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Shifting Identities in Private Education: Reconstucting Race at/in the Cultural Center


by Amira Proweller - 1999

To date, research on racial identity formation among youth in school context has neglected discussion and analysis of whiteness as a racialized identity production. Through qualitative, ethnographic methods of data collection, this discussion directs attention to the social construction of white racial identity among a group of adolescent girls attending a largely white, historically elite, private, independent, single-sex high school. Their voices provide insight into the ways in which liberal discourses work to position youth, and how white youth, in turn, actively remake themselves in relation to prevailing meanings and practices institutionalized in a largely white, upper middle-class school setting. The study examines the intersections of race and class discourses in private school culture as they combine to create the conditions for meaning-making.

To date, research on racial identity formation among youth in school context has neglected discussion and analysis of whiteness as a racialized identity production. Through qualitative, ethnographic methods of data collection, this discussion directs attention to the social construction of white racial identity among a group of adolescent girls attending a largely white, historically elite, private, independent, single-sex high school. Their voices provide insight into the ways in which liberal discourses work to position youth, and how white youth, in turn, actively remake themselves in relation to prevailing meanings and practices institutionalized in a largely white, upper-middle-class school setting. The study examines the intersections of race and class discourses in private school culture as they combine to create the conditions for meaning-making.


And then stripped of the shroud of our innocence, we can breathe and move; our silence broken, we can make whiteness articulate. In doing so, we compromise whiteness, we problematize and subvert white absolutism. White becomes a color, a heavily weighted color, rather than a blank ground against which all things are projected. And we become a people with skin, participating in history, writing our story, rather than baleful, evasive ghosts, dragging the chains of history behind us, vanishing through the walls. (Griffin, 1995, p. 231)


Within the past decade, emergent research has challenged dominant discursive paradigms of racial and ethnic identity formation among youth to reflect much more subtle and sophisticated processes of meaning-making in school context. Much of this body of scholarship has explored in detail how identities take shape among youth of color, gathering the voices of African American youth (Ogbu & Fordham, 1986; MacLeod, 1995; Fordham, 1988, 1993; Peshkin, 1991; Shujaa, 1994; Hemmings, 1996) and most recently adding to that the experiences of first and second generation immigrants and white ethnic groups broadly represented in U.S. schools (Phelan & Davidson, 1993; Davidson, 1996; Seller & Weis, 1997). Together these studies offer a range of possible identities that youth negotiate daily, providing a more textured composite of school experience across difference and diversity in both public and private school settings. The focus of inquiry, however, has almost exclusively been on the racial “other” at the expense of critical exploration of those living their lives at/in the racial center as white. Analysis of racial identity and discourse in U.S. schools has mined the voices and experiences of youth of color while consistently ignoring examination of how whiteness, as an identity and cultural system, is embodied and institutionalized in school policy and practice. By whiteness, I refer to a set of meanings and practices that provide white people with a perspective through which they experience the world. This lived standpoint is discursively constructed in relation to ideologies of privilege and domination (Frankenberg, 1993; Wellman, 1993). In her pioneering work gathering oral histories of white women, Ruth Frankenberg (1993) powerfully points to the fact that whiteness has historically remained invisible as a social category and location of racial identity.1 This is, in part, an effect of the historical delinking of white from the notion of color (Roman, 1993) in contrast to the conventional identification of black as a color. That being white “is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularizing quality because it is everything—white is no colour because it is all colours” (Dyer, 1988, p. 45) accounts in large measure for the fact that whiteness has simply been assumed as a racial category and, therefore, left theoretically unturned. Refocusing the theoretical lens back on the cultural center, a growing body of research has recently shifted attention toward “studying up” in an effort to decenter whiteness and to uncover the ways in which this racial site is constituted, embodied, and circulated as cultural meaning and lived practice (McIntosh, 1992; Keating, 1995; Thompson & Tyagi, 1996; Fine, Weis, Powell, & Wong, 1997; McIntyre, 1997; Giroux, 1997; McLaren, 1997).


Stripping whiteness of its innocence, this article takes up the narratives and expressive forms of a group of white adolescent girls who explore whiteness as racial identity and its institutionalization as the dominant race culture in a private, historically elite, single-sex high school.2 Most of these students have had to think neither about the racialness of being white nor the particular ways in which race discourses structure and secure their own relatively privileged lives. In this discussion, they shoulder primary responsibility for working through an otherwise invisible social location of self-definition and cultural advantage. Working from the premise that identities are constituted relationally (Apple & Weis, 1983; Wexler, 1992), this discussion is only complete if the perspectives of students of color are folded into the larger story of identity production in private education.3 The narratives of students of color, however, will not be used to color in the white experience as has typically been the case in past ethnographic work. Their voices should not continue to serve as foils for the confessional tales of those at/in the cultural center who need to fill in those cultural spaces that have been, up until recently, whited out in the literature on racial identity reproduction/production in school context (Fine, 1997).


The data reported here are based on a larger qualitative, ethnographic study of identity formation among a cohort of 34 teenage girls attending a historically elite, private, independent single-sex high school located in a Northeastern metropolitan center (Proweller, 1998). The study examined the dialectical construction of race, class and gender identities vis-à-vis dominant discourses organizing routines and practices in an elite, private girls’ school and broadly situated this analysis in relation to defining economic, political, and cultural shifts during the first half of the 1990s. I entered Best Academy in the fall semester of 1992, proposing to shadow the junior class for a full academic calendar year.4 Of the 37 students in the junior class, 34 agreed to be part of the larger study.5 Fieldwork was conducted on site at the school for nine months, where I was present three to four days a week throughout the school year. Data on school informants was primarily gathered through ethnographic methods of participant-observation and in-depth interviewing according to the techniques of the grounded theory method (Strauss, 1987; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994).6 Analysis of school mission statements, student records, policy documents, and other school-related materials supplemented narrative and observational data, providing an in-depth and dimensionalized portrait of lived culture in a private, girls’ school.

SHIFTING PRIVILEGE(S)


Best Academy was founded as a female seminary over 150 years ago with the mission to provide a rigorous education to daughters of the local elite.7 Drawing on their own experiences as former students and the standing reputation of this private school, faculty remarked in their interviews with me that Best Academy is well known in the local community for having served the “children of the leaders of the community and people with money, and its image as a “society school” is still relatively constant.8 By all accounts, the students currently enrolled in the school seem continuous with earlier generations of students drawn mainly from relatively privileged-class backgrounds. Over the past two decades, however, the characteristics of students enrolled in private schools nationally have been steadily changing to reflect a broadened representation across class, racial, and ethnic lines (Cooper, 1984; Cooper & Dondero, 1991).9 Speaking to manifest changes in the demographic makeup of private schools in the United States, Kane (1991) observes,


Critics of independent schools have argued that these schools are nothing more than “status” seminaries that furnish upper-class youth with the cultural capital they will need to assume elite membership. Traditionally, independent schools have served a homogeneous, affluent stratum of the population, but there are indications of change. Perhaps in response to public sentiment, or [to] a desire to set up a more socially equitable school community that reflects American society, or to the threat that public school reform is imposing, or simply to the economic imperative to fill seats at a time when demographic shifts have created a precipitous drop in the number of school-age children, independent schools are accepting the challenge to open their doors to a more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student body. (p. 42)


