Practicing Politeness through Meaningful Silences
One of the subtlest challenges we face . . . is how to relegitimate the national discussion of racial . . . tensions so that we can get past the Catch-22 in which merely talking about it is considered an act of war, and in which not talking about it is complete capitulation to the status quo.
—Patricia Williams, The Rooster’s Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice
This chapter discusses some of the meaningful silences around— and silencing of—diversity in schools. Similar to the ways powerblind and colorblind iterations of multicultural education do the work of whiteness, educators also engage and reinforce whiteness by valuing polite interactions and schooling youth in politeness. To be polite means showing good manners toward others; being courteous, gracious, and poised; and not being rude. But being polite also refers to being “refined or cultured” and “well-bred” (dictionary.com). Politeness, like niceness, is a mechanism of whiteness. By defining the terms of engagement, politeness and niceness naturalize a particular sort of interaction, communication, and perspective that is void of any context, history, or knowledge of race and power.
The links between politeness, silence, and whiteness were vividly clear one day as I sat in a German-language class at Spruce Secondary School. A student’s mother, who was White and from Germany, came to speak with the class. After she introduced herself in German, the students were instructed to ask her questions in the language. One of the few young men of color in the class 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 chuckle, looked at the teacher, and simply said again that it was not appropriate.
The mother 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 Germany . . . 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 CRT1 test,” and a number of other students asked the teacher why she did not think it was OK to ask. The teacher simply said that it was not 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 Germany it’s worse.” She added, “If someone came up to you and asked you about your religion or ethnicity or race, it’s just not polite.” The original student finally acquiesced 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 these 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 example illustrates a consistent pattern I observed at Spruce and Birch: Teachers encouraging students to be silent or otherwise avoid conversations about race. This veteran teacher was clearly flustered in the face of students’ race talk, and her belief that such talk was “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 particular issues to raise and when. As this chapter illustrates, students are consistently taught that silence is the expectation around issues of race and that they are “impolite” and “not nice” if they speak what is considered the unspeakable.
In addition to race, this chapter examines sexuality, homophobia, and heterosexism, and it suggests educators’ silence around these issues perpetuates whiteness as much as, and perhaps more than, talking about them explicitly. Silences around race and sexuality are related in that they point to the ways in which diversity has been constructed as something safe and unthreatening to the dominant social order. Even though done with the best of intentions, these efforts at maintaining politeness end up sustaining the status quo rather than facilitating social change toward equity. The concepts of powerblindness and colorblindness are useful in making sense of these silences. The silences around race are clearly a manifestation of colorblind ideologies, and the silences around sexuality are manifestations of powerblind ideologies.
In order to build on the concepts of powerblind sameness and colorblind difference discussed in the previous chapter, this chapter layers notions of silence and politeness to offer an additional view of whiteness in action. Teachers, like many other people, are typically “put off” by words such as race, racism, and White because they assume that the words are imbued with personal and individual blame and guilt. Rather than attaching these words to structures and systems of oppression, most people attach them to individual action and feelings. As a result, the words become taboo. However, as Allan Johnson argues, by dispensing with 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” (A. Johnson 2001, 2). “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” (ibid., 11). Examining the silence around—and silencing of—race and sexuality in schools helps highlight the ways in which educational policy and practice related to diversity is not about social change but rather about maintaining inequity, practicing politeness, and protecting whiteness.
In what follows, I examine how race-related silences operated in the Zion School District in three distinct ways: first, through the use of language that is coded for racial meaning; second, through the explicit ignoring of students’ race talk; and third, through the active silencing of students around issues of race. It is important to note that the silence around race is part of teacher practice, but it is not a silence among most students. Many students are keenly aware of race and racism, so when teachers are silent on the topic, teachers end up silencing students as well. Part of being educated in whiteness entails knowing when, where, how, and with whom to engage certain issues. These rules of engagement constitute what it means to be polite. Nice teachers and students engage politely so as to not make others uncomfortable, nervous, or otherwise upset. Whiteness remains intact through well-intended efforts to school youth in the norms of politeness.
Very few of the educators in the Zion School District explicitly referred to race in their discussions and student descriptions. Although both Spruce and Birch served a racially diverse student body and displayed racialized patterns in tracking and achievement levels, teachers very rarely named these facts. These patterns were highlighted in chapter 3’s discussion of multicultural education as colorblind difference. 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 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. And at Birch, refugee status was 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.2 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 associated not only with race in general but, more specifically, with being Black.
