Researching the Language of Race and Racism in Education
In this chapter, we consider how scholars have examined the relationship between language and race/racism in education. We highlight research that makes clear the language ideologies that circulate in educational settings, the resulting educational practices that privilege and institutionalize “mainstream” language practices while marginalizing and stigmatizing “non-mainstream” language practices, and the ways that race and racism are constructed and performed through language in educational contexts. We also consider the innovative methods introduced to the field as researchers questioned the deficit ways in which theories and methods stigmatized the languages of racialized groups.
KeywordsLanguage Race Racism Education Sociocultural perspectives
Language scholars have long conducted research to disrupt deficit perspectives that circulate about speakers of languages that differ from the “mainstream” (Hill 1998). However, we echo Hill, who almost two decades ago lamented how the “education” language scholars engage in has failed to alleviate misconceptions about language. Moral panics about bilingualism, Black English, and any language that “threatens” the hegemony of English are still heard today. Early sentiments of race as a biological trait continue to circulate, marking the cultural and linguistic practices of racialized groups as inferior to Whites. Omi and Winant (1994) have articulated that “race” is a social construct, yet a long history of Western nation states relying on race to stratify individuals continues to shade the experiences of racialized groups.
We consider how notions of race and racism are constructed and performed through language in various educational contexts. We highlight research that makes clear ideologies of language circulating in educational contexts, resulting in practices that deem “mainstream” languages a prerequisite for learning, simultaneously designating speakers of “nonmainstream” languages as resistant to schooling. While language researchers argue that all languages are structured and grammatical, references to languages as sloven, broken, and nonstandard have led to new ways of categorizing speakers in schools, indicative of language serving as a proxy for race (Gutierrez and Jaramillo 2006). We comment on methodological shifts and advances made by sociocultural language scholars to move the field away from deficit and ethnocentric perspectives toward more productive and humanizing research. While this chapter is US centric, we recognize that research on language, race, and racism in educational settings is an emerging area of interest in global contexts.
Early language research treated speakers of non-European languages as lacking intellectual complexity or sophistication compared to speakers of European languages (see Menchaca 1997 for review). Nott and Gliddon (as cited in Menchaca 1997) concluded that, “…non-Whites spoke primitive languages reflecting a simplistic mentality,” based on survey research with over 50 non-White societies (p. 27). Menchaca suggests these findings were reached “because [Nott and Gliddon] found these languages difficult to understand in grammar and tone,” therefore erroneously proclaiming speakers “primitive or savage peoples” (p. 27). Perspectives such as these were commonly articulated about Mexicans and African Americans in the US context as well.
Boas (1889) was a prominent scholar who challenged deficit framings of communities, particularly findings characterizing Native American languages as “primitive.” Boas critiqued biological categorizations of individuals into “races,” which he believed supported “…political policies of colonialism, segregation of and discrimination…” against Blacks and immigrant groups (Lewis 2009, p. xii). Boas’ research documented languages spoken by Eskimo (Inuit) and Kwakiutl Indians of the Northwest United States by recording and transcribing narratives told by bilingual participants (Duranti 1997). He found that Native American languages were different, based on historical variability and not because of biological traits associated with speakers. He critiqued methods that “…created static rankings of culture traits according to the very theory [scholars] were trying to prove” (Lewis 2009, p. xi). Boas deemed previous research on Native American languages as empirically unsound suggesting that researchers themselves were limited in their ability to recognize sounds uncommon in their own languages. Sapir and Whorf continued the legacy of their mentor, Boas, debunking notions about “primitive” or “limited” languages (Sapir 1933) or of the existence of “simpler” and more “complex” languages based on surface level judgments of non-Western languages (Duranti 1997).
As language scholars attempted to understand the differences between communities, Bernstein (1964) presented his articulation of elaborated and restricted codes, arguing that middle-class children demonstrated elaborated codes that signaled higher forms of logic and lower class children engaged in restricted codes signaling less logical language. While widely critiqued, Bernstein brought attention to differences in language practices across social class groups. Labov (1969) challenged this perspective with his foundational piece, The Logic of Non-Standard English. He argued, “Bernstein’s views are filtered through a strong bias against all forms of working-class behavior, so that middle-class language is seen as superior in every respect—as ‘more abstract, and necessarily somewhat more flexible, detailed and subtle’” (p. 4). Labov demonstrated through his sustained research in Black communities in New York that there was a logic to the English spoken by Black communities, yet this “logic” was lost to researchers whose codes were different from those they researched.