At Best Academy, there are visible indicators of a diversifying student population, especially along socioeconomic lines, that reflect a broadened representation of class backgrounds. Up until a decade ago, the student population represented in the school hailed from solidly upper middle-class families, a demographic continuous with the clientele historically served by the school. Teachers identify shifts in the representative student body, describing them as “sort of middle-of-the-middle-class girls,” a clientele that is “kind of a slice of society at this point.” Examining a list of occupations held by parents of the junior students, close to 88 percent are employed in jobs whose titles, descriptions, and expected income range reflect occupations typically associated with membership in the professional middle class.10 The remaining 12 percent of girls have parents who work in what have been traditionally described as blue-collar working-class and lower white-collar middle-class forms of employment, although it is possible, given the post-secondary education of a number of these parents in either community- or four-year colleges, that these families could well be included among the professional middle class as it has been newly reconfigured within the past decade.11


Just as the urban poor and working class have felt the damaging effects of a newly aggressive market economy, so too have the middle classes experienced their own form of social and economic dislocation in the 1990s. As was typically the case for many U.S. urban centers during the mid-1970s and upwards of that time, industrial growth and prosperity diminished as large- scale plant closings and corporate mergers shifted the bread and butter of American production from manufacturing to service sector employment (Bluestone & Harrison, 1982). The gap between the working, middle and upper classes has widened considerably over the past two decades coupled with marked growth in the poverty rate among the non-working and working poor during that same period of time (Weis, 1990; Rubin, 1994; Wilson, 1996; Weis, Proweller, & Centrie, 1997). Feeling themselves slipping from the relative financial and emotional security available to their families years earlier, the baby boomer generation faced growing insecurity on the job, stagnant income levels, and potential declines in social status (Ehrenreich, 1988). Old monied families who had sent their children to competitive private schools in the city as a matter of tradition fled urban centers for the supposed comforts of suburban settings where public schools were perceived to be safe, rich in resources, and amply staffed with well trained teachers able to provide their children with an equally rigorous education.12


Racial demographics have shifted as well from past years, although certainly not to the extent that class dynamics have evidenced change. Of the total student body of 119, school records indicate that 85 percent of students enrolled at Best Academy are white. The predominance of white students is not discontinuous with the racially white-washed enrollment of most private schools nationally. While there has been representative growth of minorities in private education, especially in private parochial and independent elementary and secondary schools, these populations continue to be disproportionately underrepresented in the private education sector. In 1993, the National Association of Independent Schools reported that 13.7 percent of all students enrolled in private, independent high schools in the United States were students of color (NAIS, 1993). In the junior class at Best Academy, white students are disproportionately represented as compared to students of color. Of the 34 students participating in the larger study, 4 self- identify as African American, 1 as Hispanic, 1 as Native American, and 1, the child of an interracial marriage, racially identifies as white.13


Unlike the public school where community is typically melded through an explicit set of regulatory practices, the private school binds individuals together through a common set of cultural codes that regulate student socialization inside and outside of school (Deal, 1991). The coherence of private school culture importantly depends on effectively transitioning students from seeing themselves as individuals to understanding that they are each part of a broader elite collective arranged around a set of legitimating discourses (Cookson & Persell, 1985). Private schools are committed to the maintenance of class privilege, and the school plays a key role in distributing and regulating ruling-class culture (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Kapferer, 1981). As students adopt authorized traditions, norms, values, and dispositions meant to secure their place in the class continuum, they are socialized into a cultural frame of reference that encourages a more generalized identification with the school as a whole (Cookson, 1994). Framing socialization in terms of cultural reproduction models of social analysis suggests that students largely absorb and assimilate valued cultural-capital defining of institutional arrangements and social relations in an upper-middle-class school. Class-based analyses of socialization and identity production are problematic, though, because they tend not only to be overly determining of school process and outcome but also edge out the possibility that students engage organizing discourses in multiple, contested, and contradictory ways (Apple & Weis, 1983; Adams, 1997). Rather than take the position that students are effectively positioned by dominant discursive arrangements in a largely white, elite, private school, I will argue, instead, that youth schooled in the valued lessons of mainstream white, middle-class cultural capital, work not only within but also against privileged discourses embodied and institutionalized in the private school (Connell et al., 1981, 1982). Given the unsettling effects of the broader political economy of race, class, and gender relations in this contemporary moment, it is no longer possible to conceptualize identity as a fixed and stable production. By necessity, the production of racial identities in the private school is not as seamless as dominant paradigms have led us to believe, and critical discussion needs to take place specifically around the racialness of white identity and its discursive production inside school culture.

INSTITUTIONALIZING WHITENESS


The recent intensification of racism and vilification of African American and ethnic minority and immigrant communities illustrates the extent to which the projection of the “other” is defining of the state of contemporary race relations in the United States and reminds us of the impossibility of delinking analysis of racial identity production from the broader political economy and prevailing discursive arrangements (Waters, 1990; Weis & Fine, 1996; Hall & du Gay, 1996). In this vein, scholars of colonial discourse have drawn attention to the fact that the construction of the white “self” has historically depended on the production of an “other,” more specifically, the racialized, nonwhite “other.” White racial identity is co-constructed through othering which has the double-sided effect of securing race privilege while relegating people of color to the economic, political, and cultural margins of American society. As Frankenberg (1993) aptly points out, “to be white within this universe of discourse is thus to not be a number of other things,” in particular, “not a person of color” (p. 70). For most of the Best Academy students participating in this study, this was the first time they had ever reflected on what it means to racially identify as white, and this proved to be an uncomfortable exercise for many of them. The essential paradox of white identity, that it is everywhere and nowhere to be seen at one and the same time, presents white students with a certain challenge (Dyer, 1988). Best Academy student narratives are instructive for understanding the difficulties that surround scripting whiteness as more than a biological marker. Asked to locate themselves racially, white youth construct their analyses through a language of othering, decidedly positioning themselves in relation to an “other.” In order to articulate whiteness as a lived part of their everyday experience, they must find a language that inscribes who they are racially in terms of who they are not.


A.P.: What racial group do you locate yourself in?


Dina: White.


A.P.: What does it mean to you to be a young, white female in Best Academy? Is it a particular kind of experience that you can describe for me?


Dina: I guess you would have to say that it would be different from being a black female here at school. I mean, a black female would be able to answer that.


A.P.: What is the experience like for you as a young, white female at Best Academy?


Dina: Well, the white people are the majority at Best Academy. I don’t know. It never really bothered me, and it never really occurred to me until seriously, this year, [(when the school put on a series of Morning Meeting (a routine morning assembly held at the beginning of each school day) presentations on Martin Luther King during Black History Month)].


* * * * *


A.P.: Do you ever think about what it means to be white?


Nina: I never thought about it.


A.P.: Uh hum.


Nina: Because, probably, we’re the majority and, you know, we never really think, I mean, I’m sure the minorities think about it because maybe they think they’re prejudiced [(discriminated)] against. But usually the people who are prejudiced [(I feel that they have been discriminated against by whites)], were prejudiced by the whites. And since we are the whites, we don’t think about it [(being white)] at all.


* * * * *


A.P.: What racial group do you see yourself a part of?