At the district’s central office, language, poverty, and refugee status all served as signifiers of race, and all these constructs were implicated in discourse around “east-side” and “west-side” schools and students. The west side of the Salt Lake Valley is typically where lower-income communities are located. All the students at Birch were from these communities, and Birch itself was physically located on the west side. At Spruce, students who were bused in from outlying communities came almost entirely from neighborhoods farther west than the east-side neighborhood that housed the school. Although the east-side and west-side concepts 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 were equally as pervasive in the local media and popular discourse as they were among educators in this study. So in their use of racially coded language, educators were acting in ways consistent with the patterns present outside of schools. District-level policies also contributed to the tendency to avoid race-based language. As chapter 1 highlights, the Zion School District allocated significant financial and human resources to “alternative language services,” “refugee services,” and professional development based on Ruby Payne’s discussion of the culture of poverty. These efforts added to the dominant discourse in which these were the acceptable and commonly understood categories with which to describe students. Again, while issues related to language, refugee, and socioeconomic status are certainly important, my point here is that race is also important because it, too, shapes students’ schooling experiences. Thus, although race always matters and racism is pervasive, educators 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 identities but rather delivering an education that is appropriate to what “east-side” and “west-side” students need (Buendia et al. 2004). It is clear, however, that although race was never named, how educators understood their students was 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-development experiences, and the language that surrounds us. Teachers’ racially coded language is a strategy for navigating this tension in a way that seems to be a win-win. But racially coded language allows racist views to be expressed without seeming to be racist (Bush 2004)—as such, racially coded language is nice. One of the ways whiteness operates is by concealing the power, privilege, and oppression that it perpetuates. Thus, by perpetuating racist beliefs through nice and seemingly nonracist, neutral, and “commonsense” 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.
Just as educators’ talk about their students was often coded for racial meaning and thus reflected a desire for safety and comfort, their nice responses to race talk among students also reflected a similar desire to maintain the legitimacy of the status quo. Through its politeness, teacher silence in the face of student race talk served to support and possibly perpetuate racist beliefs and actions.
At Spruce, 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 World War II 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 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 World War II as when they entered.
A similar example occurred when a teacher was teaching a lesson on some of the American Indian tribes in Utah. The teacher talked about various artifacts that have been found around the state, which archeologists and historians have used to piece together stories about both prehistoric and historic tribal groups. One student asked jokingly if they had “found a lot of Utah Ute flags” (the local university’s mascot is the Ute), and then a group of White boys pretended to be “prehistoric basketball players” by making caveman-like 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.” He then enacted throwing something with both hands from above his head while making a high-pitched shrieking noise.
These student behaviors were obviously imitating—and thus reinscribing—the traditional savage and uncivilized images of Indigenous peoples, but 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 less 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 missed in a language arts class. One morning after an announcement about a MESA3 field trip to a local amusement park, 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 may have implied agreement with the assumptions the student made. Whether the teacher remained silent because she agreed with the student, did not want to engage the debate around affirmative action, or some other reason is less important than the fact that students were left with only the perspective of the popular White student who felt the program was “unfair.” Whiteness is operationalized through the messages that are sent about what is fair, equal, and equitable.
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 are not. Furthermore, the very topics of race and racism have historically been at the center of arguments, violence, and protest—all of which most nice teachers believe have no place in the classroom.
Educators have very few models of how such conversations might be handled differently. 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, niceness is operationalized and whiteness is maintained. Students are being schooled in both the ideological and institutional aspects of whiteness—even when teachers do not say a word.
When race talk was not met with silence on the part of teachers, it was usually met with teachers requesting student silence. 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 why these students were being disciplined by their ESL teachers.
One day after a boy was told, “Pull your pants up, and your belt shouldn’t be hanging down,” he made the requested rearrangements of 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, suggesting 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 the ELL boys every day that I was at Spruce, and most of the time, the teachers never responded. When the Spruce teachers did respond, 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—yet another operationalization of politeness and niceness.
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 when 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 was not 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 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 offered a perfectly nice response: “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 Beverly Tatum has noted, “Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions do not go away, they just go unasked” (Tatum 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. Both of these outcomes are part of the norms of politeness around race.
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, they are not only learning how to engage issues politely; the likelihood of systemic change is also greatly reduced. Without systemic change, achievement gaps persist, educational debts compound, inequities continue, and patterned privilege and oppression have the same material effects that have been true for decades. In other words, whiteness is reproduced, and through its reproduction, it 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.
Two teachers I spent time with did provide exceptions to the otherwise strong pattern of race-related silences at Spruce and Birch. Both teachers were from Birch; both were also social studies teachers. Although they both engaged race with their students, they did so in different ways and, subsequently, engaged whiteness differently as well.