When this is done, it will be found that much that has impinged upon linguistics as variation and deviation has an organization of its own. What seem variation and deviation from the standpoint of a single linguistic code emerge as structure and pattern from the standpoint of the communicative economy of the group in whose habits the code exists. (p. 3).
The ethnography of communication differed from previous language research that divorced language from its sociocultural context, particularly Chomskyian notions of linguistic competence. While the ethnography of communication did not explicitly interrogate race and racism, research from this tradition was foundational to treating and shifting attitudes toward the linguistic repertoires of racialized groups, specifically those of Black, Native American, Latina/o, and poor Whites. Methodologically, the ethnography of communication tradition urged researchers to move away from investigating language use in laboratories, and instead encouraged the investigation of language use within “natural” sociocultural contexts in ways that allowed researchers to observe and potentially engage in the everyday communicative activities of their participants. Long-term ethnographic methods were essential to documenting the uses and purposes of language use within a cultural community.
In 1965, the then US president, Lyndon Johnson’s administration received pressure from civil rights organizations over the dismal outcomes of students of color in US schools and convened a group of scholars to investigate potential reasons for this “deficiency” (Cazden et al. 1972 ). During this meeting, Cazden (1972) recalls that all participants agreed “…that school problems could be better explained by differences in language use between home and school” (p. vii). This meeting resulted in the publication of Functions of Language in the Classroom, which Dell Hymes called a “hopeful book,” given that critiques offered by authors about the “present state of affairs” were followed up with suggestions on how practitioners and educators might make sense of the reported findings in order to address some of the most pressing educational issues that related to language. The authors moved the field toward methodologically sound research on the education of Black, Latina/o, and Native American children and youth in US schools inspired by the ethnography of communication and other interdisciplinary theories and methods from anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and psychology. Previous scholars, utilizing theories and methodologies steeped in deficit thinking placed blame explicitly on students’ culture of poverty and/or to their linguistic deprivation to place them at risk in schooling contexts (see Gutierrez et al. 2009 for review; Valencia 1997). Despite theoretical and methodological advances that will be explored in this chapter, it is still difficult to eradicate research that normalizes “mainstream” language practices, particularly as educational policies inform “standard” and “mainstream” ideologies of language that mediate curricular and instructional practices and discourses. This difficulty is perhaps a result of the power relations indexed through linguistic interactions, resulting in unmarked groups circulating ideologies that uphold their linguistic supremacy.
Heath’s (1983) research received much praise for its attention to the “ways with words” of African American and White children across three communities in the Carolina Piedmont’s with varied classed positions. Drawing on methods from the ethnography of communication, Heath’s decade long research combined detailed linguistic and ethnographic analysis about the differences in language practices of children from Roadville (a working class White community), Trackton (a working class Black community), and Maintown (a middle-class Black and White community). She found that these children were socialized to and through language and literacy in ways that positioned White Maintown children as more aligned with language and literacy expectations of schools. On the other hand, Trackton and Roadville children were not academically successful, given their “divergent” language and literacy practices that did not align with the language and participation frameworks privileged in schools. While Heath did observe differences across “cultural” groups, the differences in the ways with words of children were attributed to their classed differences. It should be noted, however, that African American children in Maintown, while finding alignment in the ways of participating in schools, still did not benefit from all the privileges attained by White children whose ways with words mostly aligned with those of their teachers.
Duranti (1997) argues that ethnographic methods coupled with fine-grained linguistic analysis , such as those employed by Heath (and others reviewed below), allowed researchers to connect micro level communicative interactions with larger macro level phenomenon, such as language ideologies that might index constructions of race, class, and gender. In educational research, ethnographic methods help make clear the continuities and discontinuities existing for children, youth, and their families’ from “nonmainstream” linguistic backgrounds, while simultaneously calling into question the validity of deficit approaches to learning.
