«In this article, I examine the ways in which silences around race contribute to the maintenance and legitimation of Whiteness. Drawing on ethnographic ...»
At Spruce, the predominantly White, middle- and upper-class school, most race talk and racist behavior from students went without response from teachers. One instance occurred while a small group of students were reenacting scenes from WWII in front of their social studies class; ﬁrst they battled against Germans and repeatedly yelled, “Die, you Krauts!” and later they were Japanese military personnel and proceeded to have a “conversation” using very high-pitched noises that mimicked a stereotypical sounding Asian language while using their ﬁngers to pull the skin around their eyes out and downward slanting. The students in the audience found this all very funny, and the teacher also laughed a bit and described the skit as “good” and “entertaining.” By laughing and calling such a clear exhibit of racism “entertaining,” the teacher reinforced the idea that these types of displays are acceptable and Castagno 323 Legitimating Whiteness through Silence that some (White) people’s entertainment can come at the expense of others’ identities. Rather than learn accurate and important history about the internment of Japanese Americans in their own backyards, these students instead left that particular class with the same stereotypical and racist assumptions about Japanese involvement in WWII as when they entered.
A similar example occurred when a teacher was doing a lesson on some of the American Indian tribes in Utah. The teacher talked about various “artifacts” that have been found around the state that archeologists and historians have used to piece together stories about both “prehistoric” and “historic” tribal groups. One student asked jokingly if they have “found a lot of Utah Ute ﬂags” (the local university’s mascot is the Ute) and then a group of White boys started pretending to be “prehistoric basketball players” by making cavemanlike grunting noises and moving their bodies in awkwardly violent ways. Later in the lesson when the teacher explained that the Utes were a “powerful” group and asked what “advantages” they may have had over other groups, one of these same boys answered “the ﬁrst rounded rock” and motioned like he was throwing something with both hands from above his head while making a high-pitched shrieking noise. I interpreted these student behaviors as imitating and thus reinscribing the traditional savage and uncivilized images of Indigenous peoples, so it is striking that the teacher failed to intervene, question the assumptions that were being made, or provide more accurate information. The teacher’s silence in this instance served not only to condone the behavior but also to miseducate students about Indigenous histories and peoples. When teachers do not interrupt students’ racist behavior, they let an important opportunity pass and contribute to the perpetuation of racism. Rather than taken up as vehicles through which to disrupt the status quo, these instances were left as moments of entertainment for the class. The parallels with the racism involved in using ethnic groups as school mascots, as in the Ute mascot of the state’s ﬂagship university fewer than ﬁve miles down the road, cannot be overlooked. In both this classroom occurrence and the case of such mascots, the connections between individual’s everyday practices and larger structural issues are clear: White privilege and dominance are left intact when these narratives of Indigenous peoples and tribal communities are passed on.
Another opportunity was passed in a language arts class. One morning after an announcement about a MESA ﬁeld trip to a local amusement park,7 a White boy from a very afﬂuent family complained, “you know what bugs me about that—you have to be of ethnicality [sic] to go to that,” and he explained that when he asked the MESA teacher if he could be in the group, “he told me no, ﬂat out.” The teacher (and indeed the entire class) looked at the student as he said this but nothing was said in response—in this case, a student presented an opportunity to discuss issues of equity and why a program might exist that targets students of color but again, the teacher’s silence instead seemed to imply agreement with the assumptions the student made.
As a result, this class of predominantly White students was taught that minoritized groups receive privileges and special programs that are “unfairly” kept from White students. Again, Whiteness is operationalized through the messages that are sent about what is fair, equal, and equitable.
