults
controlled children by creating feeling rules (Hochschild 1983): they disciplined based on
childrens feelings and intentions rather than behavior. By setting feeling rules early, adults
teach children to be self-regulating and to display emotions to get their way. Middle-class
emotional capital, thus, means getting needs met through emotion-based self-monitoring and
self-assertion, and these forms of emotion work seem necessary to successfully navigate
institutions associated with the middle class.
Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754 39
Feelings tend to be deferential and externally controlled in working-class settings, which
lead children to stifle resentment or risk being disciplined. Bernsteins working-class
positional families externalized authority based on status positions. Parents expected children
to do as they were told, and they appealed to their status as adults to establish legitimacy. Kohn
(1977) found that working-class families punished children based on disruptive or disobedient
behaviors; their emotional states were less important. Among working-class children, thus,
obedience and conformity are at a premium; emotional acuity is not. They learn to manage
their own emotions in response to higher status individuals around them. This form of
emotional capital, in turn, prepares working-class children for low-status work, which often
requires deferential emotional labor where the boss or customer is always righteven
when demanding publics (Williams 2003) sexually harass or degrade them (Newman 1999;
Pierce 1995). Low-status individuals engage in caretaking where they are required to be
emotionally available to bosses, providing comfort and validation (Lively 2000).
The gender literature, however, challenges the notion of a universally rewarded form of
emotional capital. Instead, even though emotional detachment and restraint may
characterize high-status jobs, they themselves seem to be gendered. Employers overvalue
these masculinized forms of emotion management as professional (Lewis 2005; Lively
2000). Men also dominate jobs that have the emotional autonomy and authority to set
feeling rules for others, while women dominate jobs that require deferential aspects of
emotional capital like empathizing and validating others (Guy and Newman 2004;
Hochschild 1983; Pierce 1995). Moreover, gatekeepers reward and punish different forms
of emotional capital based on the gender of the actor. Pierce (1995) found that while men
paralegals were to be aloofly polite, women paralegals were to be engaged, friendly, and
supportive. Supervisors often evaluate women as cold or uncooperative when they
perform masculinized emotional detachment (Wharton 1999).
Engaging in deferential emotion work also seems to be required of girls, creating a standard of
femininity at a young age. Emotional accommodation of others is a central way for middle-class
white girls especially to gain approval as appropriately feminine so that it becomes a focus of
their socialization. As Brown (2005, p. 155) explains, Nice girls are kind, caring; they listen;
they do not hurt others, get in trouble, or cause scenes; they do not express anger openly or say
what they want directly; they do not brag or call attention to themselves. Girls learn early on
that adults and boys expect emotional deference, and caretaking brings their approval. Parents
dismiss girls expressions of anger but reward sadness, fear, and anxiety (Chaplin et al. 2005;
Garside and Klimes-Dougan 2002). Emotional detachment or assertion for girls/women, thus,
often comes at the cost of gender deviance (Fordham 1993; Morris 2007).
The scarce literature on race and emotion management further challenges the claim that a
universal form of emotional capital functions similarly across groups. Black adults are
keenly aware of the emotional double bind (Smith 2008; Thoits 1985) that accompanies
being black. Many white gatekeepers resent assertive black children whom they perceive as
disrespectfuland they punish them for emotional willfulness that they reward among
white boys (Ferguson 2000; Suizzo et al. 2008). To counteract this, many black adults
40 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
foster a sense of history, pride, self-respect, and independence (Constantine and Blackmon
2002; see McLoyd et al. 2000 for a review). They socialize children to distance themselves
emotionally from racist discourses that dysfunctionalize them. Children, in turn, may
develop positive senses of self and connection to other blacks, while maintaining the
emotional control that a high status demands.
But black adults with class anxiety seem to take a different approach: fostering
deferential forms of emotional capital in black youth to demonstrate respect for authority or
overcome racist views of blacks as troublemakers (Kaplan 1997; Morris 2007; Tyson
2003). Hill (2005) found that newly middle-class families taught children to deal with
racism by being submissive and respectful of white authority. In Anderson (1999) and
Kaplan (1997), class-anxious adults who considered themselves to be role models were
respectful of and deferential to authorityand they expected children to be too. Similarly, those
who socialized children during the particularly turbulent pre-Brown v. Board of Education era
conveyed messages of fear of whites and a need for deference (Brown and Lesane-Brown
2006). In class-anxious environments, then, black adults may socialize black youth in
deferential emotional capital that promotes suppressing anger in favor of self-restraint that
explicitly respects authority.
Together, these literatures suggest different processes of social reproduction. Some
evidence points to social reproduction through the socialization of a detached and assertive
form of emotional capital. Adults may facilitate upward mobility among low-status children
by socializing them in this dominant form. Other evidence suggests that emotional capital
functions differently among low-status and high-status groups. I set out to clarify the sort of
emotional capital socialized at GW, the role that racialization played in that socialization,
and the consequences of advocating emotional restraint versus deference.