The identification of these discontinuities were expanded by Philips (1983), who found that Native American children of the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon were not participating in classroom interactions because of the different styles of learning to which they were accustomed. Specifically, Philips found that participation structures expected in the classroom by teachers did not align with the ways in which these children were expected to participate in their homes and communities. Similarly, Au (1980) found that participation frameworks used by teachers in Hawaii did not align with the “talk story” participation frameworks of Hawaiian children who were speakers of Hawaiian Pidgin. Both Au and Philips identified discontinuities between “home” and “school” practices. Au suggested that working with teachers to shift their participation frameworks to mirror those of their students helped increase involvement by children in the class, thus working toward denaturalizing mainstream participation frameworks. Reyes (2010) contends: “These studies reveal how ethnic majority groups establish and maintain power by having their speech norms legitimized in institutional settings, such as classrooms. Mainstream practices become accepted as ‘normal,’ ‘proper,’ and ‘standard’” (p. 413). Au and Philips are often cited together because of their contribution to the field’s understanding of what participation structures are privileged in US schools. Their method of documenting how teachers organize learning, and the ways of participating within learning activities, provided a nuanced representation of how “non-mainstream” students’ ways of participating were not considered or leveraged for learning. Rather, it was made evident that “mainstream” ways of participating were privileged.
Zentella’s (1997) research examined the code-switching practices of Puerto Rican youth in New York City. These youth had expansive linguistic repertoires including their flexible ability to code-switch between English and Spanish, across varied communities. Educators, however, treated Puerto Rican youth as having incomplete languages. Zentella argued that schools engaged in subtractive educational practices, where Spanish and code-switching language practices of youth were subtracted. Rather, she proposed an additive approach to instruction where students and their teachers added languages to their linguistic repertoires. In Zentella’s work, race became a much clearer marker as the languages of her youth participants indexed for the listener a racialized subject position. In this work, Zentella employed ethnographic methods supported by quantitative methods to capture both “how the community talks?” and “Why does this community talk this way?” (p. 6). Additionally, Zentella made clear the methodological tensions she faced being a member of the community she researched.
Alim (2004) is also credited with interrogating the racialized Black Language (BL) practices of youth at Sunnyside High, a school located in a Northern California community. While he found that Black Language was a linguistic feature of many Black youth, he also witnessed these youth style shift into and out of a range of languages. Specifically, he noted how youth shifted into a range of Englishes when speaking to various individuals associated with a local prestigious university. Specifically, when the university students considered themselves “hip-hop heads,” no matter what their race, the youth were more flexible with their language practices when compared to the ways in which these youth spoke to university students who were avid listeners of hip hop. Alim’s work highlighted how Black youth have the ability to shift but are often treated as having a singular “improper” way of using language. A closer examination of a well-intentioned teacher at these youths’ high school highlights this point. The teacher in Alim’s research attempts to convince him that the most difficult problem is having students drop the use of double negatives and the habitual be paramount to BL practices. In doing so, the teacher fails to follow one of the principal grammatical features of BL. Here it is important to add that Alim extended the sociolinguistic interview method traditionally used and introduced the semistructured conversation (SSC) , where he asked his participants to engage in a conversation, in which he did not participate, about topics preselected based on his own ethnographic insights (p. 27). Alim argued that SSCs were methodological advancements that allowed for freer-flowing “natural” interactions to occur. Therefore Alim’s work, like Zentella’s (1997), benefited from both quantitative and ethnographic methods.
Rampton’s (1995) notion of language crossing, or the “‘code alternation’ by people who are not accepted members of the group associated with the second language that they are using (code-switching into varieties that are not generally thought to belong to them)”(p. 485), is essential in research on race and language. Rampton’s research, based in London in the UK, explored how speakers can “cross” into a “new ethnicity” or race via their ability to deploy the language associated with another ethnic or racial group. His work specifically detailed “the ways that youngsters of Asian and Anglo descent used Caribbean based Creole, the ways Anglos and Caribbean’s used Punjabi, and the way stylized Indian English (‘stylised Asian English’-SAE) was used by all three” (p. 489). While Rampton’s work did not take place in schools, it revealed how cultural and linguistic contact between youth can have implications that affect the ways languages are deployed across racial and ethnic groups to maintain alignment. Importantly, Rampton was another scholar drawing on both sociolinguistic and linguistic anthropological methods. Rampton saw the benefits of quantitative sociolinguistics , yet he believed it was his ethnographic and interactional sociolinguistic methods that “were the most influential, and led to the examination of … closely interrelated dimensions of socio-cultural organization” (p. 489). Rampton also introduced the notion of retrospective participant commentaries where he asked participants themselves to comment on recorded interactions.
