Earlier this week my older sister called me in an uproar. My niece (Amaya), who is in the second grade, has been very unhappy at school for the past few weeks and after much prodding she finally broke down and told me sister about two girls in her class who had been bullying her and a friend. Most of the bullying was targeted at Amaya’s friend Caleb, a young boy who is half African-American, and consisted of run-of-the-mill bullying: pencil stealing, lunch box hiding, playground teasing, etc. However, several days ago one of the girls told Amaya’s friend that his “skin color is ugly” and that “white is right.” Once my initial feelings of outrage and disgust subsided, I realized this was an opportunity to listen rhetorically in order evaluate the identifications and implications circling through the situation.
First, although Ratcliffe cautions against adopting a “color-blind” approach to race issues because it completely disregards differences, in this case it is difference that has made Caleb a target. Here I part ways with Ratcliffe to a certain degree and wonder if “color-blindness” is what should be encouraged when addressing a group of second graders about race issues. At a predominately white school in a predominately white town, the girls making these comments are part of the dominant group, and Caleb’s different skin color sets him apart in a very apparent way. Perhaps at this level children should be encouraged to ignore skin color in order to prevent such dis/identification from occurring. At the very least this approach is a stop-gap until more complicated ideas about the intersections of whiteness can be understood. Ratcliffe writes that “differences must be bridged in order to construct a place of identification”, something the two second-grade bullies have not done, and that when the identification is made in terms of “not me” violence becomes a risk (59). The girls are disidentifying with Caleb, yet they seem aware of their own whiteness insofar as it is dominant and correct in terms of their own identifications. Granted, these girls are young are perhaps not aware of the weight their words carry, but it is discouraging to think children so young are already being socialized into an invisible whiteness that assumes privilege.
More than just the disidentifcation of the bullies, the teacher seems to be employing a form of dysfunctional silence in response to the racially charged actions and words taking place in her classroom, as there were no consequences for the use of such negative language. According to Ratcliffe, dysfunctional silence encourages readers (or in this case the teacher) to ignore such comments “by accepting them without critique” (87). At this point, I am no longer rhetorically listening to the underlying assumptions and presuppositions of a seven year old, but rather am overwhelmed by the “deafening silence” carried out by the teacher, who “discourages both speaking and listening” through her lack of intervention. Ratcliffe’s pedagogical listening is geared toward college teachers, but her tactics are applicable at any level. Ratcliffe challenges all teachers to help their students understand how the implications of cultural diversity are present everywhere, and acknowledge a responsibility for addressing, explaining, and naming their implications in a way that uncovers categories of dominant and non-dominant (136). The tactics used might be different in the college writing course, but the lessons about identification, gender, and whiteness are just as important and relevant in the elementary classroom.
More than just the words of the students and the silence of the teacher, I am concerned about the impact the ongoing bullying will have on Amaya and Caleb’s process of identification. In terms of Burke’s view of identification “the individual’s identity is formed by reference to his membership in a group” (qtd. in Ratcliffe 56), and Caleb is being excluded from the group based on a physical difference. While a single identification doesn’t make up a person’s identity, at this point in his life Caleb has been relegated to the position of “other” and denied membership in the group based on race. He will have to learn about the “dominant culture’s home place” if he is work, learn, and play alongside his white classmates, who, due to their position in the dominant group, will never be asked to do the same (63). Also, Ratcliffe says “easy identifications may mask power differentials and coerced differences” (72). Though the bullies have made easy, surface level identifications with their classmates based the white/black binary, more specific identifications could result in the exclusion of my niece whose paternal heritage is Middle Eastern. Amaya’s “race” reminds me of Ratcliffe’s “pacific islander” student who was born and raised in Illinois: Amaya cannot mark “white” on a survey, but she does not identify with the “middle eastern/Arab” bubble either.
Honestly, I’m saddened that at seven years old my niece and her classmates are already aware of and forwarding the white/black, white/non-white binaries that haunt our country. In fact, a recent study conducted by UCLA found that children as young as seven were aware of the “ethnically-based stigma” that runs through American culture. Second graders are “sensitive to ethnic attitudes in society” and those ethnic attitudes are being expressed in full force in Amaya’s class. Ratcliffe’s suggestion of rhetorical listening could help addressed this situation if employed by the adults involved because troubled identifications become more audible, more visible, and easier to navigate with increased awareness (66). Rhetorical listening should be use not just to listen metonymically or pedagogically with students who are able to serve as active participants in the conversation, but as a means of addressing the troubled identifications surfacing at all levels.