Data and methods
After-school programs play an important role in the development of children, particularly
their academic and social skills. This analysis arises from an ethnographic project
conducted at Girlworks (GW), an after-school program in a mid-sized southern city that
provided recreational, educational, and life-skills programs. The mission was to help girls
achieve their potential and become productive adults through youth development. The
larger study analyzes the youth development strategies used to change the cultural capital of
(mostly) low-income black girls and boys. GWs parent organization had six program sites
throughout the city, two of which were primary sites of my participant observation between
October 2004 and June 2006. The parent agency had a white male executive director, a
white male assistant director, and an elite board of 34 white businessmen, eight white
women, and one black man. Each site had direct care staff, many of whom resented the
racial and gender hierarchy within the agency. Experienced black women staffers, in
particular, felt mistreated by white administrators. They felt that they had to repress their
anger and frustration in public, however, in order to keep their jobs. The analysis here relies
heavily on the observations at GW and the interviews with staffers and volunteers who
worked directly with girls. GW was the program site that served black girls between six and
12 years old.
It was located within a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood.
The second primary site of observations was Boyworks, a similarly organized program for low-income
black boys ages six to 12. Boyworks, with mostly black men as workers, also housed a teen program for
mostly black girls and boys. Other sites had a mixture of boys and girls from various backgrounds. Their
staff consisted of black, white, and Latino women and men.
Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754 41
Ninety-five percent of GW girls were black, and they were disproportionately low-income.
About 150 girls attended the after-school program daily for up to five and a half hours. GWhad
two full-time salaried positions: a director, who managed the programming, budget, and staff;
and a physical education director, who ran recreation programs and supervised part-time staff.
About a dozen part-time workers, generally college students, and a wide range of volunteers
also worked with girls. GW staffers were all women, and only one or two were not black at any
given time. The board, administration, staff, and volunteers all believed in the organizations
mission, but the black direct care staffers implemented the mission and had considerable
autonomy over how to do so.
I participated in nearly every aspect of after-school life, including life-skills groups,
sporting events, art classes, volunteer orientations, and fundraising events. While
technically a volunteer, I used Thornes (1993) friend strategy of distancing from
authority to bond with the kids from the start (also Moore 2001). I played with the girls
and sat with them during groups and timeouts. Both girls and staff tried to get me to
discipline girls, but I only did so when serious harm or my credibility with the staff was at
stake. As the girls got to know me, I invested more time in socializing with the staff but
rejected authority positions whenever possible. This analysis developed out of my
conflicted experience of being expected to act like an adult who disciplined the girls,
while participating as the object of discipline alongside the girls. Also, GW discipline
took on a harsh and emotional character not present at the other sites for boys and kids of
various backgrounds. Thus, a focus of my analysis became understanding the discipline
GW staffers used, its origins, its comparison to other possible strategies, and the
unintended consequences. I spent around 300 hours in the field and collected around
2,000 pages of fieldnotes and transcripts. My analysis strategy was inductive in nature,
following a modified grounded theory approach (Charmaz 2001). It was designed to
explicate and theorize social processes by generalizing across social situations or
specifying the influence of context on particular processes. Observations focused on
descriptions of the field sites, verbal and nonverbal communication among staff and
children, and cultural styles. I wrote detailed extended field notes. Theoretical memos,
self-reflections, and note-on-notes were early analyses. More thorough analysis came in
the form of analytic memos.
I also conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with 40 direct care staff,
adminstrators, volunteers, fundraisers, a board member, and kid clients. Sixteen adults
worked directly with girls: seven were women GW staffers (one was white), six worked
with girls at other sites (three black men, one white man, one black women, one white
woman), and three volunteered (two white women, one black woman). This analysis also
includes information from interviews with three administrators and a board member.
Interviews were designed to capture adults work experiences, their relationships with kids
and staff, their evaluations of kids, and experiences of racism. Each lasted one and a half to
two hours. My analysis focused on understanding how the staff and volunteers made sense
of their work and its consequences.
The final form of data was documents. I collected promotional brochures, curriculum
books for the life-skills programs, posters, websites, fundraising materials, volunteer
mailings, print ads, and newspaper articles. For both the interviews and artifact data, I used
the same inductive coding strategies as I did with the fieldnotes.
Three interviewed adults have had more than one role within the organization. For example, one
administrator is a former direct care worker at GW. Thus, she is reported as both a (former) direct care
worker and an administrator. Analysis of her interview takes into account her dual role.
42 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
Stifling attitude
As with many who serve low-income black youth, GW direct care staffers were anxious
that the girls would struggle to achieve academically and economically. Their biggest hope
was for them to have stable careers and fulfilling family lives as adults, but they feared the
prospects for success were tenuous. Within this context, workers considered emotional
displays by black girls to be not just annoying but dangerous. Acting out of emotion,
particularly anger or surliness, suggested girls were out of control and difficult. Emotive
girls, according to the staff, had attitude. They bucked traditional white definitions of
femininity by being unladylike: not demure, accommodating, or friendly but hot-tempered,
assertive, difficult to handle, even mean. Emotional displays seemed to exemplify the
stereotypes of black girls as unfeminine, irrational, and angry. As Danielle Brown, a black
college student working part-time at GW, described, girls with attitude get upset easily.