In the USA, language crossing has been explored in school settings where linguistic contact zones emerge for youth across racial and ethnic groups. In her research on “White kids,” Bucholtz (1999, 2001) found that White youth in a San Francisco Bay Area school used “super-standard” English to index a “nerd” identity that distanced them from Black cultural practices that mediated notions of coolness among their White peers. Other White youth, particularly males, crossed into Black English to index an identity that aligned with Black peers. Bucholtz argued, “The operative racial ideology links power and violence primarily to blackness as opposed to whiteness. And the operative language ideology links AAVE both to blackness and to masculinity” (p. 445). Bucholtz admitted that the crossing that is described in her research does not promote “new ethnicities,” as described by Rampton (1995). Instead, the crossing detailed in her analysis of Brand One presents his identity as an urban youth influenced by Black cultural and linguistic practices. Yet, instead of creating “cross-racial affiliations that may usher in a ‘new ethnic’ identity category (Hall  1996)” (cf., Bucholtz 1999, p. 456), Brand One’s crossing suggests racist undertones that does nothing to create racial solidarity and instead promotes racial ideologies that are promoted by the dominant culture (Bucholtz 1999).
Rampton (1995) and Bucholtz (1999) both describe moments of language crossing whose endpoint produces different results in regards to ethnic solidarity and affiliation. In his ethnographic work in a California Bay Area high school, Paris (2011) extends the work on language crossing in his coining of the term language sharing, “…momentary and sustained uses of the language that are ratified – when use of the language traditionally ‘belonging’ to another group is ratified as appropriate by its traditional speakers” (p. 14). Paris’ research examined Latina/o and Pacific Islander students who were speakers of Black Language in youth spaces that were influenced by “…demographic shifts coupled with the continued residential segregation of poor communities of color [which] have increased the numbers of Black and Brown students who share the same communities and classrooms” (p. 12). Paris states that methodologically, he engaged in “the qualitative social language work of discourse analysis, the ethnography of communication, and linguistic anthropology” yet he draws on his knowledge of quantitative sociolinguistics as “…a descriptive entry point to treat certain linguistic features of [African American Language] AAL.”
Sociocultural language and literacy scholars who draw on language ideological inquiry have also contributed to understanding languages as “raced” during everyday classroom experiences of children and youth. Razfar (2005), for example, draws on conversation analysis and language ideological theories to bring attention to the ways in which teachers of English language learners engage in “other repair,” that is, the correction of the speech of others, as the “normative assistance strategy employed by instructors to facilitate oral literacy skills” (p. 410). “Other repair” practices were deployed by teachers to “correct” youths’ pronunciation in ways that align with speaking and sounding White (p. 411). Godley and Escher (2012) turned to Black youth themselves to discover their own language ideologies. These youth, who attended an urban high school in a Midwestern US city, demonstrated a keen awareness of their code-switching from what they called Standard American English to African American English Vernacular. For these youth, their ability to “code-switch” was important because (1) they feared external judgment based on their use of BL particularly in “professional settings,” (2) they desired clear communication with their varied interlocutors, (3) they also wanted to demonstrate respect for others by using the language deemed appropriate respective of their interlocutor, and (4) there existed an implicit sense of individual and group identity that youth mediated through language.
Other scholars have continued to center their attention on the ideas and beliefs of children and youth of color to explore how their teachers and other educators treat their everyday utterances across their communicative interactions. For example, Souto-Manning (2010) used ethnographic and discourse analytic methods to explore the deficit perspectives children in a head start program indexed in their comments toward children who spoke languages different from their own. Souto-Manning engaged in discourse analytic methods to link these interactions to larger ideologies of language that shape the ways in which children allow access and exclude their peers via their language abilities. In his work with older students, Martinez (2013) explored the contradictory language ideologies of Latina/o middle school youth as they engaged in discussions about their Spanish/English code-switching. He found that students articulated both “dominant language ideologies that framed Spanglish in pejorative terms and counter-hegemonic language ideologies that valorized and normalized this bilingual language practice” (p. 276). He argued these contradictions are part of larger, structural systems of inequity that Latina/o youth are making sense of as they engage in their educational experiences.