An extremely common phrase I heard among the male ELL students at Spruce was “just because I’m Brown” and less often “just because I’m Black.” This was generally used as a response to these students’ disciplining by their ESL teachers. One day after a boy was told, “Pull your pants up, and your belt shouldn’t be hanging down,” he 324 Volume 39, 2008 Anthropology & Education Quarterly made the requested arrangements to his clothes while saying under his breath, “Just because I’m Black, man.” In another instance, after a teacher started writing up a disciplinary referral for what she felt was excessive talking and failure to follow directions, another boy said, “Man, just ‘cause I’m Brown.” These Latino boys often equated their racialized identities with negative treatment by teachers such that if they had been White, they might not have been disciplined in the same manner or as frequently. I heard at least one of these “just because I’m Brown” comments from this particular group of boys every day that I was at Spruce and most of the time, the teachers never responded.
Teacher silence in response to students’ race talk is another important mechanism for legitimating Whiteness in schools. Much like the effect of racially coded language, teacher silence around issues of race sends the message that race and racism are either nonexistent—ﬁgments, perhaps, of students’ imaginations—or unnecessary topics of thought and conversation—something students use to try to divert attention or stir up controversy. Both of these possibilities are likely informing teachers’ silence. Allegiance to colorblindness, equality, and meritocracy means that race can’t possibly matter—if race and racism existed and held some signiﬁcance in students’ lives, then either our schools are not really colorblind, equal, and meritocratic, or teachers aren’t.
Further, the very topics of race and racism have historically been at the center of arguments, violence, and protest—all of which most teachers believe have no place in the classroom. Educators have very few models of how such conversations might look different, so why would we expect anything different from teachers who are already working hard to ensure that their students learn, behave appropriately, and pass standardized exams? But through this consistent denial of the systemic inequities, privileges, and oppressions associated with race, Whiteness is maintained. Students are being schooled in both the ideological and institutional aspects of Whiteness even when teachers don’t say a word.
Silencing Students When race talk wasn’t met with silence on the part of teachers, it was usually met with a very shallow response from teachers requesting student silence. When the Spruce teachers did respond to the previously mentioned “just because I’m Brown” comments, it was with statements such as, “What’d I say about that comment,” “I don’t want to hear it again,” “Don’t say that,” and “That’ll get you in [detention].” I never once observed an honest conversation between the students and teachers about what motivated the race talk, what it meant, or why the teachers thought it was problematic. Teachers were clearly bothered by these comments and were uncomfortable with the implication that they were racist, but rather than address these concerns and the concerns of the students in a forthright way, they simply exerted their teacher authority and White privilege by silencing the comments and pretending that they had no meaning.
Another example involved mainstream, regular track students and illustrates clearly how students are interested in and constructing ideas about race and how uncomfortable teachers are with race talk in their classrooms. This incident occurred in a world languages class when a student’s mother, who was White, came to speak with the class in the language they were learning. After she introduced herself in the language, the students were instructed to ask her questions in the language. One boy Castagno 325 Legitimating Whiteness through Silence asked what translated into “What is your color?” and the woman answered “Black” because she assumed he actually meant “What is your favorite color?” The student was not satisﬁed with this answer so he asked the same question again and when the woman gave the same answer, he said in English, “You’re Black?” The mother then said in English, “Oh, you’re asking me my nationality?... You don’t ask that.... It is not appropriate.” The student asked why it was not appropriate and the mother gave a nervous giggle, looked at the teacher, and simply said again that it wasn’t appropriate. She left shortly after this conversation, and the teacher was clearly upset with what had transpired. She reminded the students that they had “been in school for 165 days” and that they had “learned at least 100 questions.” She explained that “one of the most cruel things you can do in [this particular European country]... is ask anyone what their race or ethnicity is”; she then asked, “Is it polite here?” A number of students answered yes, to which the teacher retorted, “No, it’s not!” The boy who originally asked the question noted that “they do it on the CRT test,”8 and a number of other students asked the teacher why she didn’t think it was okay to ask. The teacher simply said that it wasn’t appropriate “in public” and “in front of everyone.” She also said that the mother “was being kind” in her answer and that “in America it’s not polite and in [this European country] it’s worse.” She added, “If someone came up to you and asked you about religion or ethnicity or race, it’s just not polite.” As in the previous examples, here the teacher was actively telling students to be colormute and to avoid such conversations. The assumptions being made are that talking about race makes one racist and that not talking about race makes it go away.
