When does race matter?: Teachers engaging in ‘race talk’

Ninetta Santoro, Deakin University

Mica Pollock Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2004 (288 pp). ISBN 0-69111-695-4 (hardcover) RRP $72.95.

Being able to teach ethnically diverse student groups effectively is a professional requirement for all Australian teachers. One in four Australians has a language background other than English; that is, they have at least one parent for whom English is a second language. Twenty per cent of the population speaks a language other than English at home and there are two hundred different languages, including Indigenous languages, spoken in Australia. Thus, understanding the needs of their ethnically and culturally diverse classes, understanding when ethnicity does and doesn’t matter in school, and understanding how and when to talk about ethnicity, is important teacher knowledge.

Mica Pollock’s book, Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School, raises important questions that resonate in Australia. Pollock spent three years observing, taking notes, and talking to students and teachers at Columbus High School, a racially diverse school in California. Using this ethnographic data, Pollock interrogates taken-for-granted beliefs about race and racial identity. She shows how race is and is not spoken about in schooling systems and how silences around ‘race talk’ can paradoxically contribute to the racial inequities educators seek to eliminate.

Pollock’s analysis of ‘race talk’ at Columbus High School highlights the complexities and contradictions of identifying and categorising individuals on the basis of race. To expose these complexities she begins by discussing how the students self-categorise into six ‘simple’ racial groups; Black, Latino, Filipino, Chinese, Other non-whites and Whites. In their discussions with Pollock about the purpose of these categorisations, students say that being a member of one these groups gives them a sense of belonging and a united voice in their claims for fairness, inclusion and equality in schooling. They take pride in identifying with, and being identified with particular racial groups.

However, Columbus students also say that they do not want always and only to be framed in racial terms because being locked into fixed, one-dimensional categories means that their individual diversities can go unrecognised. Some, such as students with Latino-Filipino backgrounds for example, straddle several racial categories. And students’ identification with a particular racial group does not mean that they take up the cultural practices of that community in a consistent and homogenous way. Indeed, no-one’s identity can be defined by a specific and immovable set of practices and beliefs.

Avoiding and silencing ‘race talk’ can make race matter even more.

The students ‘bend’ these ‘simple’ race categories by sometimes moving between them, sometimes embracing them, and sometimes rejecting them. Nevertheless, the six categories remain ‘intact’ and relatively stable markers of belonging.

However, unlike the students themselves, schooling communities increasingly avoid ‘publicly’ framing students in racial terms, preferring to proceed as though race does not matter. Pollock claims that this avoidance is driven by a fear of being racist as well as a naïve belief that talking about race inflames existing racial tension and is counterproductive to creating a racially equal world. Certainly, how race is spoken about has the potential to do this, but avoiding and silencing ‘race talk’ can make race matter even more.

According to Pollock, educators need to name ‘race’ and acknowledge that it does matter. They need to ‘lead and participate in race conversations’ (p. 121) and ‘simplify diversity in order to purposely challenge an existing simple race system, in which the distribution of social and tangible resources remains perennially unequal’ (p. 43). ‘Colormute’ or ‘colorblind’ education policies and practices that attempt to homogenise students, to blur the boundaries of racial groups, and to ‘de-race’ language, can silence debates about the inequalities that do exist because of racial and ethnic categorisations. How does one talk about inequalities without naming them?

The dilemma that ‘race doesn’t matter, but it does’ is one Australian educators face continually. When is it useful to see students as belonging to ethnic groups and when is it not? How does such knowledge shape and inform the complex work of teachers, that is, how they construct curriculum, employ appropriate teaching practices, build relationships with students, and assess and evaluate student learning? As an educational researcher and teacher educator, I believe it is imperative that teachers have such professional knowledge—but it can be difficult to attain. It requires teachers to understand not only how student ethnicity shapes students’ learning experiences, but also how the teachers’ own ethnicity shapes and determines how they categorise ‘others’ as well as their classroom practices.

Some teachers fall into the trap of assigning fixed and ‘essential’ characteristics to ethnic groups and can indiscriminately use these characteristics to explain the educational achievements (or otherwise) of a group of students, or to justify particular classroom practices. If ‘difference’ is the only lens through which teachers see students, teachers will not be able to understand students and address their needs.

