«In this article, I examine the ways in which silences around race contribute to the maintenance and legitimation of Whiteness. Drawing on ethnographic ...»
What became apparent was a structural fear of naming. Naming involves those practices that facilitate critical conversation about social and economic arrangements, particularly about inequitable distributions of power and resources by which these students and their kin suffer disproportionately. The practices of administration, the relationships between school and community, and the forms of pedagogy and curriculum applied were all scarred by the fear of naming, provoking the move to silence. (Fine 1991:34) It becomes clear, then, that although I distinguish between silence and silencing, they are intimately related. Often, silence on the part of teachers leads to the silencing of students and the formation of a norm of silence around certain topics. Additionally, however, students can also be silenced through teachers’ talk. Both of these possibilities are highlighted in this article. In opposition to the notion of being silenced is the notion of “voice.” Numerous scholars have written about voice and, in general, it refers to having the power to name the world around you and “the ability to construct, articulate, and therefore shape one’s experience as it is presented to others” (Quiroz 2001:328). Importantly, however, for voice to be powerful, it must be heard and not simply spoken (Ruiz 1997). It is apparent throughout this article that even when students attempt to voice ideas about race, they are either not heard or reprimanded to silence.
Colormuteness Another way to think about these silences and silencing acts is through the notion of being “colormute.” Pollock (2004) writes about educators being “actively colormute” through the “purposeful silencing of race words.” By examining race talk in one public school in California, Pollock argues that educators ascribe to an ideology of colormuteness in public settings, but that they are more than willing to name and talk about race in private settings and when it is possible to displace blame away from
themselves and toward other individuals or groups. She notes:
Castagno 319 Legitimating Whiteness through Silence Race talk matters. All Americans, every day, are reinforcing racial distinctions and racialized thinking by using race labels; but we are also reinforcing racial inequality by refusing to use them. By using race words carelessly and particularly by deleting race words, I am convinced, both policymakers and laypeople in America help reproduce the very racial inequalities that plague us. It is thus crucial that we learn to navigate together the American dilemmas of race talk and colormuteness rather than be at their mercy. [Pollock 2004:4, emphasis in original] Johnson (2001) agrees and notes that most (White) people are “put off” by words such as race, racism, and even White, because they assume that the words are imbued with personal and individual blame and guilt. Rather than attaching meaning about structures and systems of oppression to such words, many educators attach individual action and feelings. As a result, the words become taboo. However, as Johnson argues, by dispensing of such important words, we are merely making it “impossible to talk about what’s really going on and what it has to do with us” (Johnson 2001:2). He continues by writing, “When you name something, the word draws your attention to it, which makes you more likely to notice it as something signiﬁcant. That’s why most people have an immediate negative reaction to words like ‘racism,’ ‘sexism,’ or ‘privilege’ ” (Johnson 2001:11). In their efforts to erase race, educators necessarily imply that race does, in fact, matter because acknowledging it is something to be avoided (Crenshaw 1995; Lewis 2003). A similar argument can be made of colormuteness—that is, by deleting race words, we actually make them matter more (Pollock 2004). As I illustrate below, I witnessed similar patterns as Pollock has around educators’ colormuteness.
Whiteness Where my discussion extends the literature is by highlighting how educators’ silences around race result in the legitimation of Whiteness. Explanations and deﬁnitions of Whiteness abound among scholars. “Even though no one at this point really knows exactly what whiteness is, most observers agree that it is intimately involved with issues of power and power differences between white and nonwhite people” (Kincheloe and Steinberg 1998:4). Although there is some agreement among scholars as to how Whiteness is performed and how it affects the material realities of daily life, there are differential emphases placed on whether Whiteness is an identity, a performance, a set of beliefs, a structure, or nothing at all. I draw on a number of scholars to make sense of Whiteness, but I center Dyson’s explanation of Whiteness as an identity, an ideology, and an institution (Chennault 1998; Dyson 1996). As an identity, Whiteness refers to the “self-understanding, social practices, and group beliefs that articulate Whiteness in relationship to American race”; as an ideology, Whiteness references the “systematic reproduction of conceptions of whiteness as domination”;
and as an institution, Dyson explains that “from the home to the school, from the government to the church—[various institutions] compose the intellectual and ideological tablet upon which have been inscribed the meanings of American destiny” (Chennault 1998:300–302).
