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1 Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group) Silences as Weapons: Challenges of a Black Professor Teaching White Students Author(s): Gloria Ladson-Billings Source: Theory into Practice, Vol. 35, No. 2, Situated Pedagogies: Classroom Practices in Postmodern Times (Spring, 1996), pp Published by: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group) Stable URL: Accessed: 24/10/ :46 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group) is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Theory into Practice.

2 Gloria Ladson-Billings Silences as Weapons: Challenges of a Black Professor Teaching White Students L YING IS DONE WITH WORDS and also with silence. (Rich, 1979) A few years ago at a professional meeting, I chatted with two colleagues, an African American woman, like myself, and a White man. The man, who teaches at one of the nation's most prestigious universities, suggested that he could be more forceful in the teaching of issues related to race, class, and gender because when he talked about these issues, students perceive him as being "objective," "scholarly," and "disinterested." On the other hand, he stated, when my African American female colleague or I taught about these subjects, students might tend to see us as "self-interested," "bitter," or "putting forth a particular political agenda." I could understand the logic of his argument but I did not give it much thought until several months later when I was conducting a faculty workshop for a college of education. My topic for the workshop was primarily historical and ended with some discussion of current attempts to reinvent multiculturalism outside of the scholarly tradition from whence it sprang. The response was seemingly enthusiastic with many questions at the end. However, I learned secondhand that a number of the White, male faculty members felt that the talk was "too political." While I had no problem with their perception of my talk, I was con- Gloria Ladson-Billings is associate professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. cered about the failure of White, male, faculty members to be forthright with this criticism in an open forum. Not one question or comment directed at me during the question and answer session related to the political nature of the talk. Their reticence made me reflect on the many classes I have taught to White students. I realized that if these men, who have some status and power, would not come out with their thoughts and feelings, surely many of my students have withheld thoughts and feelings that would have contributed to our understanding of each other and our understanding of systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, and classism. My previous teaching was at a small, predominantly White, Catholic university. Most of the students were from middle to upper middle income families. Most had attended either predominantly White suburban public high schools or predominantly White private (Catholic and nondenominational) schools. Their contact with people of color had been minimal. In those few instances where students had attended an inner city or integrated public high school, that fact was evident in their comments and perceptions. For several years I taught a course entitled "Introduction to Teaching in a Multicultural Society." The course was a part of the liberal studies pre-teaching major for potential elementary school teachers. I have written about my experiences in this course from a variety of vantage points (King & Ladson-Billings, THEORY INTO PRACTICE, Volume 35, Number 2, Spring 1996 Copyright 1996 College of Education, The Ohio State University /96$1.25

3 THEORY INTO PRACTICE / Spring 1996 Situated Pedagogies 1990; Ladson-Billings, 1991a, 1991b, 1991c). However, I have never considered what the students have withheld from their encounter with issues of race, class, and gender brought to them from the perspective of a person whose race, class, and gender placed her in the lower levels of a hierarchical social structure. Penetrating Silences Kochman (1981) detailed the differences in communication styles that made it difficult for his White and African American students to make sense of each other's perspectives. According to Kochman, when his African American students were upset about things expressed in the classroom, they tended to get angry, speak loudly, and challenge those ideas. Conversely, his White students' response to things that made them angry or upset was to become quiet and withdraw from the discussion. The White students judged the African American students to be too emotional, confrontational, and argumentative. The African American students judged the White students to be duplicitous, secretive, and not forthcoming. These differences in communication styles made me wonder whether or not the White, male faculty members and I had a communication breakdown and whether this breakdown had been occurring all along in my courses. In the past, I had not considered my students' silences to be acts of resistance or defiance (although I have witnessed silences used as powerful weapons of young children in inner city classrooms). Often, I interpreted them as the appropriate response to their lack of knowledge about particular subjects. My course gained in popularity over the years. Students from a variety of majors began enrolling in it. My course evaluations were always high. How could these silences mean resistance? When I first took over