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When Race Matters: 'Colormuteness' in American Schools
An Interview with Faculty Member Mica Pollock

Harvard Graduate School of Education

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Assistant Professor Mica Pollock discussed race talk at in a recent lecture, excerpted here:

An audio resource Mica Pollock on how anxiety about race affects policy (1 minute)  listen  need help?

An audio resource Pollock on affirmative action and colormuteness (1 minute) listen  need help?

An audio resource Pollock on the paradox of race talk (2 minutes) listen  need help?

An audio resource Pollock on the consequences of colormuteness (1 minute) listen  need help?

Assistant Professor Mica Pollock
Assistant Professor Mica Pollock (Karlyn Morissette photo)  

Assistant Professor Mica Pollock spent three years conducting ethnographic research about when people in schools use racial labels. In her forthcoming book, Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School, Pollock introduces the term "colormute" and discusses its impact on American education.

Q: What are the primary differences between color blindness and colormuteness? What are some of the consequences of promoting colormuteness?

A: My concept of colormuteness suggests that rather than not seeing people in racial terms, people are actively suppressing race labels when talking about people in their schools. I'm interested in the everyday moments when people choose not to label people around them in racial terms.

When Americans talk about proceeding in a “colorblind” manner, they often are talking about a refusal to label people racially—by erasing words from school applications, refusing to title programs with race labels, refusing to talk racially about students in our classrooms and patterns in our districts, and so on. To me, these kinds of deletions are frequently part of an active (though not always malicious) refusal to describe and analyze uncomfortable orders of racial inequality or power conflict. Many scholars have pointed out that true colorblindness—that is, a true absence of racialized lenses from the way we see the world—is a logical impossibility in a country as racialized as ours. In the United States, race labels and race categories have for centuries been central to the way we think about human diversity and the ways we divide up social and economic resources. We can't help but see people and social orders racially, but we often actively refuse to talk in racial terms, and this often means actively refusing to discuss and debate and analyze racial inequality.

Any scan of urban or suburban school districts and classrooms will demonstrate that U.S. students are still kept unequal along racialized lines; private conversations in teacher- or administrator- or student-only spaces clearly demonstrate that race does still factor in to how we treat and fear and relate to each other. I’m arguing in the book that it is virtually impossible to fix racial inequality and improve race relations without talking about how race matters. Colormuteness—even when it’s well intentioned—can have very dangerous effects. Some of those effects include the naturalization of racial achievement patterns, the submersion of valid anxieties about race relations, and missed opportunities to analyze the complexities of contemporary inequality.

Q: What are the effects—both positive and negative—of using race labels? Given that the divisions made by race labels are not supported by scientific evidence, why should we continue to include them in our vocabulary?

“Deletions [of race terms] are frequently part of an active (though not always malicious) refusal to describe and analyze uncomfortable orders of racial inequality or power conflict.”

A: The most basic race talk dilemma is that we don't belong to race groups, but we do. Race groups have no genetic validity; they were first created to facilitate slavery and colonialism, to classify people and distribute privileges and freedoms using visible but genetically insignificant traits (skin, hair, noses, etc.). Since then, we have continued to make race groups socially real, by organizing job opportunities, resources, marriages, and friendships around them. We do this in all sorts of everyday ways. Indeed, every time we use a race label to describe someone, we reinforce our own tendencies (and the tendencies of those around us) to see and classify people in genetically bogus racial terms.

Given the often pernicious effects of labeling people racially (the biggest being that people use the categories to evaluate one another’s basic human worth), I support efforts to encourage all Americans to question the very idea of racial difference. I believe that people in schools can do this by discussing racial categorization itself more often. We need to talk more about how race categories were created to facilitate slavery, and how we still retain them to distribute privilege to “whites.” We need to continue thinking about race categories as simplistic, organizational tools that we impose on people who are really too complex to fit into race categories. But we also need to talk about why we need to keep race categories around for some time—both because people have built positive identities around them, and because the categories themselves are ironically necessary for organizing efforts to achieve racial equality.

In my book, I call for a strategy of “race-bending” in schools—that is, a strategy of questioning the validity of race categories to describe human diversity even while keeping race categories strategically available for the analysis of local and national racial inequalities. This is a strategy young people use all the time. While Americans must guard against the tendency to racialize everyone we see, we must also continue to grapple with the social formations and inequalities in our schools and districts that do pattern out along racial lines. And that often means using simple race labels when we talk.

Q: How are racial identity and racial identification different?

A: Racialization—the process of placing people into racial groups—involves an assortment of everyday actions, one of which is racial labeling (what I call racial identification). Labeling people racially is really the most basic act that makes people racial. Other acts of racialization include giving relevance to physical characteristics such as hair type or nose shape; selecting certain friends; living (voluntarily or involuntarily) in specific neighborhoods; choosing to listen to certain music; distributing resources in small and systemic ways, etc. And while I call the basic process of labeling racial identification, all the other experiences of racialization also help make up any individual’s racialized identity. In many ways, racial identification is the most important process in creating racialized identities, because using a small handful of race labels to classify each other is the most obvious way in which we make the overwhelming complexity of human diversity extraordinarily simple.

The young people I worked with and studied for the book—even those who usually considered themselves “mixed”—also used single race categories to define themselves at strategic moments. In doing so, they demonstrated that while racialized identities are infinitely complex, racial identifications are shockingly simple. In the United States, we often use race labels to describe ourselves even when we feel that our identities are far more complicated. We do so in part to counter a system that has used the same simple race categories to distribute resources unequally for centuries. That is, even though their identities are infinitely complex, young people reproduce a system of simple racial identification in order to find a place in various already simplified (and often unequal) racialized orders.

“Refusing to talk about racial orders doesn't make them go away.”

Q: Is colormuteness apparent in the national conversations about affirmative action in higher education? If so, how?

A: When people say they want “colorblind” admissions to colleges and universities, what they are often expressing is a desire to stop labeling applicants in racial terms. They want to erase the race labels that appear on outreach brochures, on college applications, and in descriptions of scholarship programs. By refusing to talk about applicants in racial terms, however, they are simultaneously refusing to talk about how race factored into the opportunities the applicants received earlier in their school careers. In the process, they also can also miss talking about whether and how the academic and social experiences of all will be enriched by a diverse student population.

Refusing to talk about racial orders doesn't make them go away. Indeed, we can actually exacerbate racial orders through colormuteness. The most counterintuitive race talk dilemma that I explore in the book is that while talking in racial terms can make race matter, not talking in racial terms can also make race matter. This rather complex reality is demonstrated when admissions plans erasing race labels from applications actually help to increase the role race plays in college admissions. When all of the inequities of pre-college education are allowed to proceed unabated, racial disparities in the final pool of admitted students can be worsened. When Black and Latino students vanish from college campuses because of colormute admissions plans, race in the end matters more, not less.

For More Information
More information about Mica Pollock is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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