A Response to Paul Beehler -- Part 2 of 3

This is the second of three connected posts. If you haven't, it will help to read the first post, "A Response to Paul Beehler -- Part 1 of 3." 

Tricks of Diluted Language 

I need to be straight here, but I also want to be compassionate. I think, Beehler means to do good teaching, to help all students. I do not fault him for that. I fault his arguments for what they lack. Beehler makes several arguments about teaching writing and language today that ignore the histories and politics of language and its judgement, and this makes his arguments white supremacist in their outcomes among diverse students in schools. Beehler claims that
Theoretically speaking, a common, or standard, language can be the gateway through which all individuals can fully participate in society because participation occurs through the nexus of a common language, whichever that language may be, as Smitherman noted in her reflection of the 1960s and 1970s debates. (166, original emphasis) 
He’s arguing that the exclusionary nature of a single standard is the method for inclusion in a society that appears to only accept one kind of English as proper or correct. For Beehler, exclusion is inclusion. It’s a contradiction that seems okay if we accept the unexamined premises of an unjust world, like the Orwellian Party’s slogans, “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “ignorance is strength” (Orwell 4). In our world, the slogan is: Standard English is the only English worth using. It's a trick. To see it, you have to know the history of what we have come to understand is "Standard English."

Book Covers for Orwell's 1984. 
Beehler then moves to criticisms of social justice pedagogies that are promoted for writing classrooms. He says that these pedagogies are ways that teachers either avoid teaching language (read avoid teaching a standardized English); don’t pay enough attention to learning because too much attention is paid to other social justice concerns; or in the case of code-meshing, dilute the “clarity” of their students’ languages -- that is, using code-meshing in classrooms is a “subtle displacement of Standard English” (166) and results in students using language that is unclear and diluted.

“Diluted,” it’s an important word for Beehler. He uses versions of it to reference students’ uses of other Englishes a few times in the article (166, 167). It's deficit thinking.

Now, there is some truth to his argument. If you focus on one thing, say the racial politics of language and its judgement in a writing classroom, you have less time to do other things, like teach directly a standardized English. That's true, but the politics of English languages and their judgement in the world is vital to doing English in ethical, humane, and compassionate ways. Everyone needs compassionate literacy education, as much as they need practice at communicating clearly and effectively to others. In fact, these are synonymous in my teaching.

Beehler frames this teaching problem as an either-or problem. Either you teach directly a standard, or you don’t. Either you prepare students to be successful by using a single standard, or you don’t. I do not accept this either-or logic. Not teaching ONLY a single, dominant, standardized English can mean good learning, critical learning, empowering learning, learning that is not colonizing and racist and white supremacist, and still prepare students to ethically communicate in their futures, as well as their presents. Ignoring politics is not good language teaching or learning. It ignores the trick of so-called Standard English.

To promote one version of English in a classroom is a power move, and it has uneven effects on various groups of students. Not doing this has other effects, equally political. Doing language means doing politics. We engage in power relations when we language. It’s important to pay attention to these power relations, to understand their uneven effects, and work to create outcomes that are socially just, or equitable. But Beehler ignores all of this in favor of allegedly saving his students, helping them to blindly insert themselves into a white supremacist, Capitalist systems that only accept one kind of English because no one like him dares to try to do something else. I don't think this is our only option.

What's In a Standardized English?

Beehler’s emphasized phrase in the above passage is meant to suggest that the standard English referenced here could be any accepted language, that there is nothing inherently racialized about the current standard English that is commonly accepted as such. But wait, just like those ancient Babalonians, we do not live in a theoretical world where just any English has had the conditions historically to be in power, to be common, to be the standard. I believe writing teachers must teach from this historical, politicized, critical knowledge, not despite it, even when they also must paradoxically offer a standardized English to their students.

In our present world, a standardized English is not just the standard used in schools, civic, and business settings, it is a standard that has been created as such in these places by middle to upper class, monolingual English speaking white people, which confers privileges to that group of English users because they typically come to schools already using that brand of English. If we don’t pay attention to these politics and histories, we will reproduce the unfair and unequal racial hierarchies we currently have in schools and society.