Victoria: Caucasian.


A.P.: What has the experience of being white been like for you here at Best Academy?


Victoria: It’s the majority.


A.P.: What does that mean? What does it mean [to you] to be [a] white [student] in this school?


Victoria: I want to say normal, but it’s not like African Americans are abnormal. It’s just the majority.


Finding the language that best captures her identity as a white student in this private school, Dina struggles to white in the outlines of her narrative with a more complete description, other than saying that she imagines the white experience being “different from being a black female here at school” and leaving it at that. Students are somewhat at a loss to articulate how whiteness has mattered in their lives at Best Academy. Not only have they not had to consider this issue before, but it is a discourse that has been naturalized and normalized. Hence, there does not appear to be any reason why it should be the focus of discussion. They find a way to enter the conversation by casting the spotlight on their peers of color. Ironically, this speaks to the ways that white people subsist in a condition of raceless subjectivity (McLaren, 1991, 1994) where racial invisibility obscures the fact that white is a color and a situated identity that profoundly shapes individual and collective lives.14


More to the point, though, the challenge that surrounds racializing white identity reflects the profound anxiety that circles white talk about race (Sleeter, 1993; Omi & Winant, 1994; Gallagher, 1994; McIntyre, 1997). As she gathered white women’s oral histories, Frankenberg uncovered persistent worries among her sample that drawing attention to race somehow tied them into the history of white racism, and by extension, meant that they, themselves, were racist on some level. Uncomfortable with this prospect, some of her informants retreated into the evasive practice of color blindness, what Peter McLaren (1997) qualifies as “a refusal to acknowledge how white people are implicated in certain social relations of privilege and relations of domination and subordination” (p. 24). As a site of constructed dominance whose institutionalization ironically keeps it from being witnessed (Fine, 1997), whiteness is easy to ignore because the conditions are in place for those at/in the cultural center to forget what has been manufactured and secured through its own invisibility and omission. When the question of what it means to racially identify as white is asked directly, however, racial innocence is challenged and an uncomfortable awareness is substituted in its place. It is here that percolating fear of being perceived as racist bubbles to the surface and seeps through the lines of white student narratives.


A.P.: Now, how about race . . . what racial group do you locate yourself in?


Cara: Well, I’m a WASP.


A.P.: You’re a WASP [(laughter)]. What has the experience of being a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant been like for you inside Best Academy?


Cara: To me, it’s never made a difference. But isn’t that just because I am white? I mean, because I am a woman, it makes it a little different. So I get that kind of, if you want, discrimination. But I’m white, I’m Protestant. I mean, it doesn’t . . . it has never affected me. I have friends who are Catholic, who are Black, who are Asian. I have a few . . . I mean, it doesn’t come into play until we get into these whole racial discussions where I have to sit down and think—God, am I really racist? You know what I mean? It doesn’t figure in.


A.P.: Do you think issues of race are discussed adequately in school?


Cara: Too much.


A.P.: Too much?


Cara: Well, in one sense, too much, and in one [another] sense, not enough. I mean, how could you ever talk about, enough about something, where whole races are being discriminated against because of color. But when you, yourself, are happy with the way you’re dealing with it, and you have friends from different races, close friends, why should you have to sit there and defend yourself to people who, you know, are KKK members, or, or are completely, you know, [take the position] go back to your roots—African, and that everybody should be black or they should die. I mean, you get two sides of it, and why should . . . I don’t want to be trapped into saying well, you know, I have black friends, so, of course, I’m not racist. And I don’t know . . . weird things like that. So, I don’t like to think about it.


* * * * *


A.P.: What does it mean to you to be a young, white woman at Best Academy?


Fiona: I don’t really see a distinction. I mean. . . .


A.P.: Between what?


Fiona: I . . . I don’t know. Most of the people who go here are white. So it’s like I feel a part of the majority. But I don’t really think about the fact that I’m white. A lot of things that we have talked about like in English and in history [class], about slavery and racism, I think that that brings out the fact that I’m white. But not in my opinions, I’m not white in my opinions in terms of how I see those things. Um, but I don’t think I’m black. I mean, I just don’t think that I’m like, um, I don’t, I guess it’s not like my opinions are because of my skin color or anything—an issue of racism. I mean, I don’t think I’m a racist person at all. Um, I don’t really think that I think about the fact that I’m white really, you know, when I’m in school.


Each of these narratives echoes a tone of white defensiveness (Roman, 1993) when race, specifically whiteness as racialized identity, is openly discussed. Just as I introduce conversation around what her experience has been as a white student in a largely white private school, Cara is quick to point out that whiteness “doesn’t come into play.” She feels especially uncomfortable when race becomes the focus of discussion mainly because of the fact that it puts her in the position of having to consider if “she is really racist.” Fiona simply equates thinking about being white with being racist, and like Cara, takes the position that neither she nor the school is racist. The strategic location of her statement, “I don’t really think I’m a racist person,” closely followed by her adding, “I don’t really think that I think about the fact that I’m white,” is, perhaps, one of the clearest illustrations of the apprehension folded into talk that binds whiteness to the history of racial oppression in the United States.


As they explore what it means to be white at Best Academy, these students repeatedly remind me that race just doesn’t “figure in” in the school context. Teacher narratives carry this theme through as well. When I asked one teacher how she accounts for academic differences between her students, she immediately delinks differences in race, ethnicity, and class background from academic performance. Mrs. Harrington comments,


I don’t really see a lot of differences between students in terms of cultural or racial backgrounds, and I don’t connect backgrounds. And I really couldn’t tell you who, in my class, is from an upper middle-class [family] or from the city as opposed to the suburbs. I really couldn’t tell you because I don’t know. I never really [noticed]. And I notice some differences in the way they dress and that kind of thing. I could probably relate that to differences in them as individuals, but basically I try to notice learning differences, learning differences in math. And everyone of them is different. . . . I notice differences in them, but I don’t really tie it to anything else, learning differences and that kind of thing.


While she admits to noticing different learning styles, she quickly adds that she doesn’t “really tie it to anything else.” As Mrs. Harrington sees it, race is neither intrinsically determining of school achievement nor does it adversely impact teachers’ attitudes toward students. The notion that race doesn’t really matter is transparent in this white teacher’s claim, echoing what Sleeter (1993) found in her research on how white teachers’ conceptions of race influence how they construct race in the classroom. Among the teachers she interviewed as part of a two-year staff development program, she learned that white teachers tended to take on a color-blind perspective in an effort to ignore race. A common standpoint taken among whites and arguably the dominant race discourse in the United States, color blindness provides white people a protective hedge against having to claim one’s privilege and acts as a convenient defense against having to address the historical subordination of people of color. By definition, being a teacher at Best Academy consists in valuing the differences that all students bring with them into school, and color blindness is congruent with this framework. Retreating behind the smokescreen of color blindness, Mrs. Harrington also gives voice to the vested commitment of the private school in liberal, meritocratic principles of individualism, equity, and opportunity that intend to unify individuals across their differences (Goldberg, 1993). Centrally operating in the institutional arrangements and perspectives of Best Academy students and faculty, liberalism is key to understanding how whiteness is discursively produced and embodied in a predominantly white, professional middle-class, private school. Liberal ideology maintains that all people, in spite of individual differences, of which race is one, share in common an essential humanity that binds them together. Color blindness allows Mrs. Harrington to believe in liberal discourses that fundamentally subscribe to the notion that skin color should not matter, providing her and her colleagues with a frame of reference for negotiating emergent differences in school context.