Other teachers claim that they don’t ‘see’ students from ethnic minorities as different. These teachers believe that by treating all students the same, whether they are from ethnic minorities or the mainstream, their teaching practices will be fair. Causey and colleagues describe this approach as ‘naïve egalitarianism’ (2000, p. 34). Naïve egalitarianism can be as counterproductive as seeing all members of ethnic minorities as having the same traits and educational needs. It can deny students the right to be different, to identify with aspects of their ethnicity that give them an identity and a sense of belonging. And by ignoring ethnic difference in general, teachers can inadvertently fail to see that some differences do matter to how students respond to schooling and that some students experience inequality because of their ethnicity. These teachers run the risk of missing opportunities to develop a different curriculum or additional resources that might better address the needs of those ethnic minority students who achieve educational outcomes well below those of their mainstream peers (Collins 2000; Teese & Polesel 2003; Windle 2004).

When is it useful to see students as belonging to ethnic groups and when is it not?

A recent Australian study has explored how student-teachers understand their own ethnicity and social class and how they address the needs of students who are ethnically different from themselves (Santoro & Allard 2005). The findings highlight the need for teachers to consider their students’ ethnicity and culture when planning for teaching. A student-teacher participant in the study, whom I will call Susan, was struggling to motivate her class of mainly Turkish-Australian Muslims to take an interest in ‘The Crusades’, a topic in the year nine History curriculum. Susan could not see that the topic, and the perspective from which it was presented, reflected a Western cultural view of history that was irrelevant to the students’ personal cultural histories, and so to their needs and interests. Susan began teaching this topic on the mistaken assumption that her students understood the social and political context in Europe that led to the Crusades and that they had a Christian view of the purposes and outcomes of the Crusades. She assumed that the Christian symbols that appeared on the Crusaders’ shields would be familiar and meaningful to the students.

Underpinning this inexperienced teacher’s assumptions was a lack of knowledge about her students’ cultural and religious background and a naïve supposition that how she saw and understood ‘The Crusades’ was the same for the students. After consulting with her supervising teacher at the school and with university staff, Susan modified the unit of work to take into account the cultural knowledge, understandings, and expectations her students brought with them to her classroom. By asking her students what knowledge they, as Muslims, brought to their study of The Crusades, Susan engendered a richer classroom dialogue about the topic, and enabled her students to engage in ways they found personally and culturally affirming.

If teachers accept that ethnicity does matter, they also need to understand that diversity exists within ethnic groups. There are students in Australia like those at Columbus who move across racial divisions: not all Turkish-Australian Muslim students, for example, are the same. Gender and social class also shape their experiences of and responses to schooling at different times and in different contexts.

To avoid what Pollock calls ‘clumsy race talk’ (p. 209), that is, the stereotyping of students from particular ethnic groups, and ‘race silence’ (p. 209), when race and ethnicity are not ‘seen’ and have little bearing on classroom practice, teachers must self-consciously ‘race bend’. My research suggests that this practice, which Pollock describes as ‘alternately defying and strategically using race categories’ (p. 215), is often taken up by teachers who understand themselves as having an ethnicity. Frequently, these are teachers who are themselves from ethnic minorities (Santoro 2004). They are often more comfortable than their Anglo-Australian colleagues in doing ‘race talk’, possibly because they draw on their own experiences to understand when and how ethnicity matters.

However, in Australia as in the United States and the United Kingdom, there are few ethnic minority teachers (Causey, Thomas & Armento 2000; Hagan & McGlynn, 2004; Johnson 2002; Pearce 2003). A study conducted in 1999 that mapped the demographics of the teaching profession, indicated that 2 per cent of the total teacher population in Victoria consisted of teachers who were overseas born and for whom English was a second language (Santoro et al. 2001). A national survey of teachers in 1999 indicated that only 10 per cent of teachers in Australia have a language background other than English, while less than 2 per cent of teachers are Indigenous (Australian College of Education 2001).

There are few teachers from ethnic minorities in Australia.