Maybe say something they shouldnt. Lashing out was the essence of attitude for Amber
Johnson, another young black part-time worker. Even though she recognized it as
stereotypical, Casey Owens, a black college student on the full-time staff, considered
many girls to be argumentative and combative:
This is truly a Girlworks, cause you could tell they had attitudes. Some of the older
girls just walk around with attitudes. You could tell they had attitudes, and its always
arguing. Most of the arguing was he say, she say. I know its still a stereotype, but it
was girly. . . . They say girls have attitudes, especially black females have attitudes.
Its just how it is.
Attitude fundamentally meant being subversive, of making ones own rules for behavior,
rather than following those expected by authority figures. It could be accompanied by eye
rolling, sucking teeth, or getting in someones faceall considered blatantly disrespectful.
Thus, staff routinely criticized girls for being emotive, especially when they did not get
their way. In those cases, they told the girls to dry those crocodile tears, stop crying,
cut the attitude, or man up, as a poster in Caseys office put it. All of the staff
considered girls to be full of unnecessary drama, which made their work lives more difficult
and drained them emotionally. From their perspective, dramatic girls were unpredictable
and unresponsive to reason. Instead, their emotions dictated their reactions, which resulted
in overreactions that sometimes escalated into dramatic scenes that required extensive
handling. Emotional reactions, staff thought, made problems worse rather than better.
In the same way, staff feared that emotional displays left already vulnerable girls subject
to mistreatment by others, particularly white teachers. Attitudes got girls into trouble, they
believed, because they prompted adults to punish them for being disrespectful. Acting out
of rational deliberation, alternatively, seemed to offer protection to girls because adults
would be more responsive and slower to judge. Girls routinely complained during life-skills
groups that teachers punished them unfairly. They attributed their (mis)treatment to racism:
their white teachers held biased views that black kids were troublemakers and so assumed
that they were misbehaving. Many girls, particularly the older preteens, took great offense
at their teachers targeted discipline, and they struggled with how to respond. Negotiating
these dynamics was a primary topic of conversation between group leaders and the girls.
Based on their own personal experiences, including at GW where white administrators
made racially offensive comments and demanded black women staffers do menial tasks,
staff thought displaying attitude could get blacks into trouble. The more extensive the
Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754 43
staffers contact with whites at GW, the greater their concern about the consequences of
girls displaying emotional willfulness. They thought girls needed better ways of dealing
with their mistreatment, just as they themselves had to develop them in response to GWs
white administration. Thus, GW workers taught girls to suppress resentment and anger, as
they themselves did, so that they could engage in calm dialogue. During a discussion of
how to handle arguments, Danielle Brown, who led many of the life-skills groups,
instructed girls: Contemplate, right? We can contemplate what were gonna say before we
say it. Thats a big thing because if you do, then you stop yourself. Danielle told girls that
as she got older she learned to control her temper. It was this self-control that allowed her to
have adult-like relationships. Danielle laid out similar rules for girls who felt wronged by
teachers. She taught the girls to control their emotional responses to teachers as a sign of
maturity and accessibility:
Danielle: Okay, when you have a disagreement with your teacher, what can you do?
A girl named Selma Blackman says, Id walk away.
Danielle: You cant just walk away. Thats your teacher. Thats an authority figure. . . .
When you have a disagreement with your teacher, or you dont think she understands,
what can you do?
Sharlene Maguire, another girl, says: Switch classes.
Danielle: Well, if its in the middle of the year, you cant switch classes. What else can
you do?
Sharlene: Maybe talk to your teacher.
Danielle: Whens the best time to talk to your teacher?
Several girls: Before class.
Danielle: Before class. And?
Girls together: After class.
Danielle: Talk to your teacher. Pull her aside and ask to speak to her after class. Thats
the best thing to do. Thats an authority figure.
In this exchange, girls responded to Danielles question by suggesting acts of
resistance: they would walk away from the teacher they viewed as illegitimate or
simply avoid him/her by switching classes. From Danielles perspective, these actions
would be counterproductive because they would either reinforce negative stereotypes of
black girls or anger the teacher. A better solution was to acknowledge the teachers
power and talk things through. If the girls were not respectful (i.e., deferent), they
could undercut their own legitimacy and the teachers goodwill. Controlling their
emotional displays was part of gaining the teachers favor.