The project of private education reaches far beyond simply providing students with instruction in academic skills. What is perhaps far more important to the ideological coherence of the school is its ability to resolve the contradictions between individualism and collectivism, difference(s) and the common ground of shared experience. To accomplish this, school officials must acculturate Best Academy students to those liberal discourses that set the terms for negotiating cultural difference in school. Prominent liberal discourses, like those of tolerance and respect for diversity, are addressed in the school’s mission statement, and teachers, on the whole, seek to incorporate multicultural experiences into classroom curriculum.15 In conversations with several teachers, they describe an official school culture that staunchly defends and celebrates diversity, whose trickle-down effects show up as apparent racial harmony among students. Teachers do report instances of racial tension and conflict in past years but simply dismiss these as random exceptions to what is otherwise a racially nonconflicted learning environment accepting of differences. Based on the fact that they neither see nor hear racial tensions out in the open, they agree that racism is virtually absent. Along with their students, they reach the conclusion that race doesn’t really matter, that it does not factor into daily life at Best Academy.


Ms. Nelson: . . . this school is incredibly open about differences between culture and races and religions. And they are very cognizant around holiday time about making sure that there are equal differences on different viewpoints. The whole Glorious People16 aspect can celebrate the fact that as a black culture, we were repressed and had awful times due to a white culture, but I am not going to blame my white friends for that [history]. There were a couple of grumblings like if I was a white student, and I did something like that, I would be considered racist. You are going to have comments like that.


A.P.: Did you, in fact, hear white students make comments along those lines?


Ms. Nelson: I heard it secondhand and heard about it in English class or in history class. But that ability to see that a minority has to talk about their past and that ability to see that it is okay to celebrate the fact that students are black without saying to them—I’m black, and I’m oppressed, and it’s your fault because you are white. I don’t see that here. I don’t ever see people, in reference to any black students, like [saying] . . . the black girls in the junior class. I don’t ever hear that kind of representation in a negative context.


* * * * *


Mr. Vogel: As far as racism, I don’t think it exists [in the school]. I don’t hear comments in that respect. There’s not a tremendous amount of black students here, but the ones that are here, and you saw Glorious People. It was marvelous and very well received. I think all the students were impressed by how well they did, and there wasn’t anybody who said it was a black thing kind of deal.


Teachers point to relatively benign racial conflicts between students that are quickly diffused with little lasting effect on the general school climate. Because teachers neither openly see tense racial interactions nor hear racist comments, they tend to agree that race relations are relatively fluid. Their perspective fits well the investment of the private school in creating and sustaining a coherent and harmonious cultural space. These narratives paint a virtually seamless picture of race culture at Best Academy, an image that is, however, called into question by student narratives that cast a long shadow of doubt over claims of racial harmony. In rather broad strokes, they begin to sketch the outlines of race management deployed within the institutional arrangements of the private school.


A.P.: What has the experience been like for you as a white person in a predominantly white high school like Best Academy?


Dina: Well, the white people are the majority at Best Academy. I don’t know. It never really bothered me, and it never really occurred to me until seriously this year. Did you see the Martin Luther King Chapels? Mrs. Harrington put like a week of that stuff on [(presentation at Morning Meeting during Black History month)]. It made me think that they [(the school administration)] are only doing this to satisfy the African-American students. It just seemed so fake. It just seemed so fake because the people who did it were white. They were the ones who organized it. That is so wrong. We all should learn about that. It really seemed to me that they [(the school administration)] only did that thing just to satisfy them [(the minority students)].


* * * * *


A.P.: How do you think the experience of being nonwhite is for students at Best Academy?


Marlene: Oh, I think it’s really hard because, I mean, I don’t know. I probably just know from being friends with Lucy [an African American student] because she gets frustrated because of like the things that people say sometimes. I don’t know. Oh yeah, like in English class, she always wants to talk about the African American point of view on this or that. And everybody sort of rolls their eyes like [as if to say]—here she goes again.


Along with other scholars of colonial discourse, Chandra Mohanty (1990) has powerfully argued that race management, or, rather, race domestication, is intimately tied to a white, liberal, middle-class agenda in the classroom that seeks to unite rather than divide individuals around their differences. As liberal epistemologies white out differences through a language of tolerance and respect for cultural differences, however, they have the ironic effect of drawing attention to and highlighting those very same differences (Goldberg, 1993). This dynamic circulates through student perceptions of the institutionalization of race management manufactured and practiced by white students and faculty alike. Student critics of race domestication point to some of their white peers who quietly roll their eyes when a peer of color speaks up in class, intent on bringing issues of race “again” to the forefront of class discussion. While subtle, this is a tremendously powerful expression of how race is managed and contained inside white student culture. What appears to unsettle those white youth who roll their eyes in the classroom is not so much the racialized viewpoints of their peers of color as much as it appears to be the challenge that their voices introduce to an otherwise invisible and absent discourse of whiteness as their specific identity and lived experience. Students of color are perceived as having an “African American point of view” in contrast to white students, who do not see themselves speaking from an equivalent white perspective. During these episodes, the zone of comfort that invisibility has afforded white students is challenged. Discovering that they lack a racial perspective that they can draw on and call their own, they assume a stance of white defensiveness.


Equally problematic for these student critics are what appear to be, as far as they can see, token celebrations of diversity, and they individually begin to poke at the polite behaviors and protracted silences that seem to define race discourse at Best Academy. Here it is important to note the inextricable relationship between race and class forms in the deployment of management practices. Student narratives suggest that race talk is carefully managed and coproduced at the borders of race and class codes organizing private school culture. Disclosure of race management comes out at the very moment that white students choose to break from practices of omission and silencing that white out talk about race in the private school. In these unpredictable moments, Best Academy students dare to challenge liberal discourses that prescribe a public and polite talk about race. The tension between practices of silencing and omission and public talk about race is powerfully illustrated in one scenario in an English class working through a unit on race and literature where students were assigned to read and discuss the text, Malcolm X. Glenda, a white, upper-middle-class student, found herself at the center of contentious discussion one afternoon. Responding to my question to her whether being white had ever impacted on her life as a student in Best Academy, she launched into a description of what took place that day in her English class during the race unit.17


Glenda: Well, we read a book, Malcolm X. We had a discussion about it in class one time, and I think I got myself into a bit of trouble, but I didn’t mean to.


A.P.: What happened? What did you say in class?


Glenda: We were talking about Malcolm X and his ideas and his early philosophy, what he believed when he thought kill all of the whites [because] they are bad. And Wanda [(an African American student)] is in my class, and she really likes Malcolm X and believes in his philosophy. I don’t know about the early part [of his life]. It seems like she sees him as a positive role model, I think, and leader in black history. And I said something to the effect that I didn’t agree with his early philosophies because I thought it was threatening to me, you know, someone who [says he] wants to kill all of the whites. It makes me feel threatened because it is taking away all of my security.


A.P.: He was too militant a leader for you?


