«In this article, I examine the ways in which silences around race contribute to the maintenance and legitimation of Whiteness. Drawing on ethnographic ...»
Teachers obscured race, equity, and deﬁcit beliefs by talking about students’ “culture” and by describing “good teaching” as that which “appeals to different learning styles” and “incorporates different teaching styles.” As one Birch teacher explained, “You make an effort to include all cultures.” Teachers also talked about “equality” and described good teaching as offering the same thing to all students—as highlighted by a Spruce teacher who told me, “I just teach kids; I don’t do anything differently based on the kids’ cultures.” Ms. Wendall, from Birch, provides a representative example: “I think that regardless of what culture or socioeconomic status or ethnicity they are, a teacher is always going to have to ﬁnd ways to reach students that learn differently than others.
The conﬂating of these concepts represents acceptable and, in fact, encouraged ways for “good” teachers to engage race. Discursive appeals to culture, equality, and difference represent “a respectable cultural theory” (Foley 2008) for teachers to make sense of the achievement gaps they hear so much about and observe every day in their classrooms. As long as these are the ways educators think about students, identity, power, and inequity, Whiteness will continue to be engaged and, therefore, perpetuated and legitimated. Furthermore, it is precisely in the space of slippage between culture and race, equality and equity, and difference and deﬁcit that Whiteness is reiﬁed. The slippage that occurs when we conﬂate these concepts is in many ways caused by liberal ideologies such as meritocracy, colorblindness, and multicultural education. Does this mean that liberal White teachers who have embraced such discourses and ideologies are truly unaware of the ways in which we perpetuate Whiteness, like the teachers in Marx’s (2006) study? Does this mean that all we need to do is make teachers aware of their avoidance of race and they will see the subtle ways that they privilege Whiteness? Marx believes so, but I am less sure. Certainly we must try to transform the attitudes of White teachers, but we must also recognize how deeply engrained colormute attitudes and practices are. The ambivalence that results from the conﬂating of concepts is, in fact, part of the way Whiteness works and part of what makes it so difﬁcult to undo.
Counterexamples and the (De)Legitimation of Whiteness I mentioned earlier that I experienced very few examples that did not ﬁt within the colormute patterns I have described here. All of the counterexamples occurred in social studies classes at Birch Middle School, and almost all occurred in the context of history lessons. Mr. James, for example, brought up racial and religious differences when discussing the development of the 13 colonies, and Ms. Manning discussed racism within the context of the U.S. Civil War. These sorts of examples are clearly important and necessary aspects of U.S. history. Although they helped students better understand our nation’s history, they were not connected to present-day issues and thus did little to delegitimate Whiteness within the current context. One of the few instances that was not framed within a history lesson occurred in Ms. Manning’s class after a ﬁght between different groups of Latina students resulted in a number of her 328 Volume 39, 2008 Anthropology & Education Quarterly students being suspended from school. She facilitated a conversation with her students that began with, “Why don’t you guys like each other?” and ended with, “You have to learn to get along.” This was a heated conversation in which students were engaged and the teacher did not silence what was already a contentious issue, but it is striking that the conversation was solely about racial tension between students of color. Although this is certainly an important concern, it leaves out an historically grounded structural analysis of racism and thus reinscribes Whiteness.
When I asked Mr. James and Ms. Manning about their willingness to broach topics of race within their classrooms, they both discussed versions of three themes: that “history cannot be understood without talking about it,” that they “can do more of that because we don’t have those tests to worry about,” and that “our students deal with this stuff every day.” Thus, they clearly saw their discipline as well as the racialized identities of their students as opening up space for particular conversations about race. These represent important “cracks in the wall of whiteness” (Bush 2004).
Although these openings did not result in race talk that delegitimated Whiteness, they certainly might with further probing. Equally signiﬁcant, and also mentioned by both Mr. James and Ms. Manning, is that neither of these two teachers were members of the dominant religious culture within Utah and have, as a result, experienced some degree of “not-belonging” within their own communities. Being positioned outside what is a signiﬁcant cultural majority, but in solidarity with other “dissenters,” led to a sense of empowerment and willingness to “push the envelope” in some cases. This is, again, a place in which we might pursue strategies for dismantling rather than legitimating Whiteness.
Thinking through Inﬂuence, Intentionality, and Implications Spruce and Birch students, like students around the country, possess a number of ideas about race and racism. Through teacher silence and acts of silencing, students are learning rules about what can be acknowledged, publicly recognized, and discussed (Polite and Saenger 2003). But if schools hope to practice culturally relevant schooling, advance equity, and dismantle Whiteness, they must take on the difﬁcult task of talking to students about issues like race and racism. When we fail to explicate the ways in which racism is operating within our schools, educational inequity is left to be understood as resulting from individual deﬁcit (Gillborn 2005). Thus, meritocracy and Whiteness are mutually reinforcing of one another. When meritocracy is assumed, our focus is directed away from systemic inequities and toward individual success and failure. Thus, meritocracy allows us to see ourselves as “innocent bystanders rather than participants in a system that creates, maintains, and reproduces social injustice” (Applebaum 2005:286). Teachers’ participation in this system clearly carries a signiﬁcant inﬂuence over our nation’s youth.