Ms. Manning, an older White woman, often brought up race-related issues with her students. In one instance, she initiated a conversation by asking about the frequent conflicts between students at the school, saying, “The usual suspects are Polynesian boys against Latino boys, but this year it’s Latina girls against Latina girls . . . and that’s really thrown people.” She reiterated that “this has been new for this school . . . and why do you think that is?” Before they had a chance to answer, she added, “Look at all the colors in this room. . . . I would come to you people for being the least prejudiced and the least racist” and “of all the neighborhoods, I would think this would be the least prejudiced.” One student called out, “This is a poor neighborhood,” and Ms. Manning asked, “So is it the low income that makes you prejudiced?” Many of the students replied with an emphatic “No!”
The teacher then went on to talk about how she “hated it” the first two years she was at Birch, how she cried most nights when she got home, and how she thought she was “going to get shot.” A student asked, “So why did you stay?” Ms. Manning replied, “That’s a really good question” and “maybe I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” She continued, “I’m the White person from up on the hill [i.e., on the east side]. . . . I had to adapt to you. . . . I came into your hood; you didn’t come into mine.” She then said, “I’ve never thought of a person’s color. . . . I never think about it until you bring it up.” She then went back to her original question to ask why the Latina girls were fighting other Latina girls. One girl simply said that they “hated” each other, and the conversation shifted to what it means to hate. As the period was wrapping up, Ms. Manning concluded by saying the “bottom line” is that “you guys have to learn to get along.”
The qualities of this classroom scene were repeated in many others during the time I spent in Ms. Manning’s room. The conversation was prompted by something going on at the school and in the students’ lives, and the teacher was clear about race and gender identities associated with the various players. She asked her students how they made sense of the phenomenon, and she referenced her own prior “prejudices” and growth in her perspective. Ms. Manning also maintained an individualized understanding of racism (i.e., through her assumptions that students of color would be “least racist” and by highlighting tensions between individuals as manifested through a fight), colorblindness (i.e., “I’ve never thought of a person’s color”), and the value of niceness and human relations (i.e., “you have to learn to get along”). This type of engagement with race is consistent with whiteness because it does not question relations of power or challenge dominant ideologies. Instead, it strengthens key mechanisms of whiteness by privileging niceness, meritocracy, and colorblindness.
Another Birch teacher, Mr. James, who was a middle-aged White man, also regularly included race talk in his lessons and informal conversations with students. A typical example occurred when he was collecting homework assignments one day and dramatically grabbed them from students. One Latino boy countered, “Don’t take papers from a Brown kid like that,” to which Mr. James replied, “Yeah, you know how us White guys are”; a number of the students called out, “Yeah!”
On another day while this same teacher was lecturing about the establishment of the original thirteen colonies, he explained that his students could not understand the history of New Jersey without understanding the history of New York, which they had already talked about on a previous day. He explained how the Duke of York realized he had too much land to handle, so “he calls his hommies and says yoooo.” The students laughed at his exaggerated impersonation of how many of them interact, and he said, “Yeah, I know us White guys can’t pull that off.” He continued on with his lesson in a seamless fashion, indicating that such incidents were commonplace in his classroom, that they need not disrupt the flow of teaching and learning, and that Mr. James had a particular comfort level with the students that most of his White colleagues did not.
On another day while the students were filing into his classroom, a Latina walked up to Mr. James and looked closely into his eyes until he noticed that her eyes were a bright green color and asked, “What happened to the big brown eyes I remember?” She explained that she bought colored contact lenses, and Mr. James launched into a tirade about how “Americans have this assumption that beauty is something blonde and blue-eyed” and that if you do not meet those criteria, we have a “false assumption” that you aren’t beautiful. He added, “It seems a little silly to operate on the assumption that what American advertising is feeding you is what’s really beautiful,” and he encouraged his students to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes.
Like Ms. Manning, Mr. James displayed a similar comfort in talking about race with his students and engaged in efforts to establish friendly relationships and a certain degree of in-groupness with his students. But as highlighted in the last example with the girl who changed her eye color, Mr. James also consistently critiqued elements of whiteness explicitly. In this case, he challenged whiteness in the beauty and media industries and the impact of dominant norms on his students. I also observed him challenge racialized patterns in education, racial disparities in the justice system, and oppression related to capitalist ventures around the globe. His engagements with race thus had a very different quality than those of Ms. Manning.
