C. Colorblind Curriculum for Colorblind Schools: We Do Not Talk About Race Here

Students of color were further marginalized within desegregated schools by a commonly held belief that race did not matter and that the goal of desegregation was to create a "colorblind" society. This ideology was promoted in at least two ways. First, the late 1970s curriculum in the schools we studied endorsed a white, Eurocentric view of the world, very close to the same curriculum that had been taught for years in these schools when all but West Charlotte High School had been predominantly white.

Second, neither the students nor the educators in these schools talked about race or racial issues in their efforts to work with one another on school activities or in less formal social interactions. The absence of discussions of race meant that students and educators could not learn from one another's experiences in confronting and resolving racial concerns. The ability to learn from one another would have been particularly useful given that many educators and students were working and learning with people of different racial backgrounds for the first time. Thus, while cross-racial tensions, concerns, and discoveries were occurring all the time, no one was talking about them. Beyond what was going on in the schools, the broader issues of racial inequality and injustice that were (and are) rampant in these local communities were not part of what students were grappling with during school hours. Discussions of such racial conditions might have helped to build important bridges across groups of students who were not only different in terms of their racial and ethnic backgrounds, but in terms of their social classes as well.

The lack of a dialogue about race combined with the maintenance of a "traditional" Eurocentric curriculum became a de facto assimilationist project. Students of color were required to "fit" into the norms of the schools, including rules and understandings about what was right, smart, and appropriate. Many African-American and Latino students were left to feel that the teachers did not value their input or perspective. When values, racial norms, knowledge, and history go unchallenged, so does the privilege of one racial or ethnic group over another.

1. Curriculum--Rarely a Multicultural Moment

One of the more surprising findings from this study was just how little the curriculum in the racially mixed schools we studied had changed during the 1970s, considering that the racial makeup of the students had changed a great deal. For the most part, the schools offered a white, Eurocentric perspective on the world. When changes were made to the curriculum, they were usually marginal changes, such as the addition of electives or a special assembly, in reaction to racial unrest or specific demands by students of color. Even in Topeka, Kansas, a city at the heart of the Brown v. Board of Education case, 1980 graduates do not recall learning much about race or racial inequality in school. One Topeka High graduate who is now a lawyer noted that she had no idea how important the Brown decision and the Topeka-based case were until she went to law school many years later.

At Muir High School in Pasadena, the graduates and educators reported that for the most part, the curriculum did not reflect a diversity of perspectives. The lack of diversity was the result of several factors, including the fact that teachers at Muir had a great deal of autonomy in their classrooms and there was no systematic effort at Muir to expand the core curriculum in the 1970s to include nonwhite authors. Students' exposure to a more multicultural curriculum was entirely dependent upon the individual teachers and student experiences were thus not consistent. While a few teachers made a concerted effort to include nonwhite authors and perspectives, the vast majority of teachers were far more traditional. As one former counselor at Muir said, "[a]s far as the teaching goes, [desegregation] didn't really start to affect the canon until about the mid-1980s, so we were still teaching the Dead White Man for a long, long time."

The absence of overt discussions of race in the curriculum profoundly affected many of the graduates of color we interviewed, particularly those who had been taught different lessons in their homes and communities. For instance, one African-American 1980 graduate of Austin High School spoke about the difficulties he had accepting and relating to his high school history teacher: "He was a good teacher, it's just that I didn't believe in what they was teaching. Cause everything was white. . .and I used to get so tired and frustrated. . .sitting and listening what all these great white people[had done]." The lack of diversity in the curriculum contributed to the distrust that many students of color felt toward their white teachers.

When the teachers did stray from their Eurocentric base to add something more multicultural, they were often in uncharted territory, which tended to leave them less certain about how to present and teach the material. A good example of the difficulties many teachers had in presenting multicultural materials was conveyed to us by an African-American graduate of Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood. The graduate recalled the time her white English teacher required them to read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, a story about a black girl who wants blue eyes. In the story, someone tells the girl that if she killed a dog, she would be given blue eyes, and the girl consequently kills the dog. The graduate recalled:

And so, you know, I raised my hand and I said, well, you know, when she killed the dog she kind of killed her own beliefs in everything that was ugly about herself and dah, dah, dah. [The teacher said] 'No, I think you're reading it too deeply'. . . you know, I mean, and that was the type of reactions that I would get out of this woman.

