Hear No Race, See No Race, Speak No Race: Teacher Silence, Indigenous Youth, and Race Talk in the Classroom

By Vass, Greg | Social Alternatives, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Hear No Race, See No Race, Speak No Race: Teacher Silence, Indigenous Youth, and Race Talk in the Classroom


Vass, Greg, Social Alternatives


Indigenous learners are typically positioned in deficit ways within educationally focused conversations, an extension of efforts that seek to 'fix' the 'problems' attached to 'Indigenous education'. In this sense, there is little difference, be they X, Y, or Z generation; part and parcel of being Indigenous and in school, requires responding to the challenges of being positioned as 'Indigenous' whilst concurrently working out what it means to be subjectively Indigenous. This article draws on my research in high school classrooms, where the teachers' inability or unwillingness to hear, see or speak of, or within, the racialised discourses that periodically erupt, create both possibilities and challenges for all students, but particularly for those who are Indigenous. In the following discussion I utilise the post-structuralist understanding of 'positioning' to help explore the discursive practices taken up by Indigenous students as they negotiate being positioned as powerless alongside their efforts at taking up powerful positions.

Generational Theory - Bypassing Indigenous Youth?

The opening narrative has been derived from a classroom observation undertaken as part of my doctoral research investigating pedagogies of race in the classroom. It is an anecdote that draws attention to some of the challenges and complexities (a) for Indigenous youth navigating the performative aspects of identity discourses within educational settings (Cooks and Simpson 2007); (b) for educators negotiating and engaging with racialised identity talk in the classroom (Leonardo 2009); and (c) for educational researchers (such as myself) understanding, analysing and representing 'youth' in the work we do (Pillow 2003). Additionally, given the focus of this special issue, the encounter in the classroom helps to illustrate the inadequacies of generational theory for exploring youth discourses; especially with regards to experiences and perspectives of marginalised and stereotyped groups such as Indigenous youth. From this, the verbal exchange illustrates that for Susan and Milly, their Indigenous classmates Joey and Mark were neither 'real' Aborigines nor part of the 'real' White, dominant, Gen Y4 group that Susan and Milly identify with - that they were an other, Other. However, what should we understand of Joey and Mark? Were they powerless within this sequence of exchanges? Can their actions be viewed as attempting to enact power-making discursive manoeuvres that perhaps require more careful consideration?

In addressing such concerns, there are two interlinked aims of this paper. Firstly, I will explore some of the potential pitfalls that underscore generational theory, with particular attention given to those that contribute to misinterpreting and misrepresenting Indigenous youth. This has already been indicated, but central to this is my concern that discourses on Gen Y and 'Indigenous youth' tend to be exclusive, leading to a questioning of whether one can be simultaneously Gen Y and Indigenous. It is a line of inquiry that raises concerns about the homogenising effects of generational theory, as well as the deficit assumptions that underpin much of the discourse related to Indigenous-focused topics. Secondly, I will illustrate the usefulness of 'positioning theory' (Davies and Harré 1990) for revealing the complex discursive interplay that is navigated by Indigenous students as the tension between being powerless and powerful is simultaneously performed during identity work in the classroom (Cooks and Simpson 2007). This has also been hinted at, as clearly the anecdote above does not represent, and is never going to be able to communicate, any understanding of Joey or Mark's sense of self as young, Indigenous people that are making their way through the White-washed Australian setting in which they live. Concerns with knowing, representing, and the gaze of the researcher are a significant undercurrent for this discussion, and this will briefly be explored next. …

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