Though different, these two teachers were anomalies in the otherwise strong pattern among Spruce and Birch teachers to avoid talking about race and to remain silent regarding the ways race might impact schooling. Late in the school year, I shared the patterns I was seeing regarding an overwhelming silence around race with Mr. James and mentioned that he and Ms. Manning were the only two teachers who did not fit this pattern. I asked him why he thought that might be. His first response was that it probably had something to do with “students” and “content.” By students, he meant that almost all his students were “Brown.” He said, “It’s not a big surprise for these kids to find out they’re Brown.” When I pushed this explanation by noting that this is the case for all Birch teachers and yet the vast majority still suppress race talk, he explained that that’s why “content” is important. “Topics in social studies lend themselves to talking about that stuff,” he said. Indeed, Mr. James and Ms. Manning were both social studies teachers and their core curriculum included some explicit references to issues of diversity and various racialized groups. Further, because social studies was not yet tested by the district, they likely did have more leeway to discuss topics of interest and to depart from the standardized curriculum.
Mr. James then added that his willingness to talk about race is likely related to his “reluctance to deal with the political correctness stuff” and that “I don’t really buy into dancing around it.” He noted that “you owe them [the students] the truth” and “talking about race is the truth.” This points to another crucial explanation for the race-related silences at both Spruce and Birch. “Buying into political correctness” is directly related to educators’ allegiance to particular forms of politeness and our fear of being considered racist. Noticing or talking about race is considered a bad thing and something that nice people do not do. Educators are certainly not immune to these dominant ideologies and cultural norms, and thus they act in ways that are consistent with them. While teaching students of color in a subject like social studies might present more opportunities for race talk, many educators fail to take up those opportunities (or to create them in other spaces) because they believe they are not supposed to do so within the context of whiteness.
Another likely explanation for educators’ silence relates to the discomfort that most White people feel around issues of race. Perhaps acknowledging the race of their students might also entail acknowledging their own race and their role in systemic racial inequities. In describing a discussion of White privilege in a university course, one Birch teacher of color explained how this discomfort often shut down conversation.
Mr. Mecha: I do remember doing some ESL core courses where people were kind of challenged about their beliefs. I mean, I noticed a lot of, well . . . I mean, a lot of our teachers here are Caucasian. Um . . . they were very resistant to some of the . . . ah, I can’t remember what it was called. They were offended by, ah . . . I think it was White privileges is how it was, ah, termed.
Author: Was it related to Peggy McIntosh’s work, maybe?
Mr. Mecha: I think so. We didn’t really; we didn’t really do enough reading on it. I think it got too . . . too many people got offended by that. . . . I thought interesting things came up, but we kind of just glossed over them because they offended people or they got, you know, they wouldn’t accept that is the way things are. They said, ‘I’m not like that.’ And that wasn’t the point; it wasn’t that they were like that, it’s the point that you have to understand that is how some people feel.
Whiteness is operating here in both Mr. Mecha’s analysis of his White colleagues’ discomfort and his own belief that White privilege is about “how some people feel.” Not accepting the reality of White privilege stems from an understanding of race and racism as individually based, related solely to identity, and void of systemic and patterned uses of power. But even Mr. Mecha’s own understanding of White privilege as being about how some people feel relies on a purely individualized and psychologized (rather than also structural) framework of race and power. Whichever way the issue is framed, politeness, niceness, and whiteness are employed.
This theme of discomfort and White people objecting to race talk because they “aren’t like that” also came up in one of the Zion School District REACH sessions I attended. During the second day of the three-day training, the facilitators initiated a discussion about stereotypes by explaining that “prejudice happens” when “aspects of collective identity are given a negative connotation.” In order to highlight how this occurs, the Latino male facilitator asked the group to list all the positive and negative stereotypes about “the Hispanic male collective” that came to mind. Nobody said anything. The facilitator encouraged them by saying things like “Let’s have fun with this” and “You don’t have to be responsible for what you say.” He offered a few common stereotypes, and then two participants offered a few as well. One of the White female participants interrupted and said, “I don’t like this,” and another White woman added, “My guy isn’t like this.” In response to these White women’s concerns, the facilitator relented and said, “We’re going to push through this.” In other words, the group was stopping the activity and moving on to something else. A number of the White women said “Thank you,” breathed a sigh of relief, and turned the page in their books.
These examples further illuminate the hyperreluctance of most teachers to engage in race talk and our strong desire to maintain the polite nature of interactions that whiteness encourages. Through both teacher silence and demands for student silence around issues of race and racism, teachers exhibit an overwhelming aversion to acknowledging that race exists or matters. This aversion is, of course, consistent with the niceness and colorblindness that are effective mechanisms of whiteness. Through their discursive appeals to culture, equality, and meritocracy, teachers further erase race and engage whiteness. This is significant because through these silences, 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.