Life-skills curricula that laid out decision-making steps designed to control emotional
responses in favor of rational ones reinforced the staffs lessons. The violence and gang
prevention program directly connected decision making to impulse control across nine
weekly sessions. After dissecting a situation in which conflict has arisen, young people
44 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
learned to slow down and recognize their own and others emotional reactions, particularly
anger. In labeling anger, young people could differentiate between their feelings and their
actionsand implement a series of calming strategies, such as deep breathing and counting,
to gain self-control. Then, the curriculum instructed, they could analyze the causes of the
conflict and try to see the situation from the other persons perspective. Children then
reflect on the positive impact of controlling their impulses and the negative effect of failing
to so that they make decisions that produce a non-violent, conciliatory result. They
practiced this rational, instrumental model of decision making through role playing. This
model defined emotional control as the appropriate aspect of emotional capital but also
gave girls practice in developing it.
Being emotionally accountable for peers
Emotional accountability for others was the second aspect of emotional capital at GW. Staff
framed girls as responsible for each other so that they would develop empathy and a sense
of obligation for others. Doing so could facilitate what adults viewed as appropriate, mature
behavior: focusing on school work, staying out of trouble, and being respectful to others.
Occasionally, accountability came in the form of framing the girls as part of a larger group
(e.g., girls, blacks, non-smokers). Being part of the group meant having an emotional
investment in following norms for behavior that mark the group. For example, during a GW
life-skills group, several girls gossiped about a disagreement involving someone in the
room. The group facilitator, a black college student volunteer, tried to stop it by translating
gossip into a violation of their emotional responsibility for others: We are all women, she
explained. As women we need to be nice to [each other]. Were a minority group. Weve
come a long way. We need to lift each other up, not tear each other down. As individuals
with a shared status, the girls were to empathize with each other, making them responsible
for protecting each others feelings. Staff also encouraged girls to join clubs and groups at
GWto shape their behavior by creating a sense of responsibility to each other. Casey
Owens started Kids Against Tobacco, an anti-tobacco program. During meetings, the girls
swapped stories about the grossness of smoking, proclaiming I hate tobacco! It makes
you smell bad! They researched statistics on the risks of smoking and then took to the
streets: they held up anti-tobacco signs and shouted slogans at passing motorists. This
group was more than an education program; it created a sense of group cohesion so that
membership fostered positive peer pressure to avoid smoking. Girls responsibility was not
just to their own health but to the fulfilling each others expectations to remain tobacco free.
Staff used similar frames to promote sexual abstinence and dedication to schoolwork.
More often, the staff fostered emotional accountability for others under the guise of
being role models. They framed mentors as having an emotional responsibility to act
appropriately because other girls looked up to them. Making good decisions helps you be
a better peer helper, Danielle Brown explained to a group of 10- to 12-year old girls. All
of you are peer helpers. Look up there [referring to a poster listing many positive character
traits she wanted the girls to espouse].Here, we really need you. Other girls look up to
you. Being a peer leader meant that girls were supposed to make good decisions so that
others could mimic their behavior. For this reason, staff required older girls to read to
younger girls: it was their responsibility to make sure that each girl was succeeding in
school. Peer mentorship was a way for girls to help others. Helpers (Grant 1984; Moore
2001), then, could take pride in their peers acting appropriately or getting good grades.
Indeed, many girls took pride in the labels helpers, peer leaders, and junior staffers.
When asked during interviews how they came to be peer mentors and what they got out of
Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754 45
it, girls cited their ability to help people as the primary motivation and reward. Their
accountability for others could bring a sense of fulfillment that comes with emotion work
(Lewis 2005; Williams 2003).
In practice, the staffs efforts only occasionally translated into the sort of mentor-mentee
socialization they hoped. Girls spent much of their time in age-graded groups that inhibited
it, and the older girls had a room to themselves to spend free time. Still, older girls did
socialize younger girls in GW rules and appropriate behaviors when individually
empowered to do so. Sharice Harnett, a black full-time GW worker in her late 20s, for
example, assigned 11-year-old Andrea Pixler as my helper in the computer lab. Andrea
took charge: turning on the computers and monitoring the girls. She checked the girls
screens to be sure they were doing homework rather than playing games, and she kicked
out girls who broke rules. Maryann Dushane, a 12-year-old junior staffer, took charge
during a summer lunch, as my fieldnotes recount:
Although the girls seem relatively quiet, several staff members work to quiet them more.
They dim the lights, yell out Quiet! and initiate a clapping call and response. When
these dont work, they resort to timeouts: calling out girls and sending them to the
coatroomwhere they stand facing a wall. Maryann also sends girls out. She picks two at a
time, calls them by name, and points, Tammy, Maureen, you go. Then she trails her
finger from them to the door, motioning them to leave. They all leave when ordered.
Even though Maryann frequently broke the rules herself, she used her position as junior
staffer to yell at people, as another girl described the role. Being in charge or picked by
the staff made girls feel important and powerful. Girls gave orders to other girls, but they
rarely justified their actions or interpreted them in emotional terms like the staff did. The
most frequent form of peer emotion socialization was to tell another girl to stop crying or
its okay after an injury or argument. Peer leader titles, thus, mostly served to control the
older girls emotions and, thus, their behaviors directly rather than the younger girls
actions indirectly through peer socialization.