the course, five students enrolled in it. At one point during the 5 years I taught the course, the enrollment reached more than 30, an usually high number for a small university.1 I was successful in having the course cross-listed with the ethnic studies department, which allowed students from a variety of majors to enroll to fulfill the university's ethnic studies requirement. It was the only course that dealt with multicultural issues as opposed to a study of one particular ethnic group or women. Student comments on informal, narrative evaluations indicated that they enjoyed the course and felt they learned something. Was I missing something? Ahlquist (1991) states, "Power is automatically bestowed on the role teacher" (p. 167), but as a female teacher she had to prove herself as worthy of having both power and authority. This need to prove oneself may be even more problematic when race is factored in. As an African American, female teacher, who was I to suggest to these students that the society was unjust and they were implicated in its injustice? Was I holding these views only because my group was not on the receiving end of society's benefits? And why was I complaining, anyway? Had not I proved that African Americans were capable of achieving in the United States? An oft asked (and implied) question was, "Well, you made it. Why haven't the others?" When I provided students with answers that explained the sacrifices of others and the notion of sponsored mobility, they once again retreated to their silences. They seemed not curious about what these sacrifices may have been, who offered them, and what was meant by sponsored mobility? Instead, the questions had been asked and answered. There was no need for critical exploration of the meanings behind both the questions and answers. During the six times I taught this course, only one class had a "representative" sample of diverse learners. In that class, about one-third of the students were of diverse cultural backgrounds. They included Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander. This class generated the most discussion and raised the most questions about the ideas and information presented. During one exercise when the students were placed in small groups to discuss instances of discrimination, a group of Hawaiian residents, mostly Japanese, commented that there was not much racism in Hawaii. Quickly the one Native Hawaiian member of their group spoke up, "I beg your pardon, but Native Hawaiians face constant racism and discrimination." The remainder of this group's time together focused on listening to her experiences and asking relevant questions. This class was also more critical of each other's group presentations, which were to be examples of how they would integrate learnings from the course into an elementary or secondary classroom. In an attempt to have the students become more critical of their own and others' practice, I had students 80

4 Ladson-Billings Silences as Weapons serve as evaluators for their peers' classroom presentations. It was customary for the evaluators to say something "nice" about each group presentation. However, in this class, there were more instances of students being critical about both the form and substance of these presentations. They raised questions about how what was being presented really integrated what students had learned in the course and how these presentations might be used to change students' perceptions about race, class and gender. The silences of my students gave me plenty of opportunity to "tell" them my ideas, positions, values. But, in retrospect, I wonder if my telling was not merely what Ahlquist (1991) referred to when she said, "We must become more cognizant of the problem of imposition and power relations and seek ways to constructively address both power and resistance. We have a responsibility to be explicit in our partisanship but not impositional" (p. 168). Ellsworth (1989) points out that despite our race, class, and gender status, the role of teacher places one in a position of power and control that may not allow the voices of "others" (be they White, Black, male, female, middle class, working class) to be heard with equal validity and resonance as that of the teacher. Was the silence in my class self-imposed or had I in some way stopped the dialogue? Earlier in this discussion I mentioned that in some instances, students who had attended integrated public schools distinguished themselves in my class by their comments and reactions to the information and material presented. One such student was a political science major who had an interest in feminist politics. Throughout the course she made connections between issues concerning gender and those dealing with race and class. She gave many examples of how racial oppression parallels gender oppression, and she pointed out instances of how these oppressions were at work at the university. She always had something to say that added to the discussion. However, I noticed that the more she had to say, the more quiet the other students became. Somewhere near the midpoint of the course, I noticed a group of White, upper-middle-class female students who sat together, whispering among themselves and rolling their eyes whenever this student would speak out. Gradually, the talkative student began to say less and less in class and restrict her lengthy comments to conversations in my office. The body lan- guage and the silence of the other students was used as a powerful silencer against a student