Similar to race, issues of sexuality are also constructed as dangerous, impolite, and not nice, and thus they are not part of the accepted discourse within the Zion School District. At the national level, recent incidents related to sexual orientation and gender identity have been framed around the generic notion of “bullying.” Websites and information abound linking homophobia and heterosexism to bullying, including, for example, the Safe Schools Coalition, Mental Health America, stopbullying.gov, and even the White House via a summit on antibullying initiatives. However, “by using vague terms such as bullying and name calling, scholars and educators avoid examining the underlying power dynamics that such behaviors build upon and reinforce. When policies and interventions do not name and explore systems of power and privilege, they effectively reinforce the status quo” (Meyer 2009, 11). Conversations about bullying and harassment often frame the problem as one of individual problem students, but this is another iteration of powerblind sameness. By remaining silent about the homophobia and heterosexism underlying specific instances of bullying and harassment, educators engage in powerblindness and whiteness. As a result, we are unable to examine the larger cultures of schools or the ways in which power maintains patterns of inclusion and exclusion.
A comprehensive report issued by Human Rights Watch in 2001 found that the most common theme running through the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGTBQ) students and educators they interviewed was “isolation and the almost total failure of the public school system to take seriously the human rights of these students” (Human Rights Watch 2001, 4). The report is based on interviews with thousands of youth and educators in a number of states, including Utah, California, Texas, Georgia, and New Hampshire. Silence around issues of sexuality in schools is well documented, and Lisa Loutzenheiser argues that this silence is generally more acceptable than silences around race or other identity categories:
Voicing one’s negative feelings about homosexuality is one of the last bastions of socially acceptable prejudice. In most public forums, it is no longer acceptable to use racial epithets or sexist slurs. Yet, when it comes to gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, there is little hesitation to demonstrate bigotry without concern for who might hear or be offended . . . In most schools, we, at least, tell students that it is not acceptable to make sexist or racist comments, even if we do not always follow through or “walk the talk.” Yet, when it comes to gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues, we hold back in fear. By allowing antigay harassment to be voiced without reprimand, schools are sanctioning and even encouraging bigotry. (Loutzenheiser 1996, 59)
Allowing antigay harassment to continue also, perhaps ironically, maintains politeness, niceness, and whiteness, since the mere mention of sexuality and gender identity is potentially uncomfortable.
But schools are clearly unsafe spaces for LGBTQ youth. According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey, almost 90 percent of these youth heard gay used in a negative way frequently at school, more than 72 percent heard other homophobic remarks frequently at school, more than 62 percent heard negative remarks about gender expression often at school, more than 60 percent felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and almost 40 percent felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression (Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, and Bartkiewicz 2010). Despite the extent of this violence, only about half of school antiharassment policies across the United States specify sexual orientation or gender expression as a protected category (Harris Interactive and GLSEN 2005). Further intensifying the problem is that school staff rarely intervene on behalf of LGBTQ students.
Homophobia was rampant among students at both Spruce and Birch, and I observed only one teacher who attempted to address this student behavior. In most instances, teachers either ignored student homophobia, responded to it in limited ways, or perpetuated it by engaging in heterosexist behavior themselves. The silence around sexuality sustains the illusion that either sexual orientation does not matter or difference in sexual orientation does not actually exist. The result of either is the same—the heterosexual norm and homophobia are left intact and the status quo is unquestioned.
Throughout my field notes, I had almost fifty references to incidents when students made homophobic comments and there was no response from the teacher. Most of these examples involved students calling out “That’s gay” or “Don’t be gay” or something similar within the classroom setting. In one class, for instance, the teacher made a reference to Snow White, and a boy called out, “She’s gay!” In another class, the teacher asked the class to imagine if everyone in the world were exactly the same, and a student called out, “Hell, no; that’d be gay!” And in still another classroom, a student walked in singing a song, and another student yelled, “You sound gay!” The use of the word gay as a “put down” was definitely the most common homophobic comment, although there were also comments referencing faggot and queer—always in negative and derogatory ways. Again, the vast majority of these student comments went unquestioned and uncorrected by teachers. They were also usually followed by laughter from other students but never a critique from students.
