Saturday, August 4, 2012

Race wrestling and race talk dilemmas

I feel that I have come full circle in my readings this summer.  I started in schools, and now am ending in schools.  At the beginning of the summer, I found myself shocked and amazed at a new understanding of “race,” how racial difference is socially reproduced in schools, and the fact that racist attitudes and behavior still “happen” in our society. 

At this point, I am less shocked.  As I read Colormute by Mica Pollock (2004), I could see patterns already at the beginning of her story.  She painstakingly laid out the details of a multi-year qualitative study of a multi-racial high school in California.  For me, it seemed too slow.  As I had already immersed myself in theories about racialization and racial stratification, I wanted to point out the “problems” immediately and seek to redress them.

I see great wisdom in the careful, longitudinal approach.  Already someone close to me had warned that people like me go “to graduate level classes where you learn racism or learn hate of people labeled racists” and eventually, “after having become sensitized by reading all this material that you will see racism under every tree, bush, rock…”  This accusation haunted me throughout the summer reading course, and apparently still has a sting.  

 I did start seeing racism, seemingly everywhere.  Each social interaction and news story took on new meanings and dimensions.  My whole framework for understanding “race” and racial difference had been replaced.  I learned new nuanced definitions for racism, as it manifests in both blatant and covert everyday attitudes and actions.  And sadly, I did react harshly with white folks I felt didn’t “get it,” as I unintentionally initiated conversations that confirmed the worst of what they already thought of me. 

The brilliance of Pollock (2004), as with so many other scholars I have read over the summer, is that she goes to great lengths to give a thorough account of what happened on a daily basis at “Columbus High School.”  She is a white woman who taught one year at this racially diverse school, so as she began to collect data about how students, faculty and staff talked (or didn’t talk) about “race,” she was also in process of working with all the stakeholders.  Therefore, she goes out of her way not to paint participants as “racist” people, but simply as they appeared in the drama of the school.  She also includes her own contributions, missteps, and omissions to the racial dialogue of the school, which essentially incriminates her along with anyone else who might be “blamed” in her unfolding story.  Essentially, she does uncover racism, although she rarely names it as such.  

One might argue that is precisely because she was looking for discussions that included or omitted racial terms.  However, she has a few strange twists and turns in her study going for her.  The first is that she initially started out with the question of how “race” affected the way that students “got along” with each other.  As she began to collect data, she began to notice a predictable pattern of how people in the school did and did not talk about “race.”  She then changed her research question to examine when “race” did and did not appear in conversations. Secondly, half-way through her study the school was “reconstituted,” meaning that all the faculty and staff were replaced with new people in an effort to improve school outcomes.  She was able to continue her study with the same students, but all new adult participants.  During this time, she noticed the same patterns in the way that the adults talked or didn’t talk about “race” in the school, and this from a group of complete strangers! 

The general conclusion of Pollock’s study was that the adults at Columbus shared in a “colormute” discourse.  In other words, while they did talk about “race” in matter-of-fact ways in some instances, discussion of “race” and racial groups remained absent from faculty meetings and public communications.  Predictably, adults spoke of racial groups for multicultural events (e.g. “The Samoans are going to do their traditional dance”) or in instances of violence in the school (e.g. “The Filipinos were fighting the blacks”).  Adults also commented in private conversations about “race,” such as the on-going debate about what do about the black students in the hallway and whether it was really only black students.  But these private conversations never surfaced during meetings or discussions with students, and so in the case of the students in the hallway, nothing was actually done about the situation that so many faculty and students noticed.  

Likewise, while patterns student achievement could be analyzed in terms of racial groups, this was never explicitly done.  There was discussion from the predominantly white faculty of how to help all students, who were mostly “low-income minorities,” there were no explicit attempts to examine which racial groups in the school fared worse.  These statistics showed that blacks and Latinos were disproportionately disciplined, had lower achievement rates, and were more likely to drop out and not graduate than other groups.  In fact, the Consent Decree that outlined the desegregation policy for the district contained language that focused on black and Latino students, and the focus of the reconstitution echoed this concern.  However, this focus was never directly communicated to faculty before or after the reconstitution.  And although certain faculty and administrators were aware of the language in the Consent Decree, the discussion of how to meet the reconstitution goals never took place in a public forum.

Pollock concludes with some observations about the difficulties in talking about “race” and racial inequality:
  • We don’t belong to simple race groups, but we do. (i.e. Individual identity is complex; however, students still identified with racial groups at different times, and faculty regularly categorized students into simplistic racial groups.)  
  • Race doesn’t matter, but it does.  (i.e. “Race” is a social construction, not a biological reality; however, social interactions in schools create racial difference and inequality.)
  • The “de-raced” words we use when discussing plans for racial equality can actually keep ups from discussing ways to make opportunities more racially equal.
  • The more complex inequality seems to get, the more simplistic inequality analysis seems to become. (i.e. Even though Columbus was racially and economically diverse, the students seemed to get lumped in to one category, that of “low-income minority.”)
  • The questions we ask most about race are the very questions we most suppress.
  • Although talking racial terms can make race matter, not talking in racial terms can make race matter, too. 
Buehler (in press), in a similar study, found similar discourse patterns in a high school in Michigan.  She, like Pollock, suggests that talking about “race” in strategic ways can actually help to remedy racial inequality in schools.  Buehler begins with the premise that faculty and students are already engaged in “race wrestling,” that is, an internal struggle about how “race” should matter faced with how it does matter.  She recommends thoughtful discussion about “race talk” within individual schools.  These initial discussions should shed light on the ways racial difference and inequalities are being socially reproduced in that particular institution, and hopefully inform antiracist strategies.  Talking honestly and judiciously about “race” is, perhaps ironically, the first step towards moving beyond “just talk” and into anti-racist action.   


Buehler, J. (in press). “There’s a problem, and we’ve got to face it”: How staff members wrestled with race in an urban high school. Race, Ethnicity & Education.

Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

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