Work in Progress
Close examinations of the intersectional relationship between language, race, and racism are emerging in educational scholarship. Recent scholars clearly acknowledge the racial markedness of language and dominant institutions and groups who benefit from ideologies of language that sustain linguistic supremacy (Alim and Reyes 2011). One notable shift is the move by scholars to decenter the White racialized subject as the unmarked interlocutor (e.g., Baquedano-Lopez et al. 2005; Reyes 2010). Fewer researchers are interested in demonstrating how the language practices of racialized children and youth in schools are not like those of their White counterparts. Researchers are also less concerned about resolving discontinuities between the home and community language practices of racialized children and youth and schools (Orellana et al. 2012). Instead, researchers are considering the linguistic ingenuity of racialized children and youth by examining how they do “being” bilingual, multilingual, and/or multidialectal.
An important contribution in this direction is offered by Alim and Reyes’ (2011) who complicate language research in their argument that the field must move away from both “dialect oriented” and “group oriented” studies of language. The former focuses on a specific dialect and the latter centralizes a specific group to detail linguistic practices. Instead, they call for scholarship that “…depart[s] from both the dialect and group orientations by highlighting how processes of race and racialization are produced between groups and across multiple linguistic and social dimensions” (p. 380). This methodological shift makes clear that within a respective community, a researcher will encounter many “languages” and speakers with varied racial and ethnic affiliations. Given the increasing diversity of public schools in the USA, schools attended by racialized groups foster the emergence of linguistic contact zones. As Paris (2011) highlights, it may no longer be appropriate to research Black Language by only examining the linguistic repertoires of Black youth in the USA. Doing so would neglect the experiences of other racialized youth who partake in the “crossing” or “sharing” of languages. Martinez (2015) found that urban English language arts teachers in the USA neglected to leverage and treat the home and community languages of Black and Latina/o youth as a resource for learning. Instead teachers marked the racialized languages of these youth through corrective feedback practices, stigmatizing Black languages and other hybridized languages uttered by Black and Latina/o youth.
In another line of inquiry, Alim and Smitherman (2012) challenge indexical connections triggered when Whites characterize the utterances of Blacks as “articulate.” Using President Barrack Obama’s discourse as an example, they argue that Black people, or people of color, more generally, who speak in ways that mirror dominant discourses are told they are articulate in ways that positions the speaker as an anomaly to the hearer. That is, you speak well for being Black. Alim and Smitherman argue instead that Obama is articulate because of his ability to style shift and engage various audiences via his dynamic and robust linguistic practices, the very practices that many Black youngsters become marked in their using.
Increasingly, linguistic anthropologists and other language scholars have shifted towards a focus on the role that language plays in the processes of racialization (Chun and Lo 2015; Malsbary 2014). Rather than examine how racialized groups of speakers use language in distinctive ways or even how individual speakers agentively draw on linguistic features to co-construct particular racialized identities, these scholars have begun to emphasize the ways that racial categories themselves are constructed and reified through language practices, including the role that language ideologies play in these semiotic processes (e.g., Flores and Rosa 2015). Methodologically, this turn towards racialization has prompted a call for increased attention to the ways that educators perceive, interpret, and respond to the language practices of students of color.