This particular graduate's mother had demanded that the school place her daughter in the advanced classes after the student had been placed in regular classes despite her high grades. Thus, this graduate was often one of a very few African-American students in advanced classes. Through her experience in these classes, she quickly learned that race was a taboo subject, even though so much of her daily experience was grounded in race.

2. Shhhhh--Don't Talk About Race!

Educators in the schools we studied were often bent on not talking about race, either within their classrooms or as part of the extra-curricular activities they were sponsoring. There were different reasons given for this lack of discussion about race. For some interviewees, it seemed as though talking about or acknowledging race was bad in that it was un-American or racist. A former West Charlotte teacher, a white woman, exemplified this: "[I]t just seemed like color didn't seem to make a difference to anyone. We just, again, viewed people as people. Not emphasizing, I guess would be the fact. . . I mean, we emphasized the fact that we were not emphasizing color of skin."

A white graduate of West Charlotte echoed the thoughts of this teacher and many others whites interviewed for this study: "[A]t West Charlotte we focused on how we were alike. . .That is one of the reasons we didn't focus on cultural diversity." What is most interesting about this insistence on "sameness" is that it was often discussed by the same people who, in other parts of their interviews, focused on how much they learned about people from different backgrounds by attending racially diverse schools.

The lack of discussion about race was also due in part to a desire to avoid racial conflict. In some schools, most notably Topeka High School, Austin High School, and West Charlotte High School, there had been a great deal of racial tension and black-white fighting in the early and mid-1970s. In our interviews, nearly every student and educator we interviewed from these schools talked about the racial turmoil that preceded the Class of 1980's arrival. School-level administrators and teachers were determined to keep things calm. The idea of opening up issues of race or working through racial differences with students was therefore not particularly inviting.

A white English teacher from Austin High School explained that by the late 1970s and 1980s, the initial controversies and racial animosities had quieted down and no one wanted to stir the water. She recalled that when African-American students first came to Austin High School in the early 1970s after the old Anderson High School was closed, they were extremely unhappy because many of them had been highly involved in Anderson high school and in charge of extracurricular activities. When they came to Austin High School, those clubs and offices were already filled. The teacher noted, however, that by 1980, "everything was all over, anything controversial or any unhappiness, you know, that was all settled, and we were settled in as a school." Interviews with the Austin High School graduates of color present different views on this issue, but the point is that from the perspective of the educators, there were no racial problems, and thus there was no need to deal with racial issues.

While many white educators denied that race was an issue, some of the same people, along with many other interviewees, particularly people of color, also talked a great deal about just how salient race was in their day-to-day experiences in these schools. For instance, as we noted above, race clearly seemed to matter in terms of who ended up in which classes. Furthermore, in two of the schools we studied, Topeka and West Charlotte, there were fairly strict quotas regarding the racial make-up of popular student awards and offices, such as homecoming courts, student government, and cheerleading squads. There was an awareness of such quotas, which in many instances benefited white students more than black or Latino students, and an acknowledgment of their impact on students' experiences in high school. As one white West Charlotte graduate noted, although there were no explicit discussions of race in her high school in the late 1970s, issues of race were everywhere. When asked whether or not race was discussed in school, she replied:

"Discussed," like. . .like we discuss things now?. . . No, there were no discussions of that. But, but was it a known fact that we had three white candidates, three black candidates, and three at-large [for student government elections]? Yeah! And--I don't even remember the ballot, but the ballot probably said it! I mean, you know, I-I don't know. But did we sit around and have round tables about. . . how to be better people and like each other and live together in harmony and all that stuff? No! No. But were there white kids in the Gospel Choir? Yes!.. And we'd have, you know, the black guys come to the Choir with cornrows, and [the African-American choir teacher] would tell them. . . "get rid of those cornrows, you know? Just because you're a black boy--don't be wearing those cornrows." So. . . was there a discussion? No. But was race everywhere? Yeah!

Thus, while race was not regularly discussed in these schools, it was lived in a very real and intuitive sort of way. With no forum or dialogue in which to make better sense of the racial differences they experienced every day, many of these graduates walked away from high school with fairly superficial understandings of race and its role in American society, understandings which would not lead one to challenge the racial status quo.