In this article, I am not concerned with Whiteness as an identity. People, including myself, are racially marked (and in some contexts unmarked) as White, and although much good work has been done to uncover the meanings of Whiteness as an identity (see, e.g., Perry 2002), that has not been my project. When I speak of Whiteness here, I mean to reference the ideological and institutional aspects of Whiteness.
320 Volume 39, 2008 Anthropology & Education Quarterly Importantly, Whiteness serves as a “pervasive ideology justifying dominance of one group over others” (Maher and Tetreault 1998:139). The ideology of Whiteness also serves as “a form of social amnesia” that allows White people to forget or ignore how we are implicated in the maintenance of systems of privilege and oppression (McLaren 1998). This function of Whiteness as ideology is illustrated throughout this article. As a system of ideologies and material effects (privilege and oppression), Whiteness is also a well-entrenched structure that is manifested in and gives shape to institutions. It has thus become a norm against which others are judged but also a powerful, if sometimes unconscious, justiﬁcation for the status quo. As a location of structural advantage, Whiteness serves as “a discursive regime that enables real effects to take place” (McLaren 1998:67). Fine highlights an important aspect of Whiteness as an institution; she notes, “whiteness was produced through the exclusion and denial of opportunity to people of color.... Institutional leadership and seemingly race-neutral policies/practices work to insure white privilege” (Fine 1997:60). Thus, in examining and illustrating the structural and systemic nature of Whiteness, it is important to highlight the exclusion and oppression it produces, reproduces, and maintains for racialized people. Some of the characteristics of Whiteness that I illustrate in this article include the ignoring of race and racism, the embracing and rationalizing of meritocracy, the denying of institutional oppression, and the protecting of and investing in privilege.
Colormute: Silences around Race In what follows, I examine how colormuteness operated in the Zion School District in four distinct ways: ﬁrst, through the use of language that is coded for racial meaning; second, through the explicit ignoring of students’ race talk; third, through the active silencing of students around issues of race; and fourth, through discursive patterns that conﬂate culture with race, equality with equity, and difference with deﬁcit. Importantly, the silence around race is part of teacher practice, but it is not a silence among most students. Because many students are keenly aware of race and racism, when teachers are silent on the topic, they end up silencing students as well.
Some may read what follows as a monolithic representation of teachers that is too tidy to be a realistic portrayal. As ethnographers, we are trained to look for contradictions, anomalies, and counterexamples to the patterns we observe, and we believe that a failure to provide such data is likely indicative of a weak ethnography because humans and social life are nothing if not complex. I, too, ascribe to this position in general, and although my larger ethnography (Castagno 2006) includes a number of contradicting examples around some of the coded themes, this was not the case with the pattern of colormuteness in my data. In fact, I had over 35 distinct examples of teachers’ silence or silencing of race within their classrooms and fewer than ﬁve examples to the contrary. What may be read as a ﬂat representation is actually, I believe, a telling story about how beautifully (if we want to call it that) woven the many strands of Whiteness are. It is, unfortunately, quite simple. The complexity lies not so much in the ways White teachers silence race to legitimate Whiteness but rather in the implications for both students and society as a whole.
Castagno 321 Legitimating Whiteness through Silence
Racially Coded Language
It is signiﬁcant that very few of the educators in this study explicitly referred to race in their discussions and descriptions of students. Although both schools served a racially diverse student body and displayed racialized patterns in tracking and achievement levels, teachers very rarely named these facts. At Spruce, language and ESL were particularly effective code words for race because almost all students of color at this school were classiﬁed as English-language learners (ELL) and enrolled in ESL courses. Thus, by talking about “language minority” students, Spruce educators could talk about and around race in ways that were perceived to be safer and less threatening. Like language, refugee status also served as a less dangerous way for educators to talk about race. At Birch, refugee status was intimately tied to race in complicated ways. Although students of color made up the overwhelming majority of students at Birch, they were primarily Latino and Paciﬁc Islander.6 Very few Black students attended Birch, and those who did were almost all Somali Bantu refugees.
