Blogbook -- Our Tacit Racist Tautologies
Now, I’ve mentioned a few times that racist discourse is a dialectic that is mutually reinforcing. What I mean is that racist language justifies and explains a racist world of racist judgements, actions, practices, and outcomes. At the same time, racist judgements, actions, practices, and outcomes justify the racist language. All the while, most of these judgements, actions, practices, and outcomes are not labeled as racist. This dialectic generates power. Think of it like a mobius strip, or a tacit racist tautology that ultimately produces racialized flows of power in particular directions, mostly toward middle and upper-middle class White people in Europe and America.
For these rich men, freedom was not the power to make choices; freedom was the power to create choices. England created the choices, the policies American elites had to abide by, just as planters created choices and policies that laborers had to follow. Only power gave Jefferson and other wealthy White colonists freedom from England. For Jefferson, power came before freedom. Indeed, power creates freedom, not the other way around. (note 94)
The power to dictate the discourse of race and so the discourse of racism would give those making such discourse further power over people. How? These elite White men of early America created governmental, property, economic, and other systems that gave them the power to create choices for everyone. And the range of choices they made available tended to benefit people like them, like avoiding the question of slavery or not acknowledging that those of African heritage are equal to Whites in all ways, or dictating the kind of English language acceptable in schools, colleges, newspapers, or civic spaces.
Race was explicitly important to who got what kinds of choices in early U.S nationhood. And we still live in those racist systems and with their consequences. Only today, we substitute other terms and references that all have become surrogates for race, such as: the language practices we use; where one lives (or has to); what one’s status is in the prison industrial complex (a felon or ex-felon?); what one’s GPA in school is, etc. So race is still important today in what kinds of choices are available to you by the racist systems all around us. Things are facially better today, sure, but racism exists in degrees. It’s not an either-or scenario. So, the question we should be asking is not: “is this system racist”? The question is: “how racist is this system?”
This is how racist discourse functions much of the time. It produces false choices or overly constrained and limited ones to some, then blames those people for not making choices they do not really have. Meanwhile the same system provides more choices, and relatively easier ones, to middle and upper class, heterosexual, abled-bodied, White people. Many of these choices are enabled by who can take on enough habits of White language and judgement.
How we talk and communicate in writing are often the most used surrogates for race, because we have a history of not connecting our languaging with the racialized communities that create the different forms of English that exist around us, and that get mobilized to do racist work in our world. Meanwhile we know and act on those tacitly raciolinguistic associations. Our school systems -- and all of us teachers -- pretend like we ain’t talkin about a racialized White set of standards of English when we teach from or with those standards in our classrooms. We say we are just teaching what students need in order to be successful tomorrow -- can you hear the racist surrogates in that reasoning? And this rationale may be true, but what is also true is that we are upholding the White language supremacy of the system and society that is doing much more harm than good.
When I teach writing in English in my classrooms, I am not trying to teach it in such a way as to help the students in front of me succeed in their careers or lives tomorrow. I am teaching to uplift those who are not in my classroom, those unable to get there because of racist systems that have kept them in enumerable ways out of college.
We know what Black English sounds like. We know the communities where such legitimate forms of English are created and sustained. But our school, testing, academic disciplines, and professional systems say it is not legitimate in those places, not because it comes from Black communities, but because it isn’t clear enough, because the profession says so, because it ain’t convention -- and all these reasons boil down to White language supremacist logic. Black English, like other dialects of English, are placed artificially in opposition to the White standardized English. And this false binary is set by a history of racism that doesn’t acknowledge the elite White groups of languagelings that our standardized Englishes come from. If we acknowledged this fact, we’d also have to acknowledge the White language supremacy in most of our systems in society and our -- teachers -- complicity in it all.
Let me give you two examples of how our tacit racist tautologies exist in classrooms and schools of all kinds. First, consider your own literacy or writing classroom. Who decides what assignments are given and graded? Who decides exactly what expectations that writing will have? Who determines and writes the instructions or guidelines for the assignment? Who decides how long students get to research, brainstorm, and draft those documents that are assigned? Who judges whether any student’s performance matches up to whatever standard is being used? Where did that standard come from and who controlled it and its language? Do students have any real, meaningful recourse if they disagree with a grade or evaluation made on their writing? Do students have any say in the making of standards or in their application in the class -- that is, do they have a say in how you grade or evaluate their performance using those standards?