And what about the inﬂuence researchers might have on their research participants? In my own case, failing to initiate the very conversations with teachers that I believe teachers failed to initiate with students might mean that I too participated in the legitimation of Whiteness. My discomfort about this likely possibility was only partially alleviated when I spent two days sharing my ﬁndings with school and district leaders six months after the completion of the study. Although I was discouraged from sharing my ﬁndings directly with teachers, the principals and administrators with whom I worked agreed, for the most part, that colormuteness was pervasive Castagno 329 Legitimating Whiteness through Silence within the district. Their admission of these silences was combined with either apologetic disappointment—like Birch’s principal who said, “You’re absolutely right, and it isn’t what’s best for our kids”—or rationalizations for the behavior—as when Spruce’s principal defended the silence as “best practice” because of potential parent discontent and other teaching pressures that did not provide time or energy for such dialogue. However, a high-level district administrator later told me that my work sparked the district to engage in sustained dialogues about these issues and that they were beginning this process by reading and discussing Singleton and Linton’s (2005) Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.10 A sustained commitment along these lines may begin to disrupt the legitimation of Whiteness achieved through teachers’—and my own—silence and silencing of race.
My hope now is that I have effectively illustrated how silences around issues of race are not only pervasive at both Spruce and Birch but also create and perpetuate an educational culture in which the status quo is maintained. Through both teacher silence and demands for student silence around issues of race and racism, teachers exhibit an overwhelming aversion to acknowledgments that race exists or matters.
And through their discursive appeals to culture, equality, and meritocracy, teachers further erase race and engage Whiteness. This is signiﬁcant because I posit that in their prescriptions for colormuteness, educators are able to maintain the legitimacy of meritocracy, which serves to protect the status quo and the interests of White people and communities. In other words, by denying race, educators are able to also deny the ways in which we participate in the legitimation of Whiteness.
The educators in this study are, for the most part, well-intentioned individuals who want their students to succeed and who want to provide a welcoming and fair educational climate within their classrooms. Indeed, most of the silences and silencing I observed were motivated by teachers’ desires to “keep everyone happy,” “not offend anyone,” and protect students from “getting upset.” The general belief is that talking about race is simply too conﬂict laden, tense, and hurtful and, perhaps more importantly, implies that one is racist. In other words, if you talk about race, you must see race, and if you see race, you must be racist (Bush 2004; Solomon et al. 2005). I don’t mean to imply here that educators engage in colormuteness because they are intentionally legitimating Whiteness. Instead, most of the teachers in this study were either genuinely afraid of explicitly naming and talking about race or did not know how to do so—or both. What I hope has become apparent, however, is that even when it is with good intentions that we silence or avoid responding to students’ race talk, we are engaging in practices that perpetuate Whiteness within our schools. This is, in fact, the brilliance of the way Whiteness operates—just like any other hegemonic ideology and institution, it is most successful when the majority of its adherents are least aware of it and its power.
The colormute practices in the Zion School District thus serve an important purpose: namely, they feed the cycle in which meritocracy is justiﬁed, business as usual schooling is rationalized, and inequities are sustained. The cumulative impact of this cycle is the legitimation of Whiteness (see Figure 1). The cycle helps illustrate why it is so easy to continue—it is not a very big step from one point to the other, but the cumulative effect is quite troubling. We must begin to strategize ways to chip away at each piece of the cycle to imagine schools in which Whiteness does not prevail.
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The silencing of race and the subsequent legitimation of Whiteness have multiple and varied implications for students in both racially diverse and predominantly White school contexts. The politeness associated with colormuteness in predominantly White schools works for and to the advantage of students at schools like Spruce.
Engulfed in a system meant to beneﬁt us, White people may have much to lose by explicitly addressing race and racism. In schools serving primarily students of color, however, race talk would likely resonate with the everyday experiences of students, which could in turn lead to improved academic achievement through the development of critical thinking about real-world issues. And in all school settings, such discussions are important for working toward structural and ideological social change—a move that contradicts the entrenched nature of Whiteness, but that is necessary if we hope to bring about greater equity in schools and the larger society.
Indeed, when educators fail to address race, they fail to address students’ needs (Pollock 2004; Thompson 2005). Within a framework of Whiteness in which the status quo is desirable and beneﬁcial, silence truly is golden. But within a framework of equity in which social justice and fairness are sought, silence is both indifference and highly problematic.
Angelina E. Castagno is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations program, College of Education, Northern Arizona University (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Stacey Lee, Susan Longerbean, Michael Olneck, Frances Riemer, Kristi Ryujin, and the AEQ anonymous reviewers. I also appreciate research support provided by Bill Martin and the Faculty Research Center at Northern Arizona University. And ﬁnally, this article would not have happened without the patience of Doug Foley and the unwavering support of Bryan Brayboy and Stacey Lee. Thank you.
1. I understand “race” to be a social construction that has signiﬁcant material effects for people. Although I recognize the variability in the ways race interacts with other identities and the ways people are racialized, experience racism, and identify racially, such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article.
2. Although it is AAA style to lowercase the terms black and white, I have elected to capitalize them as proper nouns.
3. All proper names of the schools, district, and educators have been changed to protect the anonymity of the participants.
4. The Ofﬁce of Civil Rights allegations also related to special education services, but this has less relevance to my discussion of race in this article.
5. These are the standardized tests the district uses to comply with NCLB regulations.
6. In the Salt Lake area, “Paciﬁc Islander” and “Polynesian” are used interchangeably to denote the signiﬁcant number of people in this community from Samoa and Tonga. Among the teachers in this study, the diversity within these labels was rarely noted.
7. MESA stands for “Mathematics, engineering, and science achievement” and is a program within the district that aims to involve students of color and low-income students in these ﬁelds in which they are traditionally underrepresented.
8. This is the Criterion Referenced Test the district uses to comply with NCLB regulations.
9. Although a complete articulation of this theme is not possible here, I develop these ideas further in another work currently under review and in a forthcoming book.