I am not suggesting that all teachers of ethnic difference ‘bend race’. However, they may be more likely to situate themselves within ‘race talk’ than their ‘mainstream’ colleagues (Santoro 2004). International research suggests that, in contrast to their ethnic minority colleagues, teachers who are members of the ‘mainstream’ often don’t see themselves as having an ethnicity and have little understanding of their own culture (Aveling 2001; Pearce 2003; Santoro & Allard 2005). In fact, several of Susan’s fellow Anglo-Australian student-teachers said that they’d never thought of themselves as having a particular ethnicity—ethnicity was something ‘others’ had (Santoro & Allard 2005). Although everyone has an ethnicity, popular use of ‘ethnic’ as a noun for people of non-British stock or as an adjective to describe their cultural practices constructs Australians of British heritage as devoid of ethnicity—as the ‘norm’ or the ‘real’ Australians (Tsolidis 2001).

Training for the next generation of teachers has become increasingly critical of schooling practices, curriculum, and policy. Increasingly, teacher education requires student teachers to reflect on how their beliefs and values about teaching and teaching relationships are shaped by their ethnicity, social class, and so on. However, there is still much work to be done in developing teachers’ understanding of the complexities of ethnic identification and categorisation, especially in relation to themselves. As Mica Pollock writes:

… doing race talk well requires an immense amount of care, analytic energy, and time. … Muttering quietly about “races” functions most dangerously to displace analysis of others’ roles in creating racialized patterns. We must also begin to frame all racial disparities as created by many players—players that even include ourselves (pp. 214 & 217).

Teacher education must find way more effective ways to help student-teachers understand and interrogate their role in contributing to and maintaining inequalities for students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Knowledge of self, combined with knowledge of students, understandings of the intricacies of ethnic categorisation—when race matters and when it doesn’t, and the relationship of this knowledge to teaching practice, will position teachers more powerfully to engage in effective ‘race talk’ that makes a difference. Australian teacher educators have done much work towards these goals for the next generation of teachers. However, the development of teacher education programmes that successfully do all of this complex work, remains a challenge and the focus of continuing efforts.


Australian College of Education 2001, Teachers in Australian Schools: A Report from the 1999 National Survey, Australian College of Education, Canberra.

Aveling, N. 2002, ‘Student-teachers’ resistance to exploring racism: Reflections on “doing” border pedagogy’, Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 119–130.

Causey, V., Thomas, C. & Armento, B. 2000, ‘Cultural diversity is basically a foreign term to me: The challenges of diversity for preservice teacher education’, Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 16, pp. 33–45.

Collins, J. 2000, Report on the Inquiry into the Effect of Education Training Programs for Indigenous AustraliansKatu Kalpa, MCEETYA, Canberra.

Hagan, M. & McGlynn, C. 2004, ‘Moving barriers: Promoting learning for diversity in initial teacher education’, Intercultural Education, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 243–252.

Johnson, L. 2002, ‘“My eyes have been opened”: White teachers and racial awareness’, Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 53, no. 2, pp. 153–268.

Pearce, S. 2003, ‘Compiling the White Inventory: The practice of whiteness in a British primary school’, Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 273–288.

Santoro, N. & Allard, A. 2005, ‘(Re)Examining identities: Working with diversity in the preservice teaching experience’, Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 21, no. 7, pp. 863–873.

Santoro, N. 2004, Ethnicity, social class, practice and pedagogy: A study of teacher identity, paper presented to the Association for Teacher Education in Europe, Annual Conference, Agrigento, Italy, October.

Santoro, N., Kamler, B. & Reid, J. 2001, ‘Making difference count: A demographic study of overseas born teachers’, Australian Journal of Education, vol. 45, no. 1, pp. 62–75.

Teese, R., & Polesel, J. 2003, Undemocratic Schooling: Equity and Quality in Mass Education in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Tsolidis, G. 2001, Schooling, Diaspora and Gender: Being Feminist and Being Different, Open University Press, Buckingham.

Windle, J. 2004, ‘The ethnic (dis)advantage debate revisited: Turkish background students in Australia’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 271–286.

Dr Ninetta Santoro is a Senior Lecturer in the Education Faculty at Deakin University, Melbourne, where she teaches Education Studies and Language Education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Her current research interests focus on the construction of teacher identities and how they are played out through classroom practices.