who chose to be an active participant in the class. A Change of Venue One of the ways for me to evaluate my role in creating the silences in my course was to compare the students in my former university with those in my present one. The course I taught the first semester after relocating was entitled "Seminar in Multicultural Foundations of Education." This was a graduate level course and the experiences and backgrounds of the students was diverse. In a class of 18 students, nine were students of color. There were three African Americans, two Native Americans, one Puerto Rican, one Peruvian, one Japanese American and one Japanese national. There was even diversity among the White students. At least one was a radical feminist, and several were reentry women over 40 years of age. One had spent an extended time living with and teaching Native Americans. All were taking the course out of interest or recommendation from someone they trusted and respected. The one thing this class was not was silent. From the very first day the students expressed opinions and shared experiences. However, there was a difference between the quality and quantity of interaction of the students of color versus the White students. Because of my training and experience with interpersonal and cross-cultural communication, I structured the seminar in ways that would facilitate communication. I was aware that some of the White students had had limited experiences with people of color and their life circumstances. Also, I was aware that some of the students of color felt resentment toward White people because they felt these situations burdened them with the responsibility of "teaching" White people what they felt they should already know. In an attempt to short-circuit the silences, I found ways to draw all of the students into the classroom conversation. One technique I used with some of the readings was to distribute index cards to the students to solicit their questions and comments about the reading. I assured them that no question was too naive, simple, or basic to be answered. By soliciting anonymous questions, I gave all students a chance to have their questions answered without feeling ignorant in front of their peers. Also, I used small group 81

5 THEORY INTO PRACTICE / Spring 1996 Situated Pedagogies discussions and activities as ways to encourage more interaction and sharing of ideas. I reminded students often that any idea expressed in the class was open for criticism and debate. However, no person was to be verbally assaulted for having particular ideas or ways of thinking. This system seemed to work well. Unfortunately, an illness caused me to miss a class session, and a colleague who willingly covered for me conducted the class in such a way that each student was prompted to be self-disclosing. While self-disclosure can be a useful technique for promoting intercultural understanding, I felt it was too early in the course to try with this particular class. They had not developed the requisite degree of trust for such an exercise. When I returned the following week, I asked the students if they wanted to talk about the previous week's class. I was greeted with a deadly silence. I took that to mean that they did not want to talk about the subject of last week's class and went on with the scheduled topic. A few days later, one of the reentry White women came to my office to talk. In less than 2 minutes, she was sobbing uncontrollably about how badly the students had made her feel the previous week because she was uninformed and inexperienced about some issues confronting people of color. She went on to tell me about her life experiences, how she had lived a very sheltered life and now at more than 50 years of age, she was just having her eyes opened to the different worldviews of people who did not share her race or social class background. This alerted me to how dangerous it can be for a student to break a silence in such a classroom. Other classmates can ridicule you for your naivete or worse, and the teacher can dismiss you as uninformed and without any social sensibility or consciousness. Consequently, you may not be seen as worthy of a good evaluation at the end of the course. As this course progressed, I was able to get it back on track by using a mid-semester evaluation process called "pluses and wishes."2 Students divided the evaluation sheet in half and placed all the positives about the course on one side and suggestions for improvement on the other. For the most part, the students were satisfied with the course, but the one "wish" that was prevalent was to increase student interaction. This desire of the students gave me the opportunity to do exactly what I had intended from the beginning of the seminar, to turn it over to the students in a way that would discourage silences. Black Teacher-White Students Although we have had several accounts of White teachers teaching Black students (Conroy, 1972; Kohl, 1967; Paley, 1989), little has been written about Black teachers teaching either Black or White children. Certainly the disproportionate number of White teachers compared to Black accounts for some of the void in the literature. However, other aspects of the dynamic between Black teachers and White children may also explain some of the lack of information about this subject area. One such area is this one of silence. Fine (1989) has suggested that school personnel often silence minority students through the structure of schooling-the curriculum, instruction, decision