Whats more, being accountable for others could foster negative feelings. Girls who
failed to live up to GWs standards not only let themselves down but they let the staff and
other girls down. Occasionally, GW staff used disappointment and other negative emotions
to motivate appropriate behavior. Most often, they pointed out the potentially negative
effects of particular actions on others, evoking a sense of guilt or shame. A life-skills
program manual, for example, applied the rational decision making model to sexual
activity. Girls were to ask themselves a series of reflective questions, including, Can I
handle the guilt and emotions that I may feel if I decide to have sex? and How will my
decision to have sex impact others, like my family and friends? These questions framed
sexual activity as breaking others expectations, and the girl who engaged in it as
potentially stricken with guilt as a way to motivate her sexual restraint.
Shaming was evident during group punishments in which the staff held the entire group
responsible for the misbehavior of a few. GW staff silenced the group or placed them into
timeout for extended periods of time. The more irritated the staff grew, the more hostile their
tone and the more biting the emotional lesson. The following description from my fieldnotes
was typical of group timeouts at GW, although the timeout lasted longer than usual:
Casey Owens comes out of the library: Ladies in the games room, sit down. Her
tone is stern and on the edge of cracking from anger. Thats it. Sit down, right now.
You are too loud. Sit down. The girls and I sit down on the floor. Casey yells at the
girls in the back, Move forward. Get away from the back wall. Lucinda Dunway, a
46 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
black part-time front desk worker, is standing there now. She becomes the guardian of
the girls in timeout. She stands behind the desk, arms crossed, watching them. Every
few minutes, Lucinda rebukes, I dont want to hear nothing, not even breathing.
Then, The longer you talk, the longer you sit. Why are you still talking? I still
hear talking. Other staff members chime in. The program director from her office: I
know you all arent talking. Libby Stewart, a black part-time worker, responds,
Shh. Yes, they are. Casey walks into the room and instructs a group of girls, Move
up away from the wall.
Here, like at other times, staff conveyed their disappointment in the girls with their tones
and body language. They reiterated that while individual girls had violated the expectations
of the staff, all girls were responsible. The emotional lesson was clear: breaking of the rules
required immediate and severe correction, and they ought to feel bad about it.
Sympathizing with adult authority figures
Staff also encouraged girls to develop sympathy for adult authority figures, as a way to take
on their perspective. They emphasized the negative effects of girls behavior on the staff.
The girls actions mattered because the staff had feelings and reputations invested in them.
For the black women staffers, GW work was often exhausting. Their sense of
accomplishment from seeing girls improve or do well in school was the biggest reward
of their work, particularly for the staff who routinely interacted with the white
administrators they regarded as disrespectful and racist. Girls bad behavior, in turn, left a
sense of betrayal. Staff conveyed the emotional toll on them directly to the girls during
times of heightened frustration. When some girls stole video games, for example, Sharice
Harnett, one of GWs full-time workers, rebuked the girls by highlighting her feelings:
Dont tell me that you dont know who has it. . . . Moneys not the issue. That was my
game, and Im upset. If you know who has it, speak up. If you have my game, you better
bring it back. And rest assured, youll be gone from here for a while. Sharice described the
videogame as my game, emphasizing that the games were hers, not the agencys. This
discursive possessiveness characterized the girls misdeed as a personal affront to Sharice.
She became the object/victim so that the girls actions were thought of in relational and
subjective terms. Girls were to consider the effect of their behavior on her and her feelings
by placing themselves in her shoes.
Black direct care staffers frequently took symbolic possession of the girls by referring to
them as my girls or our girls, or by calling the program my Girlworks. Taking
ownership illustrated a sense of a shared community. But it also had the consequence of
personalizing the girls practices as either a sign of respect or disrespect to individual staff
members. When girls acted out, then, the staff personalized it by framing their actions as an
affront targeted at them, as Sharice did. Libby Stewart, a black college student working
part-time, similarly personalized poor school performance as disrespectful to her:
Im very disappointed in your report cards. . . . Were here to help you. Thats our job.
But we cant read your minds. You have to tell us if you need help with something.
Tell me or Miss Danielle. Were here to help you. Im very disappointed. Very. Not
acceptable. Makes me look like Im not doing my job. (emphasis added)
White administrators at GW considered Libby responsible for the girls school
performances, so she drew sympathy from the girls by pointing out that their misbehavior
made her look incompetent. She expected girls to do better, in part, to please her and to
Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754 47
show others that she was good at her job. Laura Herman, a stern white GW full-time
worker, similarly told girls, Im tired of you talking.You need to be quiet. Im tired of
this [emphasis added].
Other workers explained during interviews that girls obedience in general represented
respect to them. As Amber Johnson put it, If you present yourself [to the kids] as an authority
figure, theyre going to respect you. Staff believed that it was only when girls did not respect
authority that they misbehaved. GW staff, thus, routinely personalized the girls behaviors as a
way to shape their behavior. They requested girls be quiet and obedient as a sign of respect for
the staffs investment in GW. Sympathy, in other words, bolstered the staffs authority.