Glenda: Yeah. And it bothered me. And I didn’t mean that in a racial [racist] way at all, but it came across that way. And I said that Malcolm X, I understand that he had a lot of hate in him because he was raised in a very poor family where the father left, and he was sent to different foster homes. So he had a lot of hate that had built up in him over the years, and so that’s why he had so many negative feelings. And I said that I would never really be able to understand his position because I have never had an experience like that. I am from a middle-class white background, and it would be stupid for me to think that I could ever really feel or understand what he was saying because I can’t. It is just something that I can’t [understand].


A.P.: What was her reaction?


Glenda: Well, she got very offended, and she thought that I was being somewhat racist because I was saying that his ideas were wrong or whatever, and, you know, that I was racist because I couldn’t see his point of view. But it’s not that I can’t see it. It’s just that I can’t really understand it. I would be a hypocrite if I was saying that I could really understand it because I have never lived in those conditions.


A.P.: So how did you respond when she sort of accused you of being racist?


Glenda: She didn’t say that she thought that I was racist, but she just got really offended. And then we talked about the fact that he felt that blacks who, when they made a lot of money or had a good job or whatever, and they moved into like a white, suburban neighborhood, that they were selling out because they were moving out of their black neighborhoods or whatever. I felt that it wasn’t selling out, I felt that it was just . . . if they felt that it was something that they wanted to do, that they had worked hard to raise money, that they should be able to do it. And if they were sharing some of their time and their talent with people who were less fortunate, that I really didn’t feel that they were sell-outs. And she disagreed with it very strongly. She felt that your roots are there, and that is where you should be. And see, I said again, I guess I really can’t understand that because it is not something that I have ever been in the position of having really personally to deal with. But, I mean, I was very honest about the way that I felt. And I think that it would be better than just saying—oh yes, I have great sympathy for his feelings, I know how he feels. Because I don’t [know how he feels].


A.P.: Did other students share your feelings?


Glenda: I don’t know if they did. I don’t think they would have come right out and said it.


A.P.: Why do you think that is the case?


Glenda: Well, first of all, they didn’t want to offend Wanda. Wanda was really upset about the whole discussion. A lot of people had a lot of really strong feelings about everything. I think that it is a very touchy subject, and if you say something that is even slightly opinionated one way or the other, you will get branded as a racist, you know. And that might have been the case, that people did brand me a racist that day. But I had discussed it with my parents because it did somewhat upset me, and they felt that really I was being very honest with my feelings and that if I felt that I couldn’t sympathize with him, then I was right in saying so because it would be better than just pretending that I am something that I am not. And that’s how I feel about it too. . . . I think most whites do have somewhat of that kind of thought in the back of their minds. I think it’s probably just because of the whole historical experience that’s been in this country. But that’s just how I felt, and I didn’t think that saying something else would be appropriate.


A.P.: Do you think that white students feel that they have to be careful about what they choose to say here at school?


Glenda: I think they are, just because they don’t want to offend anyone.


In this narrative, Glenda feels that both white and nonwhite students present in class that day saw her as “somewhat racist” because of her decision to challenge certain elements in Malcolm X’s politics. She gives voice to the private struggles that whites wage internally around whether to remain silent or speak publicly about race (Frankenberg, 1993; McIntyre, 1997). As a white student who chose to go public about race, Glenda feels snared, noting that “it is a very touchy subject, and if you say something that is even slightly opinionated one way or the other, you will get branded as a racist.” The conflict that whites experience when they draw attention to race difference winds through her decision to open comment about Malcolm X in class that day. Glenda, in effect, steps over the boundaries of good, acceptable practice in her challenge. This claim is premised on the assumption that it is bad practice to focus on race, particularly if you are white. Donna, a white classmate, had this to say about her impression of what took place in class that day:


After class, I talked to Glenda and Wanda. Glenda was like—“Is Wanda mad at me?” I like respect Glenda in a sense. I think half of the girls thought that [they shared Glenda’s position on Malcolm X’s race politics], but they just didn’t have the guts to say it. But I think that was good. I think half of the people are fake about it. I mean, like some of the things that she was saying. I mean, I didn’t think [they were] true [either]. But it did scare me, some of the things that I was reading about Malcolm X, but I have just been brought up never to say that [my emphasis]. I would never say that, like being [appearing] naive. Just from being with blacks and like going to school [with them] I would never say—I can’t believe that, even if I thought that. I like respect Glenda for being able to just say that and not be afraid. But like she has never been to a public school. If she said that in a public school, she would probably be beaten up in the bathroom.


In an ironic twist, Donna suggests that the private school provides students a safe space for outing whiteness as compared to the public school where, she gathers, white students who talk openly about race “would probably be beaten up in the bathroom.” Her observation reflects the extent to which class-based norms of civility and propriety shape race consciousness among white students where speaking publicly about race in the private school is identified as bad practice. The good white typically avoids talking publicly about race and is particularly careful about choosing appropriate words for having this conversation. Bad whites overstep the bounds of what has been determined to be proper race talk. Winding down her response by saying that she had been “brought up never to say that,” Donna binds race discourse in the private school to prescriptive class codes. Despite the fact that Donna thought well of Glenda’s challenge, commenting that she thought what Glenda said “was good,” Glenda is perceived as behaving badly in ways that arguably contradict and obstruct the liberal agenda of private education.18 Open and honest talk about race risks conflict in a school context that deeply depends for its balance on harmonious, nonconflicted relations. The persistent anxiety surrounding race discourse is summed up best in a conversation between an English teacher and a white student. After a discussion in a junior English class during the classroom unit on race, Dina, a white student, approached her teacher, struggling in broken sentences to express her concern that whites are unfairly portrayed in African American literature. Her English teacher, Mr. Fischer, and an African American peer standing nearby, reacted to her comment with complete dismay, prompting him to say, “I don’t think you meant to say what you just said.” Rather than answer her with some explanation that historically situates representations of white folks in African American literature, he silences her, perhaps out of his own private fear that he might say something outside of the boundaries of acceptable race talk for “good” whites. Instead of working through her sense of being unfairly racialized as “other,” Mr. Fischer skirts discussion of the issue altogether. Once again, talk about race is silenced, and institutionalized codes of race and class culture prevail to manage and ultimately shut down the possibility for awakening white racial consciousness.


Student narratives provide insight into the absent spaces of white racial consciousness and those moments where white racial identity is brought into sharp relief. The racialization of white identity is set against the backdrop of an institutional culture and climate steeped in the traditions and values of liberalism which, as I earlier pointed out, neatly align with the dominant race discourse in the United States, color blindness. Speaking from this standpoint has the effect of neutralizing differences, leaving students and faculty convinced that race does not factor into institutional arrangements at Best Academy, that it simply does not matter. As one white student put it, “we all get taught the same and [are] treated the same, and everyone treats each other the same, so it’s all equalled out.” Others had this to say about the relative absence of race as an organizing dimension of school life:


Briana: I don’t think it’s different at all. I don’t think it matters.


Wendy: Definitely not in our school.


Briana: I don’t think so. I mean, out in the workplace, definitely [it matters]. Or when you apply to colleges, definitely [it matters]. But not in this school.


Wendy: Even in the public schools, like the city public schools, there’s not that many black people out in the suburban schools. Well, in public school, there’s a lot of white people [that] don’t like the black people. But here it’s just like no one cares. There’s no difference within anybody’s eyes.