making, policies. But the kind of silence I have been referring to here is that which students elect as a weapon or way to defy and deny the legitimacy of the teacher and/or the knowledge. As previously mentioned, I had witnessed silence being used as a weapon in inner city classrooms. I have seen students decide not to learn as an act of defiance against the teacher. This refusal to talk is often the only way a child has to fight against the authority and power of adults. But this critical examination of classroom silence by those for whom school is a successful, if not gratifying, experience is new terrain. For many of my students at my former university, I was the first Black teacher they had ever encountered. Some came to my classroom with fear and concern about my ability to be "fair." Some came feeling that their ignorance about Blacks and Black culture would disadvantage them. What they did not know is that after having taught this course several times, I had come to regard it as remedial, and in the true spirit of remediation, I could not blame the victims for ways in which the system had failed them. Since lecture continues to predominate in most college and university classes, students and teachers often feel comfortable with the lack of student voice. However, in those classes where teachers depend on hearing what students are thinking and feeling, the silence can inhibit growth and understanding. This use of silence can result in miscommunication. When students do not raise questions or challenge 82

6 Ladson-Billings Silences as Weapons ideas, teachers can be led to believe that there is agreement and common understanding about what is being read and discussed. I found that what I read in my students' journals was in sharp contrast to what they were (and were not) saying in class. My main point of interest of the movie was Martin Luther King. I admit I don't know much about him. I have heard varying opinions of him before this class and I really didn't care to read information on him since it did not concern me. I have, as long as I can remember, always heard the press and media praising [him], but I never listened or cared. I heard from people I have great respect for, that he wasn't all that great-more of a trouble maker... While watching [the video] I realized that he was a very good and dynamic speaker. I was really impressed by his ability. I have more respect for the man now, knowing of his skill and what he actually did for the Civil Rights Movement in the form of non-violence. What I plan on doing soon is [to] look up a few books on M.L. King by both people who support him and people who oppose him to see the different viewpoints and understand more about him. [White male, mathematics major, junior year] This student's revelations about Martin Luther King, Jr., were amazing to me. The systematic sanitization of King's memory has made him fairly palatable to almost all Americans. Having been recast as an "American" hero who championed the rights of the disenfranchised and dispossessed, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the last person about whom I would have surmised that students had ambivalent or negative feelings. Without the aid of this student's journal, I had no way of knowing what he had brought to the viewing of the "Eyes on the Prize" segments that dealt with Martin Luther King, Jr. Another student's journal entry provides additional support for the need to penetrate student silence: I left today's classroom lecture/discussion feeling a bit disturbed. I guess what I felt was racist. I've never considered myself racist and I didn't like feeling that I was. We had to discuss some statements in class such as "A black family moved in the neighborhood today" and "The best players on the basketball team are black." I was the only one in my group who couldn't see why these were such racist statements... [Later that evening] one of my friends [pulled out my folder] and asked me what it was. As I started explaining our class exercise to him he began asking me why certain statements were considered racist. I began to explain to him as I'd been explained to in class. He started going off about my reasons and how they were dumb or invalid. His feelings were similar to mine at the beginning of the exercise. [White female, liberal studies major, junior year] The particular exercise she describes is taken from Bennett's Comprehensive Multicultural Education: Theory and Practice (1986). The students are given a list of statements and asked to determine whether or not the statements reflect racism, either individual or institutional. I give the students this exercise before we have any formal discussion about racism. The statements are deliberately provocative in that they are not contextualized. Students must infer context and decide for themselves whether or not the statements reflect racism. For this particular class, I arranged the students in small groups and gave each group four or five of the 18 statements to discuss. In subsequent classes I have modified the task and asked each student to use a Likert-type scale ranging from "strongly agree" (that the statement is racist) to "strongly disagree." After the students have rated the statements from 1 to 5, I inform them that areas of the classroom have been labeled from 1 to 5 and I reread the statements. This time around, the students must physically move to that section of the classroom that corresponds with the number they selected. This forces a public affirmation of the