Although rarer, GW staff sometimes expected girls to prioritize the emotional needs of
adults over their own. They legitimized white teachers by teaching girls to sympathize with
them. Their position entitled them to respect and obedience, a lesson some girls resisted
because they considered teachers racist. When Danielle raised the issue of stereotyping to
the girls during a life-skills group I observed, Maryann Dushane, the junior staffer, said a
teacher once called her stupid. Her story provoked other girls to frame adults as
incompetent bullies. According to the girls, teachers judged them based on their friends,
which, as 12-year-old Portia Cooper put it, meant they stereotype you based on who you
hang out with. Even though you dont do what they do, [teachers] stereotype you.
Although Danielle was trying to prevent the girls from stereotyping others, the girls
transformed the discussion into one about their victimization and attempts to counter it. I
asked the group why they thought some people stereotyped others. Tanika Bartky, a preteen
with a street style, responded:
They do it to make you real small so that they feel big.
Lisa Martin, another girl in the group: They get to feel bigger than you.
A girl named Alexandra Meeker points out that some kids act badly, though.
Danielle: What Carissas trying to get at here is, think about why the teachers think
what they do about you. What sort of behavior makes them think that? Not your
behavior. But how do kids act that make them think that?
Alexandra: Crazy.
Danielle: Yeah, so the teachers learn they act that way.
In this exchange, Danielle reframed my question to force girls to take the subject
position of their teachers. The focus shifted from the teachers behavior from the girls
point of view to the girls behavior from the teachers point of view. Doing so made the
teachers behavior, even if wrong in some moral way, make logical sense. This framework
forced girls to sympathize with the authority figure they thought had mistreated them.
Sharice Harnett, the full-time GW worker, handled girls complaints of racism similarly.
A girl complained to her that Im not getting good grades cause this ladys old and shes
white. Sharice described her response to me in an interview:
[I] talk to them about [how] its not a race thing. Its the problem that youre dealing
with. And then I always ask them when they start having problems, I always ask
them, well, what have you done to try to rectify the situation? Have you went and
talked to the teacher? Or are you just going to take it and leave it? And how if you did
48 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
go talk to the teacher, how did you approach them? Did you approach them with an
attitude? That type of stuff.
Sharice again trained the girls to consider how they interacted with adults by
encouraging them to reflect on their behavior as an instigator of mistreatment. Doing so
framed the teachers behavior as logical and, therefore, legitimate, while discounting the
girls critique of racism.
Emotional distancing from their dysfunctional pasts
Finally, the staff trained the girls to distance themselves emotionally from people who shared
their background and experiences. Direct care staff, volunteers, and administratorswhite and
black alikeframed the girls cultural backgrounds as problematic, if not dysfunctional, during
interviews. They viewed women as single moms who partied too much and cared too little.
Warner Thomas, an experienced black direct care worker at a site for black boys and teens,
described, for example, Theres some parents that could just care less. Give me my crack. Give
me my marijuana. Give me my beer. Give me my cigarettes. And thats all I want to deal
with. Leave my kid here until 8:00 [late at night]. Adults feared daughters would also
become single moms who partied and devalued education. In response, the direct care staff
conditioned girls to (re)interpret their background as something to reject and move past.
Getting kids to not settle and to lift themselves out of that, as a white administrator and
direct care worker at another site put it, meant [seeing] beyond the walls of their
community. It meant rejecting their pasts in favor of something more. It did not matter if
the characterization of families was inaccurateas it often wasbecause what staff
rewarded was the cultural orientation of moving outward and upward. They demanded that
the girls want to be better than their parents:
We have so many different situations over here, parents not here and that type of
stuff. But you pick up in the kids that they want to have a better life because they
dont want to do what Mom and Dad did. . . . And they will go to every program area,
and they will come to anything you offer. And those are the kids that you know are
reaching out for your help, that need just that little push. And with that little push
theyre going to be well on their way. (interview with Sharice Harnett)
Staff sought out girls who want a better life and dont want to live like Mom and
Dad to give them an extra push and opportunities. Libby Stewart evaluated girls by the
same criteria: successful girls used their background and struggles to motivate change in
their lives:
And what I tell them is, The things you go through in life should be your stepping
stone. . . . If you dont like your situation, thats why you need to go school. . . . You
gotta make that your stepping stone. Youre already being told by that to do more for
you. [Its a sign that you want more.] Your mom aint doing it. Your mom might not
be in a situation where she can do more. But you do more for you when youre able
to. . . . Just let the things that go on in your life that you dont agree with or you wish
could be changed or wish could be better, you let that be your strength to do [more]
for yourself.
In other words, if a girl did not want to be poor and destitute like her mother, she must aspire
to do more, to be more. Adults evaluated these girls as having initiative. Demonstrating their
commitment to hard work and success, thus, meant creating emotional distance between the
Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754 49
past and the future, bad and good, others and self. Distancing from problematic others was the
solution, reinforcing that the girls were entitled to a better life because they were morally
superior to those who shared their same background and identities.