There were a smaller number of refugee students from other African countries, but I knew of only two Black students at Birch who were not refugees. Refugee status at Birch, then, was not only associated with race in general but more speciﬁcally with being Black.
At the central ofﬁce level within the district, language, poverty, and refugee status all served as signiﬁers of race, and all of these constructs were implicated in discourse around “eastside” and “westside” schools and students. Importantly, these “eastside” and “westside” constructs “serve as shorthand for race- and class-based distinctions.
They index an understood knowledge base of spatial, historical, and ontological properties that are partly produced within... schools. As a result, they obscure the basis of their deﬁnition, allowing those who invoke them to denote meanings about race and class without explicitly naming them” (Buendia et al. 2004:835). In other words, although eastside and westside constructs are deﬁned in relation to race and social class, the usefulness of the labels lies in our ability to implicitly reference race and social class without ever explicitly naming them. These code words are equally as pervasive in the local media and popular discourse as they are among educators in this study. It is important to remember, then, that in their use of racially coded language, educators are acting in ways consistent with the patterns present outside of schools. Equally important is the way in which district-level policies contribute to the tendency to avoid race-based language. The Zion School District allocates signiﬁcant ﬁnancial and human resources to “alternative language services” and “refugee services,” thus contributing to the dominant discourse in which these are the acceptable and commonly understood categories about which to describe students. Again, although issues related to language and refugee status are certainly important, my point here is that race is also important in the ways it shapes students’ schooling experiences. Despite its importance, race is consistently obscured through racially coded language.
Some readers may question whether these labels (i.e., regarding language, poverty, and refugee status) actually signify race. Although I did not explicitly ask participants in this study if their use of this language was tied to racialized understandings of their students, we cannot ignore the fact that all of these categories of identity are identifying students who are also students of color. Almost exclusively, in fact, students who come from low-income homes, live on the westside, speak a language other than 322 Volume 39, 2008 Anthropology & Education Quarterly English, and are recently arrived refugees in this community are racialized students.
It is striking that educators (and, indeed, the larger public) are more likely to identify students by these other signiﬁers than by their racial signiﬁers. Thus, although race always matters and racism is pervasive, we have operationalized a number of “code words” that enable us to talk about race while never actually naming race (Delgado and Stefancic 2001; Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995; Solórzano and Villalpando 1998;
Tate 1997; Villenas and Deyhle 1999). Use of such racially coded language is problematic for at least two reasons: ﬁrst, it hides the reproductive practices in which schools engage related to race and inequity; and second, it allows educators to believe that they are not differentiating education based on deﬁcit models of students’ racial identity but rather delivering an education that is appropriate to what “eastside” and “westside” students need (Buendia et al. 2004). It is clear, however, that although race was never named, educators’ understandings of their students were still very much tied to ideas about race.
The tension, then, becomes how to view students as diverse individuals while at the same time protecting oneself from being perceived as racist, discriminatory, or unprofessional. Within schools, this tension is further shaped by things like policies, professional developments, and the language that surrounds us. Teachers’ racially coded language is a strategy for navigating this tension in a way that seems to be win–win. But racially coded language allows racist views to be expressed without seeming to be racist (Bush 2004). This is important because one of the ways Whiteness operates is by concealing the power, privilege, and oppression that it perpetuates.
Thus, by perpetuating racist beliefs through seemingly nonracist, neutral, and “common sense” language, Whiteness is engaged and reproduced. Through the ignoring of race and power within schools, educators contribute to the hegemony of deﬁcit thinking and meritocracy. These two ideologies are necessary for the rationalization of the status quo and business-as-usual schooling practices. Racially coded language is, therefore, one important way in which Whiteness is both operationalized and legitimated within the Zion School District.
Teacher Silence Much like educators’ talk about their students was often coded for racial meaning and thus reﬂected a desire for safety and comfort, their responses to race talk among students also reﬂected a similar desire to maintain the legitimacy of the status quo. As the following examples illustrate, teacher silence in the face of student race talk served to support and possibly perpetuate racist beliefs and actions.