Racially Coded Language and Discourse: A Subtle Perpetuation of White Privilege 

I wrote this for my Master's at USC in 2011...almost a decade ago. I am disheartened that this is still as relevant today as it was then...which is what happens when anything is hidden: it is much harder to eradicate. By remaining hidden and "coded," dysfunctional behaviors and systems persist. So no more hiding! In learning and teaching myself, my hope was to create awareness of hidden systematic racism, specifically racially coded language, and provide some strategies for eradicating it from the classroom. In keeping the article short and specific, I excluded another significant issue, sexist-coded language, to which this article could apply as well. I still firmly believe the future lies within the education of our youth and the influence of its mentors, with music education at the forefront of reform. 

Racially Coded Language and Discourse: A Subtle Perpetuation of White Privilege

This article serves to expose the underlying meanings and implications of racially coded language and discourse.  From fear of being perceived as racist or discriminatory, individuals often replace race-based language by using coded words and therefore may express racist views without seeming to be racist.  Since White dominance is sustained by concealing its power, racially coded language significantly contributes to perpetuating White privilege.  This article uses a literature review of four research articles to support this assumption.  I also analyze the effects of racially coded language in educational settings.  In conclusion I address how teachers can counteract the negative effects of racial discourse on students by offering multicultural teaching practices free of the veil of White dominance. 


Many words in our society serve to imply race without ever actually naming it:  inner city, illegal immigrant, gangs, states’ rights, affirmative action, welfare, “other” kids, all of you, one of them, poor people; the list can go on and on.  These words are not only common in politics and the media but are also heard in everyday conversations in the workplace and at schools.  According to an article by Angelina Castagno, many educators and district level policies talk around race in ways that seem safer and less threatening (2008).  Even seemingly helpful programs in schools such as ESL (English as a second language) and English-language learners (ELL) are code words for race (Castagno, 2008).  In Castagno’s research she also points out that students who were Somali Bantu refugees were not called “Black” but were given “refugee status.”  Since the majority of the school population was Latino or Pacific Islander and only two of the Black students were not refugees, refugee status not only implied race, but more specifically implied being Black (Castagno, 2008).  At the district level, “eastside” and “westside” served as code words for Black and poor versus White and middle to upper class (Castagno, 2008).  An important point is that teachers do not invent these words but mimic behaviors and language present outside of school in the district, media, and popular discourse. 

Henry and Tator expose the coded meanings and messages behind media images and stories and show how racialized language is woven into the norms of society.  For instance, Blacks are rarely presented in the news and when they are, they are usually portrayed as criminals or successful athletes (Henry & Tator, 2002).  When the media describes a criminal as a male, black, and six feet tall, the description is vague and could fit the profile of any of a thousand people in a city.  Since many Whites have limited contacts with people of color, their attitudes toward them are influenced by such news reports and entire Black communities may be vilified for criminal acts committed by a few individuals (Henry & Tator, 2002). The exclusion of positive minority images and the rhetoric of “othering” in the media, such as the “other” kids or the “other” side of the city, dehumanizes and diminishes groups (Henry & Tator, 2002).  Such language also makes it easier for those in power (the privileged White) to exert control, while minimizing guilt and shame (Henry & Tator, 2002).  Canada, like the United States, has one of the most racially diverse societies.  However, with the lack of diversity in the media, school administrations and faculty, there is a growing gap between what is represented and the increasingly diverse, urban populations (Henry & Tator, 2002).  Little of what we see in the media or school faculties resembles the actual diversity of our cities. 

Haviland articulates how White teachers may “gloss over” or avoid talking about race in fear of offending anyone, but their rhetoric or silence actually impedes the progress toward anti-racist education (2008).  In fact, avoiding words around race is the primary way Whites continue their power by ignoring or denying its existence (Haviland, 2008).  The glossing over of racist remarks was also addressed in Lewis’ article where a teacher defines racist comments as kid “put-downs” (Lewis, 2001).  Accepting racist remarks, however subtle they may be, as a normal part of childhood fosters racism through coded language while denying that it exists.  Another parent made the statement “we’re in America, now be an American” (Lewis, 2001).  The underlying meaning behind this comment is that minorities should conform to the status quo which is dictated by Whiteness and White norms for behavior and ideologies.  According to Henry and Tator, immigrant groups are ranked according to how they assimilate to the dominant culture and immigration has become racialized because many “immigrants” are people of color (2002).  

Another common way to talk around race is to use the word “other”:  other people, other students, other schools, other neighborhoods.  In Lewis’ research many parents commented that they didn’t want their children to attend the “other” school because it was a “rougher” school in a “rougher” neighborhood (Lewis, 2001).  The words “rougher” and “other” were code words for a school filled with ethnic minorities.  These types of comments imply race without actually naming it, so the comments appear neutral on the surface.  Although most of these parents spoke in code words or euphemisms, it is clear that race was a decisive factor in where they chose to live and send their children to school (Lewis, 2001). 


