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«In this article, I examine the ways in which silences around race contribute to the maintenance and legitimation of Whiteness. Drawing on ethnographic ...»

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“I Don’t Want to Hear That!”: Legitimating Whiteness

through Silence in Schools


Northern Arizona University

In this article, I examine the ways in which silences around race contribute to the maintenance

and legitimation of Whiteness. Drawing on ethnographic data from two demographically

different schools, I highlight patterns of racially coded language, teacher silence, silencing

students’ race talk, and the conflating of culture with race, equality with equity, and difference with deficit. These silences and acts of silencing create and perpetuate an educational culture in which inequities are ignored, the status quo is maintained, and Whiteness is both protected and entrenched. [silence, Whiteness, race] Silence is golden.

—Anonymous If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

—Anonymous Silence is indifference.

—Elie Wiesel He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

I begin this article with these four somewhat disparate quotations about silence to call attention to some common messages Americans hear about silence. The first two statements are probably the most familiar, but I’ve juxtaposed them with the last two to highlight the political and decidedly un-neutral messages in seemingly innocuous calls to “bite our tongues.” Within schools, silence is the norm around a number of topics, and in this article, I examine teachers’ silences around and the silencing of race.

Even though issues of race are always present and are often at the surface of schoolrelated discourse, practice, and policies, educators are consistently silent and socializing students to be silent about them.

My focus on race is important for a number of reasons.1 As much research has shown, race is clearly related to patterned and persistent achievement gaps among students. Race is also an important area of inquiry for school-age youth, particularly in middle school, where identities are being formed and contested. Furthermore, race is central to discussions of normativity, access, and power. In other words, although race is present, it is too often silenced, muted, and ignored within schools (Boler 2004;

Pollock 2004; Schultz 2003; Thompson 2005). Although many educators insist on ignoring race, they are engulfed in a system in which race structures both how schooling operates and the subsequent outcomes of schooling (Ladson-Billings 2005).

By analyzing the silencing of race in one urban school district, I am able to highlight both how race is understood and positioned by teachers and how teachers’ responses to topics of diversity and power are shaped by an overwhelming culture of Whiteness Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Vol. 39, Issue 3, pp.314–333, ISSN 0161-7761, online ISSN 1548-1492.

© 2008 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.


–  –  –

and an awareness of how their own interests as predominately middle class and White may be threatened by adopting a more activist, social-justice-oriented approach to issues of race.2 In this article, I address two primary questions: (1) How and why are issues of race silenced in schools and (2) How and in what ways do these silences surrounding race legitimate Whiteness? My data illustrate how issues of race are silenced through coded language among educators, through teacher silence, through the silencing of students’ inquiries about race, and through the conflating of culture and race, equality and equity, and difference and deficit. An examination of my data illuminates that most White educators are reluctant to name things that are perceived as uncomfortable or threatening to the established social order. In other words, they possess a strong desire for comfort and ideological safety within their classrooms and the school walls. White educators also tend to hold a shared allegiance to the status quo, presumably because it generally works for us. The sum total of these patterns is that race is not part of the accepted or expected discourse within schools. The discourse that is prevalent in schools is instead one of culture, equality, and difference— constructs that are part of the contemporary culture of Whiteness and that merely serve to obscure race, racism, and inequities based on race. The silences around race entrench and rationalize Whiteness because they allow most White educators to maintain the illusion that race either doesn’t matter or doesn’t really exist and to continue schooling in a business as usual fashion.

Research Methods and Context This article is based on data I collected in 2004 and 2005 in an urban school district in Utah. I draw specifically on a subset of the findings from a yearlong ethnographic study that examined teachers’ understandings and practices of multicultural education in one middle school serving primarily low-income students of color and another middle school serving primarily White middle- and upper-class students. I was in the two schools on a full-time basis for one academic year; during that time I observed 12 teachers in each of the two schools, conducted both formal and informal interviews with all 24 teachers and the administrators at each school, and attended faculty meetings and other schoolwide events. I also interviewed 11 district-level administrators, attended district-level professional developments and board meetings, and reviewed pertinent policies, reports, and district publications.

This article draws primarily on my classroom observations within the schools to highlight the ways in which “normal” classroom occurrences contribute to and sustain Whiteness.

During the fall of 2004, the Zion School District served approximately 24,000 students3—39 percent of whom were designated as limited-English proficient, 51 percent of whom were students of color, and 60 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. This diversity is a fairly recent phenomenon that has occurred over the past three decades. As in most diverse school districts, however, teachers, administrators, and those with decision-making power are still largely White, middle- and upper-class, and native English speakers. The district has endured a number of incidents in the past 10–15 years that bear direct relevance to the discussion in this article. The racial and ethnic diversity in the district has recently included an influx of refugee students from Sudan and Somalia, which has 316 Volume 39, 2008 Anthropology & Education Quarterly presented a number of challenges to educators and has resulted in many wellfunded initiatives in the district. The Zion School District has also been under review with the Office of Civil Rights because of allegations of discrimination in the services provided to nonnative English-speaking students.4 This, too, has resulted in countless resources allocated to certifying teachers in English as a Second Language (ESL) and other services for nonnative English-speaking families in the district.

Thus, the district had been engaged in race-related issues for some time prior to my entering as a researcher in 2004. This context led me to believe that the Zion School District would be a particularly interesting place in which to study multicultural education. Furthermore, the fact that the district had an explicit policy on multicultural education seemed to indicate that this educational philosophy and approach would be well integrated throughout the district. Given these multiple factors, it is telling that my data revealed such pervasive silences around issues of race and patterns that resulted in the legitimation—rather than the dismantling—of Whiteness.