students' beliefs and an opportunity to see which students agree or disagree with their assessments. While in their areas of the classroom, students are asked to talk with others who selected the same number to see if their reasoning is similar. Also students have an opportunity to talk across the room to students who disagree with them. It is not uncommon for students to discover that those who agree with them came to this decision for very different reasons or to see that those who disagree with them are not all that different from them in outlook. The activity helps the students to see how complex a concept such as racism can be and that although we may be speaking the same language, we may not be communicating. It also reinforces for them the saliency of context in understanding oppression. The student referred to above states in her journal that she left the class upset. However, at no time during the class did she give any indication of her feelings. She remained silent and in her silence, I misinterpreted her thoughts and beliefs as consent. Also, it appears she remained silent because she found 83

7 THEORY INTO PRACTICE / Spring 1996 Situated Pedagogies herself in the minority. Rather than defend her point of view, she feigned consent while at the same time experiencing discomfort. If she had been willing to engage in discussion, she may have had an opportunity to more clearly articulate her perspective and help the other students to see that not everyone sees and understands racism in the same way. She may have had the opportunity to better understand what the other students were thinking and feeling because her objections may have pushed the students to be more clear and detailed in their explanations. Instead, with her partial understandings, she found herself unable to explain clearly to her friend what she thought she had learned. Her friend, who was not using silence as a weapon, pushed her to clarify and defend some assertions that her silence had prohibited her from understanding fully. The student's silence also kept me from knowing her views and sharing mine. Since I presumed that she was in agreement with her group, I felt no need for further clarification. From a different perspective, a student of color reflected on how he tried to "silence" his ethnicity in order to fit in and how that silencing caused him feelings of resentment and alienation: All my life I've been forced to ignore my cultural heritages, my Filipino roots, to try to fit in the All- American, yuppie standards peers have placed on me. Then I came to [name of the university], the "whiteyuppie capital" of the world, and even felt more pressure to fit in, and thus more alienated because I have tried not to. And just when I've become more passive and less resistant to the "homogenization" process, your [lecture] rekindled the fighting "fire" within me. Not only must I reject "homogenization," I must change it so other kids don't have to feel as alienated as I did! [Filipino male, physics major, senior] This entry came from a student after the first day of class. Apparently, something I said in the initial lecture gave him the power to break the silence that he had been employing to fit in and get along in mainstream settings. Throughout the course, he was one of the more vocal students, always sharing information, challenging ideas, and confronting the material in ways that made the class discussions productive, provocative, and problematic. His approach to the course made the class just what I had hoped for-a dialogic classroom in which reflective and critical consciousness became normative. However, on reflection, it appears that when the students of color broke the silence, the White students began to use silence. As an African American female, I have grown accustomed to asking myself whether or not perceived slights and discriminations have come as a result of my race, gender, or both. Why does the White store clerk refuse to place my change in my hand? Why does the car dealer try to sell me a car at a higher price than my White male neighbor? As a college professor I try to understand why and how students interact with me and with the ideas I present in my classes. Am I accorded the same deference they show to White male professors? Must I be doubly gracious and accommodating so as not to appear embittered and militant? Do they want me to wear a mask so they will not have to? Each of these questions are important to me as I continue to teach students and confront them with issues of difference, oppression, and alternate views. My position as an African American female does not absolve me from the need to be critical of my own pedagogy. Also, it does not absolve me from the need to find ways to help students break silences, both those of oppression and resistance. What I Think I Have Learned As I reflect on the meaning of student silence and how it can be misinterpreted, I am mindful of political struggle in the larger society. Generally, middle-class citizens participate in the political life of the nation to the extent that they vote on a regular basis. However, increasingly, people who feel dispossessed and disenfranchised by the political process have opted not to vote. A mistaken interpretation of this failure to vote is the assumption that all of the non-voters are apathetic, that they just do not care. We fail to acknowledge the fact that for some, not voting is a political statement in itself. At the height of the Black Muslim movement, the leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad urged his followers not to vote because he said they were not really citizens of the nation. His followers were not voting out of a sense of political awareness. To illustrate this feeling of not voting as a political statement, I have my students participate in a simulation called "Star Power" in which the societal resources are differentially allocated. Students engage in trading sessions in an attempt to enhance their social position. A small group of privileged 84

