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Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School.
Mica Pollock
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.
$29, 95, 248 pages, ISBN 0691-11695-4.

Gerardo Del Guercio
Independent Researcher

Mica Pollock’s Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School provides researchers and students of American Anthropology with a detailed study of racial discourse in U.S. High Schools. Pollock’s published Doctoral dissertation focuses on problems surrounding race, equal opportunity and language usage at Columbus High School from 1994-7. The conclusion that Pollock draws is that

American race categories have become a social truth without ever having had a legitimately biological basis: created to organize slavery, retooled with waves of immigration, and naturalized over centuries by law, policy, and science, race categories are now everywhere, alternately proud building blocks of our nation’s “diversity” and the shameful foundation of our most wrenching inequalities.[1]

The inequalities that Pollock explores are based on labeling students and educators racially by using references like African American, Samoan, Latino, etc. Race categorizing is especially problematical for the reason that people in positions of power tend to place oppressive stereotypes on certain races and ethnicities. Inverting this dialectic becomes troublesome as well because eliminating race labels would create a collective “all” group whose individual needs would be disregarded.

Mica Pollock centers her study on the Consent Decree. The Consent Decree made the use of race and ethnic labeling illegal in academic discourse. Administrators and educators could no longer discuss low graduation rates as a typical problem among, say, African Americans and Latinos. Such pedagogical dilemmas would instead have to be referred to as a problem that plagued all students equally. Pollock observes that, “[i]n the very act of reproducing together a reliably simple racial taxonomy, that is, Columbus people clarified the set of ‘groups’ to which equal curricular resources could be distributed—and with relief, they proceeded to distribute resources accordingly” [39]. Although distributing educational funds evenly is ideal, certain races and ethnicities require specialized attention. Pollock cites low performance test scores among African America and Latino pupils to solidify her thesis that funds must be used to create programs that will enhance grades among race and ethnic groups who typically score poorly on aptitude tests. A significant portion of black and Latino students that Pollock met at Columbus were placed in mainstream English classes instead of E.S.L. courses despite their inability to speak and write proper English. Race labels are thus important when determining why certain segments of the population have disproportionately high dropout, crime and unemployment rates.

A major problem that Mica Pollock finds with American racial discourse is that most choose to speak as though race does not matter. Pollock mentions that “everyday talk thus wrestles always between professing anti-racial beliefs and exposing actual racializing behavior” [44]. Columbus students were constantly heard referring to one another by the use of pronouns like Samoan, Filipino, African American, Latino and Asian proving how race-oriented student discussions were at Columbus. Pollock questions those who openly define themselves as non-racist because egalitarianism implies that one manifest their views on equality without explicitly pointing out that they are not xenophobic. According to Pollock, one who states that “I’m not racist” [52] is demonstrating that race plays an important function in how they view cultures outside of their own.

Columbus adults conversed about race differently depending on whether they were in public or private. The Consent Decree obliged California educators to refer to Columbus pupils in general terms since many teachers did not want to risk being labeled racist by “framing achievement publicly in racial terms” [148]. Not allowing educators to talk about race issues in public only worsened racial inequality because key topics were never openly debated and thus remained unsettled. Private conversations among Columbus adults differed radically from their public dialogue. Pollock alludes to a conversation she had in 1997 with Sarah (a white teacher) who claimed, “I think this school’s really Afrocentric” [198]. Sarah would have never made this claim in public due to the controversy it would have generated. I argue that students who explicitly refer to race in their discourse provide a much more realistic interpretation of racial dissimilarity in American schools than do adults who are forced to remain colormute.

Differing perspectives on race is most prevalent in student/teacher interactions. Mr. Vane, an African American instructor, notes, “many black students call him an Uncle Tom … or an Oreo” [64] once he disciplines a non-white pupil. Mr. Vane’s classes regard him to be a conformist to white culture for enforcing an educational system that empowers whites. Tension among student/teacher relationships at Columbus is most evident in classrooms where pupil and educator are of the same race but different economic classes. Mica Pollock suggests that economic background plays a crucial role in whether or not a course group will succeed academically. Many impoverished students living in ghettos had difficulty associating with instructors holding university degrees.

Low test scores on standardized examinations held at Columbus during 1996 resulted in Reconstitution that led to the dismissal of many teachers. Reconstitution occurred, in Pollock’s opinion, because of the local school board’s failure “to conduct the staff development on serving ‘black’ and ‘Latino’ students funded by the Consent Decree” [100]. Columbus educators were punished unfairly due to the school boards refusal to acknowledge that specific race and ethnic groups who usually score poorly on academic tasks require more attention since their impoverished backgrounds tended to interfere with their school work (Most blacks and Latinos who attended Columbus lived in ghettos or government subsidized housing). Pollock feels that the Columbus educators who lost their employment would have retained their occupation had the district school board monitored the test scores of black and Latino students more closely and provided them with the particular instruction they needed.

Mica Pollock’s Colormute advances the notion that ignoring racial patterns in student demographics skews the validity of an anthropological case study. A demographic that I will be exploring is race and hall wanderers. Pollock’s field notes demonstrate that “students who appeared black to me did indeed make up the majority of hallway wanderers, even though ‘blacks’ compromised only a fifth of the official student population” [173].Over-representation of black hallway wanderers is attributable in part to student truancy and instructors who simply expelled ‘problem’ students from their classes. Such statistics show how most Columbus educators are unconcerned that a certain section of the student body population is being wrongfully labeled as inherent failures. Pollock concludes that black and Latino students characteristically fail academically because American race ideology expects these subgroups of the populace to be unsuccessful and occupy the lower end of the market economy.

A key omission from Mica Pollock’s Colormute is the lack of an index. I found this oversight extremely shocking since Pollock’s book is a published Doctoral dissertation that certainly included an index when she defended it to a graduate committee. Researchers and university students intending to make use of Pollock’s book for their own studies will have difficulty tracking invaluable terms that characterize entire chapters. Pollock’s study would have been much more complete had she incorporated an index or at minimum a glossary of important terms.

Mica Pollock’s Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School is a valuable contribution to American Anthropology that correlates discourse and racial equality. Speaking publicly about racism and race discourse will inevitably lead to a sounder understanding about why particular race and ethnic groups occupy a large percentage of dropout and unemployment rates. Remaining silent about questions involving racism in the education system would only suppress any chance of a solution to racial discrimination. The gap dividing scholarly success and race in American High Schools can be accurately studied only once discussions about discrimination are debated freely.


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