Emotional capital is an important but too often overlooked subject of childhood socialization,
particularly in the race literature. This study set out to examine two aspects of that socialization:
how adults taught a marginalized group of children to manage emotions, and the consequences
of socialization for the children and the reproduction of inequalities. Girlworks staff taught girls
to recognize the broader cultural meanings of particular aspects of emotional capital. While
displaying an attitude could help girls get their way, authority figures frowned on it as
unfeminine and symbolic of a troublemaker. Stifling attitude, on the other hand, reportedly
promoted responsible behavior among the girls, which could protect them from getting into
fights and invest them in doing well in school. Staff also touted the importance of emotionally
investing in helping others, which symbolized a girls maturity and appropriateness for
leadership. Staff trained girls to avoid or suppress negative emotionsand replace them with a
sense of obligation to foster positive emotional states in others. While emotional capital
emphasized emotional restraint, doing so was largely reactive and deferential: to fit the
expectations of powerful others around them.
Staff were intentionally didactic in their lessons. They wanted to equip the girls with
strategies to stifle their negative emotions and develop emotional connections to those in
power. From GWs example, we see that racism provides a precarious broader context in
which adults try to foster attainment among children. Staffers believed the girls faced biased
evaluations and treatment from white adults, especially teachers. Although they take
different approaches, black adults routinely train black children to recognize and respond to
racism (Constantine and Blackmon 2002; McLoyd et al. 2000). At GW, fitting in meant
adopting emotional capital in order to ease their interactions with authority figures, and
rejecting the capital considered dysfunctional. These largely deferential forms of emotional
capital were to serve as emotional bridges (Schweingruber and Berns 2005) between the
girls current selvespurportedly incomplete, socially dysfunctionaland the selves they
were to becomesuccesses in a white world.
Of course, girls did not simply internalize the emotion lessons of GW, as the resistance
to life-skills lessons illustrated. Children are social agents who react to and shape their own
social realities (Corsaro 2005; Mayall 2002). While more research is needed on
marginalized childrens actual emotion practices, this study illustrates a background against
which children learn to manage emotions. Furthermore, it offers its own theoretical
implications for how emotions reproduce inequalities.
Here, as with Pollak and Thoits (1989) study, adults were most restrictive about
emotional capital when children deviated from emotion norms, particularly when
expressing anger (see also the flight attendants in Hochschild 1983). The deliberative
transfer of deferential emotional capital at GW played out because of two processes with
broader ramifications. First, the staff wanted respect as authority figures. The girls
misbehaviors reflected their supposed incompetence as workers, and they took disobedience
personally. Their accountability for so many girls led to role overload that was exhausting (Lois
2006; Thoits 1985). Thus, staff mitigated their own negative emotions and, ultimately,
emotional burnout, by socializing girls in deferential emotional capital. Because white
administrators often left their emotional needs for reassurance and a sense of importance
50 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
unfulfilled, the black staff turned to meeting them from the source they could readily control:
the girls. The girls deference made their work easier and left staff feeling important. To a
similar consequence, poor black teens with few status resources reinforce the centrality of
their own heterosexuality and shun their homosexual peers (Froyum 2007), and fast food
employees emphasize their identity as workers and contrast it to the lazy non-workers
around them (Newman 1999). In each case, individuals with a low status redefined their own
social position as dominant in relation to their peers. Thus, in mitigating the negative
emotions attached to their own marginalized statuses, individuals often reinforce inequality
along new lines (e.g., age, sexuality, worker status).
Second, the staff most exposed to whites in authority over them most vehemently
promoted deferential emotional capital. The racial and gendered hierarchy within the
agency built resentment among black women staffers with the longest tenures, for whom
managing anger was critical to preventing burnout and defiance that might jeopardize their
jobs. In other words, the staff were teaching girls to negotiate at school the same struggles
they negotiated at work. The staffs solution was to repress their negative emotions in
public because they feared expressiveness would jeopardize their good standing with white
administrators. Instead, anger became something they expressed privately to other blacks
and whites whom they trusted. This was the same generic approach they promoted with the
girls. Repeated racist encounters with whites, thus, seem to foster the class anxiety evident
in the non-emotion racial socialization literature. For those adults, fitting in with whites
through cultural assimilation or emotional deference is key to school and work achievement
(Anderson 1999; Brown and Lesane-Brown 2006; Tyson 2003). Maintaining a secure job
that pays a consistent wage is an important byproduct of deferential emotional capital; the
personal emotional or identity costs are less important to them than material stability.
But there are substantial personal costs of promoting deference, which further clarify the
connection among emotions, identities, and ideologies that reinforce inequalities.