Unfortunately, most of these questions are rhetorical for way too many literacy and writing classrooms. And when I say conventional, I mean classrooms whose assessment ecologies have not been carefully and explicitly designed as antiracist assessment ecologies. And we can fool ourselves into thinking that this mostly teacher-controlled classroom is “fair” and “right” because we, teachers, know more about literacy than students. And while this may be true in one sense, it is not completely true in all senses. We know more about our literacies, and those literacies are used in society and academia, but society and academia are from places of White language supremacy, places made mostly by elite White racial formations in history. So apparently what is fair and right is what is White language supremacy. If you ain’t an authority in habits of White language, then you don’t get to make the rules of the classroom. The rules of the classroom are made by someone who has a deep stake in White language supremacy. Do you see the tacit racist tautology?
My second example. Someone might argue that a school’s curriculum, standards for language, and testing are not racist for a number of reasons. The curriculum has BIPOC authors in it. The standards do not reference race but only what society generally wants from its graduates as communicators -- it’s just about effective communication that clearly exists in the world. The testing of language is blind and administered the same way to everyone. Everyone has the same chance to do well in the classroom and on the test. Furthermore, there are several Black students in the school who are on the honor roll, and the school has a Latina valedictorian. There are even a few Black and Latine teachers and a Black principal. These evidence, these conditions, create one side of the racist dialectic. The other side is the argument itself, the language of non-racism that says everyone is treated the same and there’s no racism here. BIPOC are in the system succeeding, even leading it.
But what gets missed in this kind of argument and examining of data is all the other data at the school that suggest the racist system. We can put aside the few exceptions and extraordinary individuals in any system or school. They are not the rule. They are the exceptions to that rule, as enticing as they are to point to. That’s why they are the principal and the valedictorian, or the few Black and Latine teachers in a sea of White teachers and students on the honor roll. They are the exceptions to the rule and patterns in the system. We must look at and point to the patterns that make up most of the system.
To find these other data that may suggest alternative views to this good school, we might ask some questions about the data that seems to make the school not racist. For instance, how many BIPOC authors are actually read and used in classrooms -- that is, what is the ratio to White authors? Who are these authors? How are they read and taught exactly? How do they counter dominant forms of English and literacy, or dominant habits of language? Is it still just Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Zora Neale Hurston? Do the texts read in classrooms discuss racial and other social issues of language justice? Do the texts from White authors discuss race or social justice issues in ways that do not use White habits of English language? What are the authors read in courses saying, and what are they avoiding? What is the nature of the use of BIPOC authors in classrooms? How much time is spent discussing them, and what effect do these factors have on BIPOC students in that school? Surely, curriculum and teaching affect students’ attitudes and chances of success in school.
I’ll say much more about standards of language in the next two chapters, so here, I’ll simply ask: How close to the school’s White language standard are the various racial and other social groups of students in the school? My guess is that the BIPOC and working class students are farther from it than White middle class students are. How are students’ home languages, the ways they come to school already languaging, honored and valued in the curriculum, in the standards used to grade and test them, in the assessments of language in classrooms?note 95).
If my school example is anything like the averages in the U.S., then the argument that the school is not racist is lacking. It assumes mostly universal conditions of fairness and equality, with very little evidence to uphold such an assumption. It ignores copious other evidence that point to systemic racism and it relies on exceptional individuals as the primary evidence of the lack of racism. It assumes that any author of color read in a classroom makes for an antiracist classroom curriculum. It doesn’t address the content and use of the BIPOC and White authors that may be read in classrooms. In short, it offers no evidence for how the system or its teachers or its principal or its curricula are antiracist -- that is, are oriented structurally against racism and against White language supremacy.
The argument uses the racist system’s assumption that language and standards, when administered consistently (the same way to everyone), cannot be racist or unfair. It backs this up with a few exceptionals of color. This logic assumes that language itself is an apolitical, unbiased system that can be divorced from the groups who use it, judge it in others, and make up standards. It’s an argument that can only work if a racist discourse is the norm, that is, if we ignore the tacit racist tautology operating in society.
This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.