As Pollock (2004) argues, however, not talking about race can make race matter even more and can be just as racist as talking about it—sometimes it can be even more damaging. The original student ﬁnally seemed to buy in to the teacher’s position and said, “Oh, I get it, because you might get made fun of?” The teacher said yes and seemed relieved to end the conversation with the last words: “It really doesn’t matter because we’re all humans.” As the students were leaving the room, the teacher looked at me with wide eyes and put her hands to her cheeks in disbelief or possibly embarrassment. This veteran teacher was clearly ﬂustered in the face of students’ race talk, and her belief that such talk is “impolite” highlights what may be a critical motivating factor behind many teachers’ silence and silencing of race. Educators are expected to school children in the social etiquette of the dominant culture, which includes knowing what and when to raise particular issues. Once again, students were taught that silence is the expectation around issues of race, and that one is “impolite” and “not nice” if they speak what is considered the unspeakable.
Similar examples of teachers demanding student silence on issues of race occurred at Birch. But here, where students of color were the signiﬁcant majority in the school, students’ race talk was generally far more productive and less often racist than at Spruce. For example, on most of the days I observed an art class at Birch, the students talked among themselves while they worked on their projects. On one particular day the conversation topic was race and racial labels. A Paciﬁc Islander boy asked about the word “Spicket” and a Latino boy replied, “It’s about your race.” Another Latino boy related it to the word “Tonganos,” and the Paciﬁc Islander boy said to the Latino boys, “Your people say it in negative ways like ‘stupid Tonganos.’ ” One of the Latino boys said that that wasn’t true and another countered that “some do.” At this point, the teacher interrupted the conversation and said, “Stop talking about race and ethnicity because it’s making you upset” and “I want this to be a nice environment 326 Volume 39, 2008 Anthropology & Education Quarterly where everyone feels welcomed.” From my vantage point, I did not sense that the students were getting upset; it seemed to me like they were having a productive conversation about race and language. The students continued the conversation a bit more quietly, and the teacher again interrupted by exclaiming, “Stop!” The boys explained, “We’re just talking and playing around,” and the teacher responded, “but other people can hear it and may get offended.” The students switched to other conversations, and the teacher continued to walk around the room checking on the students’ work. Unfortunately, as Tatum notes, “Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away, they just go unasked” (1997:36). Thus, by silencing students’ potentially productive race talk, teachers not only fail to answer student inquiries but also contribute to the likelihood that students will not voice such inquiries in the future.
This, then, is another important way in which Whiteness is legitimated in schools.
When teachers silence students’ race talk and students learn to avoid such talk in the future, the likelihood of systemic change is greatly reduced. Without systemic change, achievement gaps persist, educational inequities continue, and patterned privilege and oppression has the same material effects as has been true for decades. In other words, Whiteness is reproduced and through its reproduction becomes more normal, accepted, expected, and rationalized. Although students’ race talk could create opportunities for critiquing Whiteness, when it is silenced by teachers, it instead becomes another place for the legitimation of Whiteness.
Conﬂating Concepts in the Interest of Whiteness Alongside teachers’ silences and silencing of race were discursive practices that further obscured the role of race and racism and, therefore, legitimated Whiteness.
The teachers in my study regularly conﬂated culture with race (Akom 2006; Pierre 2004), equality with equity (Brayboy et al. 2007), and difference with deﬁcit in their discussions of students, teaching, and education.9 The conﬂation of these concepts further highlights how Whiteness works through nice people, including teachers who believe they are acting in the best interests of their students. Importantly, however, what is believed to be in students’ best interests is too often in the interests of Whiteness.