I designed the study specifically to examine two different schools because of the pervasive assumptions about the dichotomies between the “eastside” and “westside” of the community. Located on opposite “sides” of the district, Birch Middle School served almost all poor students of color, whereas Spruce Middle School served a predominantly White middle- and upper-class student population. Spruce Middle School is located on the far eastside of the city in a neighborhood of singlefamily bungalow homes. Although the homes are relatively small and higher priced than those near Birch, they are some of the most sought-after homes in the city.

Spruce has long been considered a “good” school within the Zion School District, and their annual performance on the Criterion Reference Tests is consistently high.5 Students scoring in either the sufficient or substantial categories are considered proficient for the purposes of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and adequate yearly progress (AYP) measures; only around 20 percent of Spruce’s students do not meet this criteria.

Birch, however, has long been considered one of the “worst” schools within the district, but the principal and faculty have worked hard in recent years to change this image. As you walk through Birch’s parking lot and into the front doors of the school, a large sign at eye level reads “Welcome to [Birch] Middle School—where failure is not an option, and success is the only option. Together We Can.” This theme of “together we can” is also displayed in other parts of the school, including on flags in the auditorium and on banners over some of the stairwells. Immediately next to this large colorful sign are smaller wooden signs announcing Birch’s “countdown to excellence.” In the middle there is a mirror at eye level with the statement “I can do it!” and on either side there is a sign for language arts and math with the number of days until students take the district’s standardized tests in these subjects.

Students are reminded of the “countdown to excellence” almost daily during the morning announcements as well. Standardized test scores at Birch have been consistently rising over the past couple of years, but they still only post 50 percent of students scoring proficient in language arts whereas 75 percent score proficient in mathematics. Despite very different student demographics at Birch and Spruce, the patterns of silence among the teachers at both schools were the same—a pattern that is indicative, perhaps, of the problems inherent in a predominantly White teacher workforce.

Castagno 317 Legitimating Whiteness through Silence Researcher Positionality and Ethnographic Tensions As in all studies, my positionality and identities certainly played a role in how I was perceived, how people interacted with me, what they said to me, and what they did not say or do (Emerson et al. 1995; Weis and Fine 2000). As a White person conducting research with predominantly White teachers, however, my racial identity was often taken for granted and not questioned. In this sense, my Whiteness was an asset because White teachers and administrators seemed to assume a sort of compatibility with me and assumed that I would have similar beliefs about race as them. I am sure that a number of teachers felt comfortable saying certain things to me because of our shared White identity. Acutely aware of how I was likely being perceived by most of the White teachers with whom I worked caused me some discomfort, however. I often wondered if I was being dishonest or unethical by not making my beliefs about race and racism explicit to them. Doing this would have likely caused tension in a number of the relationships I formed with teachers and, in the end, I opted to not offer my perspectives about race but also to be honest if I was asked. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was rarely asked about my thoughts on issues of race and racism. A district administrator of color told me early in the study that I would need to learn how to “maneuver the system and stay under the radar” because she believed that many people in the district were staunchly resistant to talking about “diversity” and hearing that they might be part of the problem. This advice shaped my approach to the entire study.

The biggest struggle for me in this project has been finding the right voice with which to talk about what I observed in the Zion School District. There are many things about which to be critical, but having formed relationships with the participants and generally believing that they are “nice people” makes being critical somewhat more difficult. I worry that my analysis here will be read as saying they are “bad people.” This is not my intention and, in fact, most of the educators in this study were caring and wanted all of their students to learn and be successful. Much of what I observed, however, reflects the larger society in which we live and in most instances, my critiques should be read as being critical of that system and those structures, rather than of the individual teachers. In other words, my goal is to illustrate how systems of power and structures of privilege and oppression are played out at the local level.

However, there is certainly some measure of critique of individual teachers because we all need to recognize the role we play in creating and sustaining oppressive systems. Unfortunately, the line between these two places is quite thin, and I have struggled to both locate that line and keep my analysis within reach of it.

Some Theoretical Constructs from Which to Draw: Silence, Colormuteness, and Whiteness In analyzing the data I collected in the Zion School District, three theoretical constructs have been particularly helpful. I draw on literatures about silence, colormuteness, and Whiteness because they help make sense of the empirical patterns I observed and because they complement one another theoretically. In what follows, I give a brief overview of each of these three concepts. After this theoretical discussion, I share data that highlight how patterns of silence and colormuteness are present in the Zion School District, and I illuminate how it is that those patterns result in the legitimation of Whiteness. I conclude by describing some counterexamples to the 318 Volume 39, 2008 Anthropology & Education Quarterly patterns I observed as well as discussing the implications of this work for our understandings of silence, race, and Whiteness in schools.

Silence and Silencing My data illustrate patterns of both silence and silencing on the part of educators.

The difference lies in the fact that whereas silence is an absence, silencing is an act done to someone else (in this case, students). There exists a fair amount of scholarship on the notion of “silencing” in schools. As Fine notes, silencing refers to the formal and informal ways schools control who can speak, what can and cannot be spoken, and whose discourse must be controlled (Cummins 1986). Inside public schools, particularly low-income public schools, there persists a systematic commitment to not name those aspects of social life or of schooling that activate social anxieties (Brodkey 1987). With important exceptions, school-based silencing precludes official conversation about controversy, inequity, and critique (Fine 1987). [Fine 1991:33] In her study of students who had both dropped out and been pushed out of school, Fine found that the silencing of these students was not simply erratic but a patterned response in schools.

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