One example of teacher silence occurred when I was observing in a Spruce classroom. While students were working quietly at their desks, a student whose gender presentation was ambiguous entered the room and delivered something to the teacher. As she was waiting near the teacher’s desk, a boy whispered multiple times, “Hey, dude?!” Then as she walked across the front of the room and toward the door to leave, another boy whispered, “Are you a boy?” and laughed as she left the room. The teacher, who was at the front of the room, did not respond to any of what had happened. After the students left, I asked the teacher if she knew the student who came in earlier. When she said “Yes,” I asked if the student got harassed often and explained what I observed earlier. The teacher did not indicate that she was surprised by what I said and simply responded, “She’s told me she wants to be a boy” and that “when she first came here [to Spruce], I couldn’t tell if she was a boy or a girl.” She added, “I don’t think she gets teased a lot” and “she has friends; I don’t think she really cares.” Silence perpetuates and supports a transphobic school environment. Voicing issues of sexuality and explicitly addressing the students’ confusions could have led to a safer and more accepting school climate for all students.
Occasionally, homophobic comments from students did elicit a response from teachers, but these comments were always limited in nature. The most common responses from teachers included, “I don’t want to hear that word,” “You know I don’t like that word,” “Noooo!” “Hey!” “Be polite,” and “Don’t use that word.” I found little rhyme or reason to when homophobic comments elicited such responses from teachers, and I did not find that certain teachers generally responded while others did not. In other words, the exact same comments from students were sometimes ignored by teachers and sometimes responded to in a limited way by the very same teachers.
One Spruce teacher seemed to only respond when students said negative things about gay people but not when they said that something or someone was gay. One day, for example, the students had said that things or people were gay multiple times with no response, but when someone said something about how gay people were “dumb,” she replied, “No, don’t say that!” She replied in exactly the same way on another occasion when a student said that “GPS” stood for “gay people suck.” Similar to the ways in which teacher silence results in the silencing of students around issues of sexuality, these directives to be silent also do little to teach students anything beyond that certain topics should not be spoken about in school. As noted before about race, however, although such silencing does not make the questions, assumptions, and issues go away, it does school youth in the norms of politeness and it maintains an impression of niceness.
Niceness is maintained in multiple ways, but it is always in service to whiteness. Silencing sexuality completely is nice because it avoids conversations that could be uncomfortable, awkward, or divisive. Responding to homophobic discourse with silence is nice because it avoids confronting the issue. In this case the individual is not called out (which is nice to him or her) and the presence of homophobia is not called out (which is nice to heteronormative structures of power). Niceness is not maintained toward queer youth and communities, but this is presumably a small price to pay for maintaining the status quo. Any time injustice is perpetuated (in this case, heteronormativity), whiteness is engaged and legitimated.
The niceness of heteronormativity is also exhibited in instances when teachers engage conversations with students that assume a heterosexual norm. For example, when one teacher defined the word flirt to her ESL class, she said, “Flirting is when a girl tries to get romantic attention from a boy, or the other way around.” Similarly, when teachers referenced romantic partners of students, it was always in reference to the gender opposite of the person to whom they were speaking. So when talking to a boy, teachers consistently referenced “your wife” or “girlfriend,” and when talking to a girl, it was always “husband” or “boyfriend.” In these seemingly benign interactions, straight gender identities and sexualities are presumed universal, normativity is reinforced, and whiteness continues to function.
Teacher silence around issues of sexuality might be explained in part by a lack of awareness and knowledge of the issues. It is also possible that teachers may choose to remain uninformed and avoid issues of sexuality because of their own moral objections to homosexuality. As Loutzenheiser has noted, “The threat or the possibility of religious or community disagreement is often enough to stop conversations before they begin” (Loutzenheiser 1996, 59). This is especially likely in conservative states like Utah and in self-described nice communities like the Salt Lake Valley.
These patterns of student homophobia going unchecked or responded to in a limited way, and of teachers exhibiting heterosexist bias, were present in all but one classroom I observed at both Spruce and Birch. This pattern was so pervasive that I started to wonder if I would ever witness an educator respond differently. Toward the end of the year, I started observing a teacher at Birch who proved to be the one exception to this particular rule. A small group of students in Mr. Mecha’s classroom often made the same homophobic comments that I had observed in other classrooms, but Mr. Mecha never let any of them go. Although occasionally his responses sounded like the limited ones I described before, he coupled these responses with more meaningful ones.
One day, for example, a girl shouted to a boy sitting across the room, “Shut up, gay guy,” and Mr. Mecha said, “Watch it or you’ll find yourself down in the office.” When the girl asked, “What for?” he replied, “Sexual harassment.” I regularly observed this teacher get visibly angry when students repeatedly made homophobic comments. He sometimes spoke with these students individually, and at other times he addressed the entire class.