* * * * *


Bella: I don’t think there is really a focus on race [at Best Academy]. I mean, there are very few black people at this school. But I don’t believe that it is because they’re black. Well, it’s possible that the interest doesn’t lie here since if a black person comes to this school and says—hey, wait a second, there is something wrong here, there is only like five black people in the whole school, what’s going on? That might scare black people away. Like, I don’t think that you should make sacrifices and try to get black people to come—just because they are black—to make the school look better. I think that the best students and the most interested students should be the ones that get to come here. And I don’t think that race has anything to do with the way that they run the school.


* * * * *


A.P.: How would you describe the experience of being a white girl here at Best Academy?


Diana: Um, no, I think it’s the same for everybody . . . [laughter].


A.P.: Do you think that it is in any way different for those girls who are not white?


Diana: Not at all. Because we all get taught the same and treated the same. And everyone treats each other the same. So it’s all equalled out.


* * * * *


Yvonne: There are African Americans here, but I still think that they are, you know, upper class and you have, you know, kind of been suburbanized, and so, even if it is a different racial background, it’s like a toned down cultural, a different cultural background.


Across the board, these students agree that race has relatively little impact on admissions and the overall school climate. As Bella puts it, “the best students and the most interested students should be the ones that get to come here,” and she is convinced that race [does not have] anything to do with the way that they run the school.” Her comment is steeped in the meritocratic promises of liberal educational discourses applicable to all students regardless of cultural background. No less than these white students, students of color also share the view that all students are equally valued and treated the same in the school context, meaning equitably and fairly, in spite of the particular differences in cultural background they bring with them into school. Ethnic minority students are absolutely clear on this point:


A.P.: What is the experience like for you as a Native American at Best Academy?


Lisa: In Best Academy, nothing. I am no different from any other person. I am no different from the black people here. I am no different than the white people here. I am no different from the Hispanic people here. I am just a different bloodline.


* * * * *


Beth: Well, people here [at Best Academy] don’t make you feel different, you know. But you know that you are different because you are like the only person that is Hispanic here. But you don’t see people like pointing [you] out because you are different. So, I would say that knowing that you are Hispanic is just enough. Don’t change because, you know, maybe by coming here, you like figure out that you have to change because you are the only one, and you don’t want to be the only one. But I would tell her, just don’t change. Be yourself.


Despite distinct cultural backgrounds and experiences, Lisa and Beth speak to the effective containment of difference at Best Academy to such an extent that students, across racial and ethnic lines, appear to have internalized the universalizing discourses of liberal ideology. This is not surprising given the fact that Best Academy, like most independent schools, relies heavily on developing among its students a purposeful identification with the school community. This is realized through institutional arrangements that support the coproduction and mutual reinforcement of race and class codes. Framed in these terms, the ways in which cultural differences are leveled, in effect, whited out, are logically borne out in white student narratives. Nonwhite, ethnic minority students describe feeling relatively integrated into school culture, in part explained by the importance attached to developing a coherent institutional identity and the persistent belief in the meritocratic promises of the ideology of achievement (Conforti, 1992; MacLeod, 1995; Davidson, 1996). While students might enter Best Academy from different cultural backgrounds, bringing with them cultural capital, in some instances at odds with the knowledge, values, and dispositions most valued by the school, they are convinced that equal opportunities to learn and achieve with just rewards for their hard work will be theirs, provided they put out the effort. Recall an earlier statement by one teacher who made it clear that she sees no relationship between student achievement and cultural differences, observing that she “notice[s] differences in them [the students] as individuals,” but doesn’t “tie it to anything else.” If she were to draw any connections publicly, she would effectively undermine democratic principles of individualism, equality, and opportunity deeply woven into the fabric of private school culture.

MANAGING RACE: ON OTHER[S] TERMS


As this discussion has illustrated through example, liberal ideologies highlight differences at the same time as they seek out those strands that knit all people together, transcending cultural particularities. The ties that bind individuals do not always have the positive effect of fostering collective identification among all students. Behind the liberal project of tolerance and respect for difference and diversity lies a form of paternalism that ironically recenters race privilege, leaving African American students feeling somewhat marginalized within the school community (Macedo & Bartolome, 1997). Along these lines, Goldberg (1993) has suggested that,


Liberals are moved to overcome the racial differences they tolerate and have been instrumental in fabricating by diluting them, by bleaching them out through assimilation or integration. The liberal would assume away the differences in otherness, maintaining thereby the dominance of a presumed sameness, the universally imposed similarity in identity. The paradox is perpetrated: the commitment to tolerance turns on modernity’s natural inclination to intolerance; acceptance of otherness presupposes as it at once necessitates delegitimization of the other. (p. 7)


Tolerance of differences invites individuals to work toward creating a harmonious community of difference. Against the backdrop of globalization, the school mission statement reminds students they have “an obligation to understand those from different backgrounds.” The word “obligation” as it applies here refers to the ethical responsibility that students have as individuals living within a community of differences whose survival depends on achieving a working balance between individualism and collective identification. Living out this responsibility oftentimes does not involve having students and school officials take up critique of existing discourses of power that design unequal social relations and institutional arrangements, an important starting point for reflection and active movement towards social change (Freire, 1970). Defining the parameters of cultural tolerance this way protects those who have historically benefited from the cultural advantages of being white. It does not force those who are the beneficiaries of race privilege to explore how it is that they have been advantaged and at whose expense. “[U]nderstand[ing] those from different backgrounds” does not necessarily involve self-exploration of the racialized white self. Leaving critique out of the project to foster cultural tolerance prevents students and faculty from seeing how the school itself manages diversity, in effect, how it domesticates race in the interests of avoiding conflicts that might erupt around difference. What becomes increasingly apparent is the fact that cultural tolerance largely depends on tolerating rather than challenging and disrupting inequalities based on race.


In their identity work, African American students pierce the veil of liberal paternalism that has left students of color feeling that they are simply “tolerated” as a matter of “obligation” rather than affirmed alongside their white peers as integral members of the school community. In their bid to define who they are as different from but also part of school culture, African American students cannot bypass having to straddle dual identities. As students at Best Academy, their process of self-definition involves continuously negotiating and repositioning themselves in relation to institutionalized discourses of race oriented around white, middle-class norms, values, and expectations. Because identities are neither unitary or static, changing in relationship to institutional arrangements, students of color find themselves in that zone that Gloria Anzaldua (1987) describes as “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” where one “is in a constant state of transition” (p. 3). Here, I reappropriate the concept of the “borderland” as it has been used by postcolonial feminists writing about identity work at the borders of European and American culture, to describe the ways in which these youth reconstitute themselves inside an institutional site of racial dominance, discursively coded white. For African American students, racial invisibility has not been a matter of choice. Historically positioned at the borders of white cultural norms, African Americans negotiate dual identities of a private and public self. Echoing W. E. B. DuBois’ (1961) scripting of the refracted double consciousness of race, the African American has grown up “looking at one’s self through the eyes of the other world,” coded white (p. 3). While they are vocal in their double-edged desire not to be “othered,” these students are also interested in being folded into a broader cultural identity that supports their visible integration into school culture (Stanlaw & Peshkin, 1988). From them, we begin to hear an emergent critique that exposes and problematizes the assumptions that secure race privilege under the liberal veil of tolerance and respect for differences.