8 Ladson-Billings Silences as Weapons people get richer and exert more influence over the remaining players. When the privileged group begins to make more oppressive laws and regulations for trade, it is not unusual for players at the lowest rung of society to either rebel or opt out of the game. During the debriefing, the students who refused to play talk about feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and anomie. They also talk of having a better understanding of why some people fail to exercise their right to vote. The students who are "losers" in the simulation begin to understand the feelings of people when they say, "What real difference will my vote make?" Throughout this discussion I have been focusing on what transpired between my White students and me. I have attempted to outline some of the ways in which the students used silence to withhold their thoughts and feelings and retreat from real classroom dialogue. I have attempted to show that students do have thoughts and feelings about issues of difference, oppression, and diverse points of view. In the following, I attempt to summarize briefly what I think I have learned from experiencing and examining student silences: * Student silence is not necessarily an indication of ignorance or agreement. Teachers may want to explore what is not said as well as that which is said. * Student silence can be an indication of feelings of oppression (real or perceived). It can reflect ways in which teachers repress students' voices to ensure that dialogues of difference are not expressed. * Student silence can be used as a weapon. Rather than feeling unable to use one's voice in a forceful way to provoke dialogue, silence can be used as a means of resistance that shuts down dialogic processes in the classroom. * Teachers can probe and explore student silences by coupling their regular modes of classroom interaction and teaching strategies with alternate pedagogical strategies (small groups, journal writing, drama, role playing, simulation). * Teachers must ask themselves what complicity they have in creating student silences. In some cases, teacher race, class, and/or gender may precipitate student silence. Teachers can do little to change these status characteristics. However, if classroom information and attempts at dialogue around this information lead to student silence, they also present opportunities for reflection and examination to improve pedagogy as well as student-teacher interactions. Student silence is not necessarily a bad thing. Those of us who teach in university settings have grown accustomed to the sound of our own voices. Often we have interpreted student silence as either reverence toward our own melodious musings and pearls of wisdom or as affirmation of our students' ignorance. Student silence can be many things, but for those who are truly interested in pedagogy (particularly a pedagogy of difference), student silence can be deafening. It should not, however, be ignored. Notes 1. With the exception of required courses such as first-year composition or Western civilization, classes at this university were typically very small, with enrollments of 15 to I borrowed this phrase, "pluses and wishes" from Janice Jackson of the Milwaukee Public Schools and Peter Murrell of Wheelock College. References Ahlquist, R. (1991). Position and imposition: Power relations in a multicultural foundations class. Journal of Negro Education, 60, Bennett, C. (1986). Comprehensive multicultural education: Theory and practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Conroy, P. (1972). The water is wide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn't this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59, Fine, M. (1989). Silencing and nurturing voice in an improbable context: Urban adolescents in public school. In H. Giroux & P. McLaren (Eds.), Critical pedagogy, the state and cultural struggle (pp ). Albany: State University of New York Press. King, J., & Ladson-Billings, G. (1990). The teacher education challenge in elite university settings: Developing critical perspectives for teaching in a democratic and multicultural society. The European Journal of Intercultural Studies, 1(2), Kochman, T. (1981). Black and White styles in conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kohl, H. (1967). 36 children. New York: New American Library. Ladson-Billings, G. (1991a). Beyond multicultural illiteracy. The Journal of Negro Education, 60, Ladson-Billings, G. (1991b). Coping with multicultural illiteracy: A teacher education response. Social Education, 55(3), , 194. Ladson-Billings, G. (1991c, April). When difference means disaster: Reflections on a teacher education strategy for countering student resistance to diversity. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago. Paley, V.G. (1989). White teacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Rich, A. (1979). On lies, secrets, and silence: Selected prose, New York: Norton. 85

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