Background: Traditional approaches to race in the United States have located race in individuals and groups and reduced the ambiguities of interaction to differences in attitudes, levels of awareness, and stages of identity development. Alternatively, locating race in social stratification has made it an over-determined product of inequalities in job opportunities, the educational system, housing, and so on.
Purpose: In this paper I shift the analytical focus to the production of race in face-to-face interaction, examining interaction as a process of (mis-) education into American racism. Based on fieldwork in a school reform organization that institutionalized race conversations, I show how people try to engage one another on matters of race, resist one another’s efforts, and teach one another over time—however unintentionally—to avoid talking about race with one another.
Research Design: This case study draws on eight months of ethnographic fieldwork from December 2003 to July 2004. I attended staff meetings in a nonprofit school reform organization and in affiliated schools, taking notes, collecting site documents, conducting interviews, and talking informally with people in schools and in the organization. I tell a series of stories told to me about a professional development activity called “the capes,” an activity apparently designed to surface racial trouble. I examine what was said about race, to whom, and when, taking the telling of stories as my unit of. This analytical move allows me to draw together the varied experiences of the people in the organization, my own experience as a researcher, and the reader’s experience to show how people attempt to transform one another in interaction.
Findings and Conclusion: I argue that “learning about race” is less a matter of individual effort and goodwill than a messy process of negotiating the ambiguities and dangers of social interaction. I conclude that we must account for these local constraints in order to find viable possibilities for transforming the conditions of our everyday lives.