A.P.: Does race ever make a difference for you in school?


Lucy: Yes, [with the] type of events that they have. For instance, if there is ever like an open house or something like that, they always call me. Of course, if there is ever a graduation dinner, they call Casey. One of us has to serve.


Casey: As the token black, [as though they (school officials) are saying] we do allow blacks in our school. At this luncheon for alumnae that I just went to on Friday, we were sitting there. She [(Mrs. Nicholson)] was talking about the events that were going on at Best Academy, and she just had to get up there and make her point. She was like—and all of our African American students were just involved in this play [(Glorious People)] written and performed by one of our black students, and all of the students were in it, and blah, blah, blah . . . we are so proud. [And she was] just looking at me like . . .


Lucy: Don’t make me throw up!


A.P.: What were you thinking as Mrs. Nicholson said that?


Casey: Her whole tone of voice was trying to prove to them [(alumnae)], you know, that yes, we do let our black students do things like—[I was thinking] gee whiz. I was the only black student that had been asked to go to this luncheon. It was a luncheon for alumnae. Friday was senior skip day, so they had to ask the juniors to do it instead.


A.P.: Do you feel that you are integrated into this school?


Casey: No.


Lucy: In a way [I do].


A.P.: Talk to me more about that.


Lucy: I don’t know. I think Best Academy is my school. See, no one can tell you that Best Academy is not my school after, I mean, I have done millions of things for Best Academy, things that I couldn’t even remember because it’s been so many. And I just feel that it is my school, and I have a right to be the way that I want to in school and the right to say what I want [to say]. It’s just my school.


Casey: I feel that way too. Also when I walk through Best Academy, I feel like, you know, I am this black girl walking through the halls of a white school.


A.P.: In what sense do you feel that way?


Lucy: Just from like, just experiences that I have had in class, you know, other people that I have talked to and stuff like that.


A.P.: Could you give some examples that would clarify this for me?


Casey: Remember that lunch one day. We were talking about colleges. And we were talking about getting college mail and our PSAT scores. And all of them have like gotten a lot of mail from colleges and things like that. But then we had an open college meeting with Mrs. Oliver [the guidance counselor], and we were talking about that. We start talking about that, like—yeah, I really want to go to that school. But Mrs. Oliver thought that this would be a reach school for me and blah, blah, blah. And they [(the white students sitting around me at lunch)] were like—what kind of schools did she give you [to think about applying to for college]? I was like—I got this school and that school, I got some good schools. [They are like]—really, gee, well, you know, you will get into that college because they [the school] need to fill their quotas. They need the black students here.


* * * * *


A.P.: What kinds of things do you wish for?


Wanda: Um, racial respect instead of racial tolerance.


A.P.: How do you define the difference between these two conditions?


Wanda: Well, well, another classmate might, you know, tolerate me being, you know, in school or whatever. But they don’t respect my presence here.


A.P.: They [the students] don’t respect your presence here at school?


Wanda: Yeah [they don’t].


A.P.: You mean to say that they are simply obligated to recognize your presence at school?


Wanda: Yeah. Like I’m probably at this school because of some quota that they’ve [(the school)] had to fill or whatever, but not because, you know, I’m a black girl or whatever [(the implication being that Wanda was not accepted to the school purely on the basis of merit)].


Through their voices, students of color crack the paternalistic code of race management in the private school. These African American youth feel themselves only partially integrated into the school (Rist, 1978), full integration seemingly undercut by language and practices that consistently position them as the representative “other” inside classroom dynamics that “vacillate between a high level of tension and an overwhelming desire to create harmony, acceptance of ‘difference’ and cordial relations” (Mohanty, 1990, p. 195). They tie institutional intentions to integrate their perspectives and celebrate their accomplishments to a polite language of race that has the opposite effect, of marginalizing and doubly refracting them as “other.” As they see it, drawing attention to differences can have the unintended result of silencing students of color in a dominant cultural milieu. This proved to be the case when white teachers and peers would position students of color, African American, Hispanic, and Native American, as resident experts of the ethnic and racial minority experience. A pedagogy of race that positions students of color as knowledgeable experts contributes to silencing these voices in the classroom. As they focus the lens of cultural experience and analysis on the “native informant,” white students and teachers alike are caught in the double bind of whiteness where decentering whiteness can mistakenly reproduce race privilege by objectifying the nonwhite “other” (Ellsworth, 1992, 1997; hooks, 1994).


During those moments when I observed this happening in the classroom, African American students, in particular, would strategically guard their own experiences, refusing their white peers information. I typically saw these students invert and reappropriate the white public, polite language of race by refusing to share their perspectives as part of larger class discussion. Feeling her own experiences somewhat devalued in class, Tess, an African American student, would voluntarily silence herself, refusing to respond to questions from teachers and students alike. In other words, African American students practiced their own brand of silencing in the classroom, redirecting race discourse on their own terms depending on how “real” they felt the interest in them to be at the time. There were distinct moments, though, when students of color could not stay silent any longer, especially when their white peers spoke in stereotypical terms about people of color. Overhearing talk about drug dealers in her gym class one day, Wanda had a response ready, remarking in her conversation with me that “it was like instinct upon me to, to, you know, say—not all people who wear beepers are drug dealers.” Overturning misrepresentations of black culture, Wanda publicly acts out her desire to manage race on her own terms. This parallels her decision to orient race discourse in the classroom differently through self-silencing, demonstrating once again, those strategies that allow her more control over the conditions of her own life as an African American student in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class school context. In equal measure, these same students unreservedly raise questions around the motivations behind the cultural appropriations of their white peers who dip into black cultural forms. Observing instances where white students tried on fashions, linguistic dialects and communication styles like Black Vernacular English typically not their own, I asked Tess and Casey their feelings about their white peers “acting black” (Ogbu & Fordham, 1986; Peshkin, 1991).


A.P.: Do you ever get any sense that some of the white girls in school try to “act black?”


Tess: Yeah. I know Shelby. She did act a different way in front of me and Wanda like saying—did you go see CB4, it’s like a movie, and there are a whole bunch of black people in it. [Shelby will then say] did you see the new Air Jordan [sneakers], and then [she will say things like] “that’s phat,” “that’s dukey” and “that’s sweet.” When I get in front of my family, I talk the same way in front of them, using those same words. And then I went to her house one day . . . it’s a whole different thing, a whole different talk. She didn’t use any words like “phat” or “sweet.” She was just like—daddy, did my brother come home yet? She was talking real nice to their maid and everything, and she didn’t really have her baggy jeans on. She just had her skirt and her shoes. It was just a whole different outlook on her like this in-school thing that she was doing.


* * * * *


Casey: . . . But like Gayle and Amanda [the girls from the peer group who are white, from predominantly upper-middle-class homes and private school backgrounds] and all of them. They drive me nuts just because they sit there and just try to act so down, just try to be so down, [meaning] as in being hip to black culture.


A.P.: What do they do that gives you the impression that they are trying to act hip to black culture?


Casey: [They] just try to, you know, learn all of the lyrics to the [rap] songs, walk a certain way, and talk a certain way.


