Is the Assessment of Language Colonialist?

Dr. David Kirkland
My friend, David Kirkland (@davidekirkland), who is the Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and Associate Professor of English and Urban Education at NYU offered me a great question recently on Twitter. David tweeted: "the concept of assessment is always racist, or at least emerges from a set of colonial logics." Then he asks his question, "Would anti-racist ideas hold onto the practice of assessment, or would they search for another paradigm for communicating lessons and praise?"

I think, when David tweeted, he knew I'd agree with his premise about the origins of assessment (especially in schools), since we've talked about this subject when I invited him to speak at a previous institution of mine, the University of Washington, Tacoma, several years ago. What I really love about David and his scholarship is how quickly he gets to the core of a problem.

Is all assessment racist?

Yes, of course it is.


David equates the answer to a racist history of Western colonialism, where white, European powers dominated, enslaved, and forced their religions, trade, and languages, among other things, onto people of color all over the world -- and that colonial world of the past has built today's world. One arm of most colonial practices is to re-educate those being colonized. It's often in the name of making them better, smarter, or more civilized (according to Western European definitions and standards, of course).

This logic was famously (or infamously) stated by the British poet and novelist, Rudyard Kipling in 1899 in his poem, "The White Man's Burden." The first stanza gives you a sense of the alleged noble burden that white people should have toward people of color:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child 
The logic of colonialism, like most white logics of assessment, is destructively and dishonestly altruistic and falsely paternalistic. Here's how this logic circulates and exists in the real world. Someone or some school says that their language standards and test is good for you (the student), but it's not exactly your language, and you know you ain't gonna do well on that test, which is gonna hurt your chances for other things. But you know that the person or institution is a "good person" and their intentions are good. The school wants what's best for you, but you don't really want that English. You like your English. It works fine for you, feels comfortable in your mouth. But the school and teachers keep saying this other English standard and test is for your own good, for your future. It's the best way to communicate. It's how everyone succeeds in the life. When this happens and we accept the logic, then we all reenact the same kind of white supremacy in Kipling's poem. Our good intentions, singular standards, and assessments are destructively and dishonestly altruistic and falsely paternalistic toward our raciolinguistically diverse students.

Literacy teachers of all stripes reenact this same colonial, white logic and its racist consequences all the time when they grade with a single standard and disregard their students' desires for learning, and their languages, which includes varieties of Englishes. 

So classroom writing assessment is not altruistic. Like all colonial endeavors, it's about control people, maintaining power, and acquiring resources. It's about using the labor of people of color for those in power's benefit. It's the installment of English-based schools (and testing) by the U.S. government in the Philippines after the War in the Philippines (or the Spanish-American War). It's Native American Boarding Schools (or Indian Residential Schools) in the U.S. to "civilize" and "Christianize" the Native American kids. It's English-only instruction in school policies and programs in the U.S. today, such as in Arizona (the state I live in).

Re-education is about control by colonizing the minds of people of color, so they stop fighting, stop thriving on their own terms. Assessment, as David is suggesting, is central to this internal colonizing.

How does language assessment in an English classroom colonize exactly? It has to do with where the standards of the English language that is most dominant in the U.S. come from. Our standards for such literacy practices in schools come from white places and people. Who made our English language standards? Who do those standards most benefit when we look at the outcomes of their use today? Who do they harm?

I think, you know the answers. Those who already come to school from places that use white, middle to upper class English tend to benefit. And those not from such places and people do worse.

The problem, I think, most people have with this answer is not that they can't see the white privileging, or the white supremacy, in education, in its outcomes and standards. Although I don't think they'd call it privilege. It's just the results of hard work. And I don't deny anyone's hard work. What I do deny is that everyone's hard work is worth the same in schools and in language assessments. The problem is that when I or David say that all writing assessment in classrooms is racist -- and I'm saying also that it engages in white language supremacy -- many white people think that we're calling them racist or white supremacists. That's not accurate. We all live in white supremacist systems and participate in them, which is why David is asking his pointed question about antiracist ideas searching for other paradigms for teaching and learning, paradigms that are not of our present school systems. This ain't a question of whose racist or not. It's a question of how do we do something other than racism in our classrooms and schools when the only tools we have are racist ones?

I know that for some it's hard to imagine how a good-hearted, educated teacher who grades using a known standard could engage in white supremacist practices when they grade writing by that single standard, but that's what happens. Our intentions do not matter when it comes to how we act in systems already made racist. Racism happens in assessment because the only standards we have in schools and other places in society that hold dearly to things like "clarity" of expression or proper grammar are standards that come from one group of people and their life conditions. And that group has always been a white, middle to upper class, elite group of men from mostly the East coast of the U.S.

Now, David is also gesturing to the way that all assessment is a part of historical colonial systems. These systems are designed to sort, grade, rank, and categorize people and phenomena in order to control them. So another part of the racism of writing assessment is that our classroom practices mostly work to rank and grade, to categorize using that one standard. Categorizing is a racist practice that many like David Theo Goldberg (@theodavid) and Stephen Jay Gould had discussed, which began in the Enlightenment, and was closely associated with the European colonial and imperial projects all over the world.

Once you rank someone in some way, you can justify any theft or violence upon them -- any decision. Why? Because they are categorized as less, not worthy, less than, lazy, stupid, or not worth it. They don't deserve the scholarship, or the job, or your attention, or your time, or even your sympathy and compassion. When we do this categorizing today, we seemed to be talking about other things, not race, but it all leads back to race. In racist systems, race is always connected to non-racial things, like good communication. And what history shows us is that those who do the assessing always make the standards they use to judge. And those who make the standards have always assumed that they are at the top of those standards, that their lives, languages, and labors are exemplary, while others are not.

There is a difficulty is in seeing the paradox in this truth. A Standardized English is clear and offers many great things to people who use it together. But it is not the only way to do that communicating. It ain't the clearest way to express things, but it can be very clear. It is not a universal standard of "good writing," but it can be. And just because we have used it to rank and grade people by their languages in the past, does not mean that is a good thing to do, or the best thing to do, or the only thing to do in order to help folks come to their own languaging.

Back to the spirit of David's question. Where might we go from here as teachers? It's a problematic that each teacher and decision maker needs to continually ask and work through. I think we can take a lesson from Ibram X. Kendi's recent book, How To Be An Antiracist, which I hear David calling on in his question. Kendi says to be antiracist you have to do antiracist things. What he means is that in systems already made racist and white supremacist, antiracism is not simply abstaining from racism. We do not have that option in our world, or in our classrooms, or in our assessments.

A world without white language supremacy is not a world absent of racist intentions and ideas. It is a world that has the presence of anti-white supremacist ideas and structures.

In an anti-white supremacist classroom, assessment would operate differently, as David suggests. It would not categorize students using a single standard that by necessity must come from some place, not everywhere. Assessment might make human connections, pose problems, or acquire ways of hearing or seeing one's languaging efforts that emerge from interactions in that classroom. It would not be destructively and dishonestly altruistic nor falsely paternalistic. It would be something else entirely.