Problems and Difficulties
As the language of race and racism in education has developed into an area of scholarly focus, some key tensions have emerged. First, there is a fundamental tension between perspectives that reify the everyday language practices of students of color (i.e., by calling them “varieties”) and those that characterize these practices as the fluid, dynamic, and agentive use of semiotic resources by speakers. This tension is reflective of broader disciplinary debates between variationist sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology. From a historical perspective, variationist sociolinguistics was instrumental in progressive efforts to combat deficit discourses and promote multicultural approaches to pedagogy. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, progressive education scholars began to draw on the growing body of sociolinguistic research to frame stigmatized and marginalized language practices as “dialects” that were logical, rule-governed, and systematic (Conference on College Composition and Communication 1974). It is important to note that, as these scholars have increasingly begun to embrace linguistic anthropological perspectives, they have often moved towards these new perspectives from a variationist sociolinguistic perspective. In other words, their starting point for beginning to deconstruct sociolinguistic categories has involved an understanding of language variation – that language varies across time and space and that all language varieties are equal in purely linguistic terms. In contrast, many teachers and students in today’s schools have not been exposed to these basic sociolinguistic principles and related terminologies. They have not had time to be steeped in the knowledge that all ways of speaking are inherently equal – to let these basic sociolinguistic understandings sink in. A related question that emerges, then, has to do with the relative merits and usefulness of these two perspectives as part of critical language education. More to the point, if teachers and students have never been told that their ways of speaking are equal to all other ways of speaking, is it strategically important or necessary to reify their everyday language practices – to elevate these practices to the status of “language” or “dialect” or “register” – before proceeding to deconstruct these very categories? Should we begin, instead, with the linguistic anthropological notion that linguistic structure is the emergent product of social interaction before introducing sociolinguistic perspectives on the relationship between linguistic and social structure? Or might we sidestep the variationist perspective altogether by moving directly towards a deconstruction of reified linguistic varieties? How might moving beyond a focus on dialect or group help us deconstruct reified linguistic categories? How might the reification of linguistic categories be a necessary step towards this deconstruction? These questions are important to consider in light of shifting conceptual paradigms among language scholars.
A second (and related) tension in this burgeoning field has to do with the notion of adding to or expanding students’ linguistic repertoires. As mentioned above, the foundational literature in this area helped us understand the rich and varied ways that students of color use language across interlocutors and contexts. Taken together, this literature has given us a sense of the expansive linguistic repertoires (Gumperz 1964) that these students bring to the classroom. The notion of linguistic repertoire relies to a certain degree on the reification of language practices. Nonetheless, it has been a useful metaphor for helping to conceptualize the bundles of semiotic resources that students draw on in their everyday interactions. A key question that emerges is whether or not (and how) teachers should attempt to expand students’ linguistic repertoires. For example, should teachers provide students with access to standardized language practices? Is it coercive to do so? Does providing students with such access contribute to the reification of standardized language practices? Does it contribute to the reproduction and institutionalization of dominant language ideologies? How might teachers give students access to standardized language practices without denigrating students’ everyday language practices? How can teachers discern whether or not their students already incorporate standardized language practices (or particular features thereof) in their everyday talk? If we assume that students’ everyday ways with words necessarily exclude standardized language practices, does this in turn rely on and reproduce essentialist ideas about how people from certain racialized groups talk, about how they should talk, and about what it means to be an authentic speaker of a particular language or dialect? How do students’ everyday language practices overlap with the kinds of academic language and literacy privileged in school settings? Is it possible for teachers to both affirm and expand students’ linguistic repertoires? These questions, and the tensions and contradictions that they evoke, will need to be answered as we move towards more culturally responsive language pedagogies. Additional classroom-based research, including ethnographic studies and collaborative design-based research with practitioners, will help us move in this direction.
…argue that the ideological construction and value of standardized language practices are anchored in what we term raciolinguistic ideologies that conflate certain racialized bodies with linguistic deficiency unrelated to any objective linguistic practices. That is, raciolinguistic ideologies produce racialized speaking subjects who are constructed as linguistically deviant even when engaging in linguistic practices positioned as normative or innovative when produced by privileged White subjects. (p. 150).
Specifically, a raciolinguistic perspective seeks to understand how the White gaze is attached both to a speaking subject who engages in the idealized linguistic practices of whiteness and to a listening subject who hears and interprets the linguistic practices of language-minoritized populations as deviant based on their racial positioning in society as opposed to any objective characteristics of their language use. (p. 151).
Such a move requires another shift in our methods as we reposition our analysis away from comparing racialized groups in schools to their White counterparts. It also requires that researchers resist powerful ideologies of language that has always mediated educational policy and practice. As noted in this section, future work in this area must attend to race explicitly and address how racist discourse circulates in educational contexts, particularly in schools where children and youth of color are continually marked for their racialized language practices.
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