Lucy: They think they talk the way that black people talk.


Casey: I mean, this is going to sound really awful, but it’s like if you get a bunch of black people together and have a bunch of white kids try to act like that, it’s like a joke. I mean, nine times out of ten, you’ll see the black people going—look at them, look at that. It will become the hot topic, and that will be the new discussion, you know. It almost becomes like a joke.


It is arguable that white students view the appropriation of black cultural forms as a way of literally being able to fill themselves with culture, something that they feel themselves missing and empty of as white people (Haymes, 1995). It is not the intent of this discussion to explore possible motivations for white students’ commodification of black cultural forms other than to point out how these behaviors are perceived by and potentially impact the daily experiences of African American school girls at Best Academy. Depending on how invested they feel interaction with their white peers and teachers to be decides whether these students voluntarily exercise their voice or willingly slip into silence. In either case, Tess, Wanda, and their peers of color appear to be interested in managing race on their own terms, rather than having race managed for them on the conditions set by the generalized culture of the private school, that is to say, white, mainstream culture. Through their identity work in the borderlands, African American students expose the limitations that surround the liberal project for cultural tolerance and white in forms of race domestication that doubly refract them as “other.” Straddling the borders that define their lives as African American girls, they disturb the polite language of race and turn it to their advantage in a bid for mutual “respect” in the face of paternalistic “tolerance.”

WHITE(ING) IN MULTICULTURAL EDUCATION


Studies of youth identity production carried out over the past two decades have recounted those strategies that youth draw on in accommodation of and/or resistance to prevailing institutional arrangements. These ethnographies more or less illustrate that identities, even oppositional constructions of self, are generally reproductive of prescriptive discourses of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality lodged in society and mirrored in the micropolitics of schools (Willis, 1977; McRobbie, 1982; Valli, 1986; McNeil, 1986; Lesko, 1988; MacLeod, 1995). Seen from this vantage point, youth identity formation seems to be relatively circumscribed and less a matter of individuals taking control over the conditions and outcomes of their own lives. Student narratives considered in this discussion present a challenge to reproductive frameworks, arguing instead for the productive possibilities of identity formation. They are instructive for deepening our understanding of the racializing of white identity through discursive meanings and practices played out in the context of private education. There is no overlooking the fact that white students are comfortably socialized into liberal principles of individualism, equality, freedom, and democracy, reflecting a vested interest in the “myth of ‘sameness’” (hooks, 1992). Racial identity productions that bind white talk about race to private fears of being racist provide strong evidence for the ideological pervasiveness and embodiment of the color-blind perspective in school. The tendency for white students to defend race privilege grows out of the history of cultural advantage from which this group has benefited, an acute interest in maintaining these gains, and the desire to escape individual and collective responsibility for the history of white racism (McIntyre, 1997). The conflicts that white students experience when asked to talk openly about whiteness as a location of racial identity reflect a profound resistance to examining their own positionality, lived experience, and racial histories of domination and oppression. In the end, white students do not avoid active engagement with race but, for the most part, selectively engage in race talk within the parameters of a polite and public discourse of race carrying currency in the private school. Alongside the identity work of students of color, white students’ cultural productions bring into sharp relief the uppermost limits of a discourse of “harmony in diversity,” which tends not to take up critical discussion of how unequal social relations and institutional arrangements come to be defined and woven into the fabric of school life. As Mohanty (1990) pointedly observes,


The central issue, then, is not one of merely acknowledging difference; rather, the more difficult question concerns the kind of difference that is acknowledged and engaged. Difference seen as benign variation (diversity), for instance, rather than as conflict, struggle, or the threat of disruption, bypasses power as well as history to suggest a harmonious, empty pluralism. On the other hand, difference defined as asymmetrical and incommensurate cultural spheres situated within hierarchies of domination and resistance cannot be accommodated within a discourse of “harmony in diversity.” (p. 181)


A discourse of “harmony in diversity” preserves the liberal commitment to transcending cultural particularities, but it fails to dismantle ideological systems that persist in reproducing systemic inequalities in our schools and society more broadly. At this historical moment, escalating racial and ethnic tensions spill over into virulent attacks on affirmative action and growing anti-immigrant sentiment loudly voiced from within the ranks of the white working class and new middle class (Weis, 1990, 1993; Gallagher, 1994; Rubin, 1995; Weis, Proweller, & Centrie, 1997). The intensification of civilizational racism (Scheurich & Young, 1997) coupled with the realities of increasingly racially and ethnically diverse classrooms create an even greater need for curriculum and pedagogies that affirm and critically engage the multiple literacies and diverse sets of experiences that youth bring with them as they cross cultural borders and enter into often inhospitable school contexts. These conditions truly call for multicultural education that goes beyond narrowly treating culture, race, ethnicity, and gender as discrete categories of human experience through instruction that consists in simply respecting and valuing differences in the classroom. In order to begin to dismantle institutional arrangements, policies and practices that reinscribe white dominance at the expense of other valuable perspectives, multicultural education needs to adopt critical frameworks for examination of the historical and social bases of racial oppression (McLaren, 1991, 1994, 1997; McCarthy & Crichlow, 1993; Sleeter, 1991, 1993; Sleeter & McLaren, 1995; Nieto, 1995, 1996). Normative approaches to multicultural education must support sustained dialogue, as Giroux (1992) puts it, around “how representations and practices that name, marginalize, and define difference as the devalued Other are actively learned, internalized, challenged, or transformed” (p. 103). Producing students who will be border crossers (Giroux, 1992) requires that white students and white practitioners, especially, develop a critically reflective consciousness of white positionality and a deepened understanding of commonsense ideologies that mask the benefits that accrue from occupying a location of race privilege. In order to realize more equitable school experiences for all youth, lessons in cultural tolerance need to white in what has all too consistently been whited out in multicultural education.


Close examination of the racializing of white identity instructs those of us committed to progressive social change to critically interrogate how difference is taken up and struggled with differently inside institutional sites of relative privilege. Race has conventionally been studied from the standpoint of the “other,” keeping whiteness effectively invisible. Hearing from those who have previously not been asked to systematically face and examine their own racial histories and lived experiences is a first step toward awakening white people from the easy slumber of raceless subjectivity. Whiting in discourses of race privilege, Best Academy students make a meaningful case for the importance of raising painfully pointed questions as reflective groundwork for future movements toward transformative social change. It is somewhat ironic to suggest that private schools historically invested in the maintenance of privilege, and the students populating them, become reflective about the ways in which those very privileges might block more equitable social arrangements within the school and the broader society. And while private schools are not diversifying at the rate that public schools are in the United States, their continued survival at this moment depends in many ways on the ability to appeal to and integrate the broadest possible constituency. At base, Best Academy cannot escape accountability for the changing face of American society. Like its public school counterpart, the private school has no real choice but to become more critically responsive and responsible to the breadth and depth of human experience yet to be heard, listened to, and affirmed in our classrooms.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 4, 1999, p. 776-808
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10342, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:59:48 AM

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About the Author
  • Amira Proweller
    DePaul University
    Amira Proweller is assistant professor of education, DePaul University. She is the author of Constructing Female Identities: Meaning Making in an Upper Middle Class Youth Culture (State University of New York Press, 1998).
 
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