Beehler wants language teachers to ignore history and its politics in order to promote his group’s language practices, or at least promote the language practices he knows best. And he argues this in a typical whitely way that ends up producing the same kinds of racial inequalities one finds historically in the U.S. And when his students do not want, or cannot mimic well enough (in his judgement) whatever mysterious standard he is looking for (remember, he never actually defines clearly what that standard is, mostly because it is impossible to do so and get anything like universal agreement), then his students are to blame, not the historical and social structures that determine the language practices of everyone, not the politics of language that maintain a white English in schools and society.

But his argument can sound logical because his argument is one that promotes what is good for all students. When you miss the politics and histories and focus on our intentions as teachers, it’s easy to miss the white supremacy in the outcomes of our actions. The world we do language in is one that historically has made a standard English from a white, middle to upper class, monolingual English group in the Western world. We don’t get the privilege of ignoring this fact. If we ignore it, then we do harm to many people who do not already fit into that group. We blame them for the languages they inherit from their families and affinity groups. We punish them for coming from the places they do.

I should make clear that I do not believe that Beehler is trying to be white supremacist or racist. In fact, I think he is trying to do the opposite, and that’s why his argument is so instructive to us all. This is how white supremacy happens today. Beehler’s arguments promote white language supremacy from someone who is not a white supremacist.

Same Song, Different Singer

His argument is reminiscent of past, more malicious efforts. For instance, to say that the use of code-meshing, or the mixture of various Englishes and other language codes in classrooms, amounts to a “dilution of clarity” participates in an elitist and white supremacist tradition. It frames the languages of people of color as deficient and less than white people’s. It assumes that we can place all instances of English on a linear scale, that some are pure, while others are diluted, polluted, and less communicative. Beehler's ideas amount to a pedagogy of exclusion, which in the past was an ideology of racial extermination. Here, I see this as white language supremacist pedagogy.

Compare Beehler's argument to the noted historian, journalist, KKK member, and eugenist, Lothrop Stoddard. In 1920, Stoddard was concerned about peoples of color across the globe infiltrating and multiplying in the white centers and white places of property. In The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, he argues that there are inner and outer dikes in the world. The outer dikes are places where there are mostly people of color, but the inner dikes are those places in the world where people of color are increasing, and this threatens both whites in those places and their natural dominance to own and occupy such inner dikes. The inner dikes were to be protected by whites for their progeny. They were valuable, important. He argues for eugenics as a solution, and we hear a similar dilution theory in Stoddard’s words:
But in a community of many races, there is either cross-breeding or there is not. If there is, the children of such cross-breeding are liable to inherit two souls, two temperaments, two sets of opinions, with the result in many cases that they are unable to think or act strongly and consistently in any direction. The classic examples are Cuba, Mexico, and Brazil. On the other hand, if there is no cross-breeding, the diversity exists in the original races, and in a community full of diverse ideals of all kinds much of the energy of the higher type of man is dissipated in two ways. First, in the intellectual field there is much more doubt about everything, and he tends to weigh, discuss, and agitate many more subjects, in order to arrive at a conclusion amid the opposing views . . .
The moral seems to be this: Eugenics among individuals is encouraging the propagation of the fit, and limiting or preventing the multiplication of the unfit. World-eugenics is doing precisely the same thing as to races considered as wholes. Immigration restriction is a species of segregation on a large scale, by which inferior stocks can be prevented from both diluting and supplanting good stocks. Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria by limiting the area and amount of their food -supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat, where its own multiplication in a limited area will, as with all organisms, eventually limit its numbers and therefore its influence. On the other hand, the superior races, more self-limiting than the others, with the benefits of more space and nourishment will tend to still higher levels. (259-260)
Diversity only in groups, not among them. Exclusion allows for the right kind of diversity in those included. Exclusion, therefore, is diversity. Cross-breeding creates unmixable souls in one body. Higher types and lower types that must be separated. Inferior stocks diluting good stocks, which must be limited and prevented. Groups of people likened to bacterial invasions that need starving out so that superior races can prosper.

There are parallels here between the logic and language of Beehler and Stoddard. The only difference is that Stoddard is a self-avowed white supremacist, and Beehler is not. Beehler is trying to do the right thing, but because he doesn’t acknowledge the importance of the politics and histories of race in language standards, his pedagogical ideas easily participate in white supremacist historical projects. We live among language systems already made racist. There is nothing sacred about the inner dike of standardized English, except that white people have used it, promoted it, and understand it as the most effective way to communicate.

Stay tuned for the third and final installment in this extended critique in the next few days.