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Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School

Mica Pollock
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This book considers in unprecedented detail one of the most confounding questions in American racial practice: when to speak about people in racial terms. Viewing "race talk" through the lens of a California high school and district,Colormutedraws on three years of ethnographic research on everyday race labeling in education. Based on the author's experiences as a teacher as well as an anthropologist, it discusses the role race plays in everyday and policy talk about such familiar topics as discipline, achievement, curriculum reform, and educational inequality.

    Pollock illustrates the wide variations in the way speakers use race labels. Sometimes people use them without thinking twice; at other moments they avoid them at all costs or use them only in the description of particular situations. While a major concern of everyday race talk in schools is that racial descriptions will be inaccurate or inappropriate, Pollock demonstrates that anxiously suppressing race words (being what she terms "colormute") can also cause educators to reproduce the very racial inequities they abhor.

    The book assists readers in cultivating a greater understanding of the pitfalls and possibilities of everyday race talk and clarifies previously murky discussions of "colorblindness." By bridging the gap between theory and practice,Colormutewill be enormously helpful in fostering ongoing conversations about dismantling racial inequality in America.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2612-4
    Subjects: Education, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    This is a book about race talk—about people in one school and district struggling with the basic American choice of when and how to describe one another racially. People in America have long struggled in various ways with racial categories, arguably some of humanity’s most conflicted creations. American race categories have become a social truth without ever having had a legitimately biological basis: created to organize slavery, retooled with waves of immigration, and naturalized over centuries by law, policy, and science, race categories are now everywhere, alternately proud building blocks of our nation’s “diversity” and the shameful foundation of...

  6. One We Don’t Belong to Simple Race Groups, but We Do
    (pp. 18-43)

    Analysts writing on race in the United States often try to remind “everyday people” of a basic paradox about our categories of racial difference: “racial” categories are fake units of human diversity (the world’s “racial” groups are more genetically diversewithinthemselves thanbetweenthemselves), yet we have, over centuries of social racializing practice, created a country of “racially” “different folks.”¹ We have long lumped together diverse people into simple “racial” units in a system of social relations and differentially distributed power: as Outlaw (1990) puts it, “That ‘race’ is without a scientific basis in biological terms does not mean,...

  7. Two Race Doesn’t Matter, but It Does
    (pp. 44-73)

    On my first day as a teacher at Columbus in 1994, I asked my students to introduce themselves and suggest some notable detail I could jot down to remember them. They suggested physical markers like hairstyles, glasses, and certain pieces of jewelry, or personality traits like “always goofing around.” As an additional memory aid, I wrote brief physical descriptions next to their names. Most were simply racialized labels (“black,” “Latino,” “Chinese”), some followed by a question mark for students I had trouble identifying. I used this list many times until I learned names, but I kept it hidden under other...

  8. Three The De-Raced Words We Use When Discussing Plans for Racial Equality Can Actually Keep Us from Discussing Ways to Make Opportunities Racially Equal
    (pp. 74-108)

    There is a word that pervades contemporary educational discourse, revolutionary to some and evasive to others. It functions as both a strikingly precise and a strikingly vague call for educational equality. The word is “all.” Talk about educating “all students”—phrases like “high standards for all students,” for example—has become almost standard in national conversations on schooling. Race is nowhere explicit in talk of education for “all,” yet the phrase seems to generate a lot of controversy over how race does or should matter to educational policy. To some, talk of education for “all” specifically demands the active pursuit...

  9. Four The More Complex Inequality Seems to Get, the More Simplistic Inequality Analysis Seems to Become
    (pp. 109-146)

    In our schools and districts and around our dinner tables, daily analysis of educational inequality is plagued by a structural question of human comparison:who is disadvantaged, and compared to whom? In American educational discourse, the category “disadvantaged” embodies a national confusion over inequality analysis. Vaguely denoting a group of people with an unequal opportunity for school success (another phrase for the same concept is “at risk”), the very term “disadvantaged” gets applied to different populations at different times, demonstrating that Americans measure such unequal educational opportunities in myriad ways. “Poor” children, “children of color,” “inner-city children,” “Latin kids,” housing...

  10. Five The Questions We Ask Most about Race Are the Very Questions We Most Suppress
    (pp. 147-171)

    People interested in figuring out the role of race in U.S. schooling often approach the subject with one basic question: having assumed a basic taxonomy of racialized groups, they ask how these groups are achieving relative to one another. This comparative question, which often seems to shift to fit the “race groups” locally available, demonstrates both a fundamental correlation in the United States between race and school performance and a fundamental assumption of this very correlation. A national habit of matter-of-factly thinking racially about school achievement surfaces in both official and casual conversation about education. It emerges constantly in journalistic...

  11. Six Although Talking in Racial Terms Can Make Race Matter, Not Talking in Racial Terms Can Make Race Matter Too
    (pp. 172-209)

    Periodically over the days and years at Columbus, the halls filled with waves of wandering students who had cut class. Some laughed and shouted to one another as they bounded through the corridors; others shuffled slowly, aimlessly, eyes down as they batted walls with folded papers. During the recurrent phases when class-cutters circled the halls in a regular stream, adults fretted constantly about “the hall wanderers” in both public and private discussions. Adults used the hallway as a barometer for assessing schoolwide order, and the hall wanderers indicated to adults not only academic disengagement but cracks in the schoolwide disciplinary...

  12. Moving Forward
    (pp. 210-219)

    When I taught at Columbus, daily life presented me with countless moments in which people’s “race”—the racial identifications of students, or my own, or that of my colleagues, or the people we read and talked about—could be either highlighted or ignored. Making race explicitly relevantordenying the relevance of race could always be the wrong move. As I wrote in my notes to myself as a teacher, “Saying we should treat people all the same has to be said at different times from when we are celebrating how different they are.”

    Just as Jake had openly questioned...

  13. Practically Speaking: Words for Educators in Particular
    (pp. 220-226)

    Once I had written the bulk of this book, I shared my conclusions with educators, professional developers, district administrators, and students from high school to the doctoral level. While the students often primarily wanted to discuss the question of racial categorization itself, all of the educators I talked to—teachers, teachers in training, school coaches, principals-to-be, superintendents—requested that I provide a more specific guide tohowto talk racially in school settings. They argued that they themselves “lacked the language” to talk successfully about race, as racial language was itself loaded, difficult, incredibly hard to make “positive.” One superintendent...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 227-250)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-268)