Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Breaking the Silence: White Students' Perspectives on Race in Multiracial Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Breaking the Silence: White Students' Perspectives on Race in Multiracial Schools

Article excerpt

Many white students feel uncomfortable talking about "racial" topics, Ms. Lewis-Charp reports. She shares the findings and implications of a study of how students in multiracial schools relate to one another across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.

SITTING IN A SMALL discussion group after seeing a film on race, Danielle Channing (a pseudonym to protect the identity of the student) is silent. A white, middle-class freshman at a multiracial high school in California, Danielle is unable to find the language to talk about her own experience or to draw connections to the content of the film. Later she reflects, "The movie was really heavy, and when we came out we were all a lot more aware of the others' ethnic backgrounds. And it made us even more scared -- it made me feel like I should hide with my four white girls." When asked why she didn't voice her reactions to the film, she simply said, "I was afraid that I would sound racist."

Our research on intergroup relations indicates that, like Danielle, the vast majority of students feel that any type of prejudice, intolerance, or racism is wrong. Broad principles of fairness and egalitarianism espoused by schools, the media, and government have contributed to students' perceptions that they are all the same, regardless of skin color. Unfortunately, this generic belief in our fundamental "sameness" does not appear to help a young woman like Danielle relate to or empathize with authentic cultural, language, and class differences or to understand why and how she is privileged relative to many other students in her school.

This observation stems from a comprehensive study of the class of 2000 at six racially diverse California high schools over a 31A2-year period. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, our study explored how students relate to one another across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences and what roles their schools, families, and peers play in helping them cope with those differences. Specifically, we were interested in their understanding of racial issues, their perceptions of their own race, and their attitudes about others.

In the first two years of our study, we interviewed 72 students from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds about their schools, families, and peers. There were 16 white youths in our preliminary sample of 72, and we interviewed each of them up to three times within the first year and a half of our study. Further, we conducted four monoracial student focus groups within each school, 24 in all. Approximate-ly 40 white youths participated in our focus groups. Finally, we surveyed the entire class of 2000 at each school about intergroup relations during both their freshman and sophomore years.1

Over the course of our research we spoke with many white students who, like Danielle, had faded into the background of their schools' dialogue on race. These students did not perceive intergroup relations or race issues to be about them. It could be easy to mistake their silence as apathy or indifference, but this was far from the case. To the contrary, our white-student focus groups were passionate and explosive. In these settings and in individual interviews, white students communicated complex feelings about race and racial issues, including pride, ignorance, anger, shame, ambivalence, and alienation. They raised questions about the role of schools in addressing white students' attitudes about race, as well as the consequences of ignoring them.

Inconsistencies in White Students' Attitudes on Race

In her study on white identity in high school, Pamela Perry likened the racial attitudes of white students at the multiracial high school she studied to a tumultuous stream marked by contradiction and instability. She argued that white identities are "unstable, mutable, and variable by context."2 Our findings are consistent with Perry's, as the students we interviewed appeared torn between idealized visions of diversity, race, and ethnicity and the day-to-day stresses of negotiating difference. …

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