One day during a discussion about who had lived in Utah their entire life, a student called out, “Utah sucks,” and then another yelled, “Utah’s gay.” Mr. Mecha became visibly upset and raised his voice to say, “That’s the third time I’ve heard that word today!” He explained that if he heard it one more time, they would be sent to the principal’s office, which prompted a couple students to say that their parents did not care if they said “that word.” Mr. Mecha explained, “We use different words” in different settings: “There are two different languages you use—one is for at home and with friends and one is for at school and work. We’re at school right now, and you don’t use that word.” He went on to say that “it’s [using the word ‘gay’ in that context] just a way of saying you don’t like something; so don’t use it” and “to some people it’s bad.” Mr. Mecha was the only teacher who took time to talk to students about the language they were using and why it was inappropriate.
While his discussion of the “two languages” and various contexts for using language was helpful, Mr. Mecha stopped short of explaining to students why they might want to reconsider using such language in all contexts. His explanation that “to some people it’s bad” fails to acknowledge the social, political, and historical context of heterosexism and homophobia in this country. On the other hand, this teacher obviously faced an uphill battle considering how little consistency and support he got from other teachers in the school on this particular issue. His frustration over this issue was only intensified when he asked me if I had seen similar instances in other classes. I shared with him that I often observed students making very similar comments but that I never observed other teachers attempt to correct students or explain to them why homophobia and heterosexism were problematic. He seemed relieved to hear that his was not the only class in which students made such comments, but he was surprised and disappointed that he was fighting this battle alone.
District and school policies around nondiscrimination and school library holdings also point to ways in which sexuality was silenced. The district’s nondiscrimination policy, for example, did not include sexual orientation as a protected category. The policy only provided protection from discrimination for “any person or group of persons because of race, color, creed, national origin, sex, mental or physical capacity, or economic status.” In addition, Utah state law prohibited the teaching of “alternative lifestyles,” which was commonly understood to mean LGBTQ issues. In describing this law, one Zion School District administrator explained, “It is quite clear in that we really cannot teach about sexual orientation at all. Teachers are not to support any alternative lifestyles and basically are required to refer students to their parents with questions regarding most things.” Similarly, a teacher told me (via e-mail), “We are specifically instructed not to discuss homosexuality. I guess ‘they’ think that would be promoting the lifestyle. It’s so unfortunate, as there are LGBT kids and kids who know LGBT people, including family members. . . . We’re limited on any kind of sex education.” I conducted a keyword search of Spruce and Birch’s online library card catalogs, and Table 3.1 conveys the results.
As these numbers indicate, there are clearly very few resources for students to access information about LGBTQ issues, people, and histories. Although I did not do a systematic evaluation of the inclusion of LGBTQ people and issues in the textbooks at Spruce and Birch, it is highly unlikely that they included any information on this topic. In another study of multicultural education, Christine Sleeter asked teachers to evaluate the texts used in their own classes and found, “Gay and lesbian people were completely invisible in the texts teachers analyzed. Although a few people in the texts were gay, they were not identified as such” (Sleeter 2005, 86–87). Although it is not as commonly analyzed as race, ethnicity, and gender, sexuality has been found to be invisible in textbooks in other studies as well (Hogben and Waterman 1997).
Table 3.1 Library Holdings Related to Issues of Sexual Orientation
0 (7 items came up but none were relevant; in most cases “gay” was an author’s name)
0 (10 items came up but none were relevant; in most cases “gay” was an author’s name)
1 (A book titled A History of Intolerance in America)
Total library holdings based on this search
Given Utah’s conservative culture, the district’s prohibition of teaching about “alternative lifestyles,” and the state’s legislation defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the silences around sexuality in the Zion School District are not surprising. Unfortunately, as Donald Fraynd (2004) explains, the lack of accurate information about homosexuality during adolescence leads LGBTQ youth to internalize negative self-images and to struggle to accept themselves. Loutzenheiser adds:
They hear few positive reflections of themselves. School curriculum rarely mentions gay, lesbian, or bisexual people or issues. When included, it is often a dismissive comment in a health book causing snickers and groans by other students. The students rarely have role models because gay, lesbian, and bisexual teachers are afraid to come out in the classroom for fear of harassment or of losing their jobs. The end result is greater isolation for the students and more internalization of the sense of Other. The Othering and silences are often interpreted by students as a confirmation that homosexuality is shameful and bad; otherwise, it would be acceptable to bring up as part of the school’s curriculum. (Loutzenheiser 1996, 62)
Furthermore, Fraynd elaborates that a “culture of fear exists for those who advocate for, or are thinking about advocating for, GLBTQ youth” (Fraynd 2004). This culture of fear is well justified in Utah, since local teachers have lost their jobs simply for “admitting” to students that they were lesbian or gay. Unfortunately, such fear results in a lack of role models for LGBTQ students.
