Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital is well established in education research, but the related theory of social capital is less well known. Specifically in the field of Indigenous higher education, research on social capital is in its infancy. This paper explores both the positive and negative effects of social capital for Indigenous students in Australian tertiary institutions.Bourdieu’s work on social capital, and the insights he enables into its negative effects, provides a theoretically robust framework to discuss vicious circles of racism, social exclusion and self-defeating social norms. Concerns about how social norms restrict individual mobility or perpetuate self-defeating behaviour within communities are often raised in deficit explanations of Indigenous disadvantage, and constitute an assault on the individual and collective identities of Indigenous peoples. Lateral violence, such as the label ‘coconut’, or the stigma of ‘acting white’, are occasionally used as explanations for downward-levelling social norms and poor educational outcomes, but I argue that these network effects are less dominant in shaping experiences of higher education than often thought. The internalisation of dominant social structures and expectations suggest that the ‘dark side of social capital’ or accusations of ‘acting white’ have more complex explanations than race alone. Rather, factors such as wealth, language, network development and institutional support have greater explanatory power for poor academic outcomes than racialized peer pressure or breakdowns in social norms. A critical approach to social capital disrupts the narrative of dysfunction that often surrounds discussion of social norms and individual mobility. Moreover, this approach also contains sufficient explanatory power for the increasing success of Indigenous students, particularly HDR students, at Australian institutions. Analysing social networks using Bourdieu’s work on cultural, economic and social capital provides a useful strategy to disrupt narratives of self-defeating behaviour that underpin Indigenous education policy. When applied to Indigenous higher education, this framework acknowledges individual practices and community norms, but draws attention to social structures factors that perpetuate poor education outcomes.