By ignoring race and racial discourse within schools, educators continue racist beliefs through language that appears to be neutral and unbiased.  This discourse perpetuates Whiteness and allows the status quo to continue as usual in schooling practices.  Racially coded language is therefore an important way in which Whiteness is legitimated in schools (Castagno, 2008).  Instead of teaching to a diversity of cultures, many educators are looking through their “white lens” and unknowingly encourage students to conform to their ways of behavior and ideology.  Racially coded discourse serves to deny that race still clearly shapes access to resources and opportunities.  Teachers whose minority students are underachieving can believe it has nothing to do with their racial attitudes or classroom practices (Henry & Tator, 2002). 

The aversion to issues of race and speaking through hidden meanings in White dominated educational settings impedes any change toward anti-racist education (Haviland, 2008).  Whereas traditional multicultural education focuses on change within the family and culture, sincere anti-racist education focuses on eradicating the institutionalized racism in the classroom, schools, and from a larger perspective, society as a whole (Lewis, 2001).  By questioning school practices, teachers can evaluate if all students are relating to the academic curriculum.  Consequently, anti-racist classroom strategies promote equal access to education where all students have an equal opportunity to pursue their dreams. 

The most effective teaching strategies have been demonstrated by culturally responsive teachers; they employ a constructivist approach that draws learning in the classroom from students’ personal and cultural knowledge (Howard, 2006).  Hegemonous curriculum and pedagogical strategies designed through a white frame of reference are not effective in our diverse schools.  Diverse students are more responsive when pedagogical strategies regard their actual lived experiences (Howard, 2006).  Teachers need to step away from the dominant programs of teaching that pervade our educational institutions and discover alternative ways to teach in our varied ethnic and racial schools.  Teaching through a multicultural lens offers a more authentic means of establishing equity within our schools.  In order to create equal access, we must be culturally competent and engage in culturally responsive teaching, which includes the awareness and intolerance of racially coded language and discourse.  Culturally responsive teaching practices do not encourage assimilation to the dominant culture, but on the contrary, promote teaching to differences so that more students achieve at a higher level (Howard, 2006). 

Racially coded language allows white culture to continue to remain the hidden norm against which all other groups are evaluated (Henry & Tator, 2002).  In addition, it prevents Whites from learning about the reality of racial inequality and their own role in its reproduction.  Awareness and true critical multicultural education can stop the victimizing of minority groups in educational institutions. 


As an educator it is my responsibility to create an awareness of any racially coded comments that may occur between students.  Instead of denying or feeling too uncomfortable to discuss the issue, I would explain to students why their comments were inappropriate and use it as a learning experience for them.  I also continue my education in multiculturalism and constantly monitor my own language and discourse for any racially coded remarks or avoidance of race related topics. 

If teaching in an all-White school, I would emphasize the importance of multicultural education and discussion about race.  I would explain to White students that lack of discussion is not a neutral stance and have them learn about their role in the reproduction of racial inequality.  In this way teachers and schools can begin to fulfill their role as the great equalizers (Lewis, 2001). 

According to Howard, the more diverse our students are, the higher our beliefs and expectations of them must be (Howard, 2006).  As a teacher I try to be aware of and avoid stereotyping or having lower expectations of some students, such as for students who speak English as a second language and have parents who speak very little English.  Howard also encourages teachers to know themselves, form authentic relationships with their students, and teach through culturally responsive strategies (2006).  I encourage acceptance and recognition of diversity between students in my classroom/studio.  I also strive to employ a multicultural curriculum and teaching strategies that all students can relate to. 


Whiteness pervades in society because of its cunning ability to conceal its power, privilege, and oppression (Castagno, 2008).  Racially coded language and discourse is often invisible to those who use it, and therefore is an effective way of perpetuating and reinforcing Whiteness.  Coded meanings are ever present in larger institutions of our society such as politics, the media, and district institutions and permeate throughout our everyday lives in our school communities and interactions with peers and teachers.  In our schools the danger of racially coded discourse is that it maintains the dominant culture, prevents equity within the classroom, and subjects students to ineffective teaching strategies.  One way to eradicate the implications of racially coded language and the perpetuation of Whiteness is to increase awareness among our teachers and students.  Teachers and educational institutions have the power to implement teaching strategies through a multicultural perspective. Our collective ability to confront racial realities has the potential to create a generation of students who more accurately assess their world; not through a filtered lens of Whiteness, but through many diverse perspectives so each and every child may feel part of a broader and more accepting society. 


Castagno, A. E. (2008). “I don’t want to hear that!”:  legitimating whiteness through silence in schools. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 39(3), 314-333. 

Haviland, V. S. (2008). “Things get glossed over”:  rearticulating the silencing power of whiteness in education. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(1), 40-54. 

Henry, F. & Tator, C. (2002). Discourses of domination:  racial bias in the Canadian English-language press. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 

Howard, G. R. (2006). We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know:  White Teachers, Multiracial Schools (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. 

Lewis, A. E. (2001). There is no “race” in the schoolyard:  color-blind ideology in an (almost) all-white school. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 781-811.

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