At GW, staffers, administrators, and volunteers promoted a white middle-class feminized
version of emotional capital characterized by emotional accommodation (Brown 2005;
Chaplin et al. 2005; Fordham 1993; Garside and Klimes-Dougan 2002). Emotional
investment in helping others was a way for girls to illustrate that they were worthy,
regardless of their race or class. It also allowed them to challenge the stereotype of black
girls as assertive and intimidating, thereby informing gatekeepers perceptions that they
were conventional and well behaved rather than different and in need of controlling.
Inherent within this project (Morris 2007, p. 510), however, was the overvaluing of white
middle-class feminized cultural standards and an assumption that black and working-class
youth were culturally deficient. After all, it was the cultural practices connoted with these
marginalized groups that supposedly needed correcting. Whats more, GW adults framed
emotional deference as directly contradicting socialization by the girls families and peers.
They conditioned the girls to distance themselves from loved ones and displace their own
resistance to being stereotyped, even though the girls felt deeply connected to their families
and their indignation kept them from being paralyzed by the fear and shame that accompanies
marginalized statuses. Rather than directly counteracting the message of cultural deficiency
inherent within promoting emotional deference, then, the staff often reinforced it or drew on it
to shape the girls behavior. By teaching them to become emotionally accommodating, staff
fostered negative ideologies attached to the girls own identities. Ironically, they did so that
girls could cope with racism and achieve.
Emotional deference among marginalized youth, furthermore, often comes at the stake
of positive racial identities, high self-esteem, and school achievement. It produces a
confusing emotional dissonance (Hochschild 1983) or norm-state discrepancy (Thoits
Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754 51
1985) regarding who they are and what that means. In turn, girls likely have more anger
and anxiety to mask, creating greater feelings of inauthenticity and alienation (Erickson and
Ritter 2001). In Fordhams (1993) study, for example, the pressure to be silent and invisible
in order to fit whitewashed and sexist expectations at school left black girls feeling
unsupported in their academic pursuits and isolated from their peers. Similarly, teachers
often disciplined girls who appeared unladylike in Morris (2007) study. Most girls
eventually acquiesced by rejecting the bolder, assertive aspects of femininity traditionally
associated with black cultures, eventually undercutting their academic performance.
At times, GW staff counteracted messages of cultural deficiency with positive messages
about being a girl. But they rarely did so in terms of being black, leaving the connotation that
black is bad in particular unchallenged. Previous research shows that redefining blackness as an
asset is critical to maintaining a positive sense of self and connection to community (Constantine
and Blackmon 2002; McLoyd et al. 2000). As Tyson (2003, p. 339) argues, Positioning
minority students for success requires a delicate balance of explanation and affirmation. That
is, adults must contextualize their socialization lessons while simultaneously reinforcing racial
pride to mitigate costs to individuals. Without both parts, furthermore, deferential emotional
capital reinforces the ideologies that devalue marginalized statuses in the first placethe
notions of blackness, poverty, and girlhood as inferior and dysfunctional.
This study also illustrates that subordinate positioning often requires emotional restraint and
detachment, calling into question a universally appealing emotional capital. Social positioning
shapes how others interpret emotional capital. Individuals from marginalized groups risk
negative assessment through their emotional assertiveness. In high-status positions, then,
detachment serves as a means to dominate others by setting the emotional agenda and
requiring particular emotion work by others (Schwalbe et al. 2000, pp. 434439). It is this
power dynamic and not the type of the emotional capital per se that matters. Outside of their
peer relations, black girls lack the authority and autonomy to dominate through emotion
Thus, teaching marginalized children the emotional capital of the dominant groupto be
emotionally assertive and detachedalone is unlikely to facilitate social advancement or
widespread acceptance in white-controlled institutions as long as gatekeepers interpret their
emotion practices in raced, gendered, and classed ways. At the same time, socializing children
in deferential emotional capital facilitates othering along new dimensions of inequality. It also
facilitates racialized, classed, and gendered ideologies that create emotional dissonance and
inauthentic feelings. The clearest way to mitigate these consequences is to positively redefine
what it means to have a marginalized status (i.e., to be black or a girl), and to fashion youths
identities and emotional capital around those definitions rather than around fitting the dominant
groups expectations.
This study points to the potential of conceptualizing emotional management as a skill practiced
early in childhood rather than just adulthood. Much more research is needed, however, to
understand the development and use of emotional capital. Future research should compare the
emotional capital taught to young people from different class, race, and gender positions. Also,
we should explore the extent to which children internalize or resist the emotion lessons taught to
them by adults and the emotion management styles that develop. Finally, we need more
research looking at the payoffs of different forms of emotional capital: how adults reward or
punish them and the real opportunities that develop.
52 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
Acknowledgments This research was funded in part by a grant fromthe Institute for Nonprofits, North Carolina
State University, and by the Faculty Summer Research Fellowship, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences,
University of Northern Iowa. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Current Research on Women
Forum at the University of Northern Iowa in the fall of 2007 and at the American Sociological Association in
Boston, August 2008. Thank you to Barbara J. Risman, Marybeth Stalp, Cyndi Dunn, Gayle Rhineberger-Dunn,
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54 Qual Sociol (2010) 33:3754
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