Spruce and Birch are clearly not ideal environments for LGBTQ youth. These youth have to endure daily verbal harassment (whether directly aimed at them or not) and expectations about “normal” gender roles, and they lack appropriate and accurate information about themselves in the curriculum and library materials. Kevin Kumashiro explains that fighting heterosexist and homophobic oppression is especially complicated because the curriculum “is already too full” and the political climate “is often silent, if not hostile, toward any mention of sexual orientation” (Kumashiro 2004, 111). This is especially true in places like Utah where a conservative religion is predominant and shapes politics, including school policies and curriculum. According to James Sears, “There is a great need for a healthy, frank, honest depiction of the fluidity of sexual behavior and sexual identities. Yet, too many educators are partners in a conspiracy of silence” (Sears 1991, 54).
The fact that I only observed one of twenty-four teachers address students’ homophobia is striking. This systemic silence by teachers, combined with the lack of information about sexual orientation through either the curriculum or library holdings, results in a huge absence around a topic that is obviously present in students’ lives and impacts their schooling experiences and, in some cases, academic performance. The GLSEN 2005 annual report found that unchecked harassment of LGBTQ students correlates with poor academic performance and diminished aspirations, but that supportive teachers can make a difference: While 24.1 percent of LGBTQ students who cannot identify supportive faculty report that they have no intention of going to college, the figure drops to just 10.1 percent when they can identify a supportive teacher (GLSEN 2005). Remaining silent on a topic does not make it disappear. Indeed, the opposite may actually occur—by being silent about issues of sexuality, these issues come to matter even more.
Spruce and Birch students, like students around the country, had many ideas about race and sexual orientation. Through teacher silence and acts of silencing, students learn rules about what can be acknowledged, publicly recognized, and discussed (Polite and Saenger 2003). But if schools hope to advance equity and dismantle whiteness, they must take on the difficult task of talking to students about issues like race and sexuality. When we fail to explicate the ways in which racism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression are 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. 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.
The educators at Birch and Spruce were, for the most part, well-intentioned individuals who wanted their students to succeed and who wanted 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 was that talking about race and sexuality was too conflict laden, tense, and hurtful and, perhaps more important, implied that one is racist, heterosexist, or otherwise prejudiced (Bush 2004; Solomon, Portelli, Daniel, and Campbell 2005). But even when it is with good intentions that we silence or avoid responding to students’ inquiries about race and sexuality, 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 silencing of race and sexuality in the Zion School District thus serve an important purpose: 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. The cycle helps illustrate why it is so easy to continue: It is not a very big step from one point to the next, but the cumulative effect is quite troubling.
Schools are clearly institutions that reflect—and are shaped by—the larger societies in which they find themselves. The silences and silencing we see among teachers at Spruce and Birch are not isolated to these schools—nor to schools and teachers broadly speaking. Indeed, we have trouble interrupting racist, homophobic, and other oppressive discourse and interactions all the time. Given the ethos within schools to get students through, to stay on task, to work in isolation, and to prepare students for the status quo, it is even more difficult to interrupt these discourses and interactions among students in classrooms. Because the daily grind of teachers’ work and the rhythm of schooling frames so much of what teachers do and do not do, it would be a mistake to place blame or sole responsibility for silences and silencing on teachers.
Teaching is a difficult job, and this is especially true currently—given the context of high-stakes testing, standardization, weakening unions, and the corporatization of schools. Many educators suggest that teaching is no longer an intellectual endeavor and that it is getting more mechanistic each year. This context means it is more difficult to do the kind of equity-driven, critically oriented work I’m suggesting. In other words, this work is structurally and institutionally silenced just as much as it is silenced through individual acts and interaction.
The silencing of race and sexuality and the subsequent legitimation of whiteness have multiple and varied implications for students. The politeness associated with race-related silence works for—and to the advantage of—students at schools like Spruce. And the politeness associated with sexuality-related silence works for—and to the advantage of—straight students. Engulfed in a system meant to benefit us, straight White people may have much to lose by explicitly addressing race and sexuality. But conversations about these issues 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. These discussions are also important for working toward structural and ideological social change—a move that contradicts the entrenched nature of whiteness but is necessary if we hope to bring about greater equity in schools and the larger society. Indeed, when educators fail to address race and sexuality, 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 suggests indifference and is highly problematic.