Blogbook -- Still Resistances to Believing in White Language Supremacy
Now, some may still be resistant to the idea that language can be racial. Some may still find it hard to believe that today the dominant ways with words and standards for communication in our classrooms and the broader society come from, favor, and afford privileges to White people more than anyone else. They may say that because those privileges are not doled out equally to all White people that there are no privileges being doled out. They may also try to point to a few BIPOC who take on habits of White language and are rewarded for it.
Some may also argue that what we teach in the literacy classroom is just apolitical English, just language, just clear and effective communication for everyone. And in fact, they will say language has no race. Clear communication does not depend on one’s racial designation. So how can we have White language supremacy? Everyone has equal ability to learn any version of English. Good grammar or clear communication is not racial in nature and so cannot be racially White. It’s just words, usable by anyone, and used in particular ways that we agree upon as effective.
Some may even think that what I’m saying in this blogbook is hurtful to BIPOC. They may think that I’m arguing that BIPOC cannot learn the dominant standardized Englishes typically expected in schools, that not to teach everyone this kind of languaging hurts BIPOC, sets them up for failure later on, and even is racist teaching because it assumes that BIPOC students don’t have the ability to learn those dominant standardized Englishes.
All of these arguments ignore a number of things important to race and language. They ignore racialized patterns of failure and oppression of BIPOC in classrooms and society in favor of a few exceptions to this rule. Exceptions are not strong evidence to overturn or ignore the rule in society, the patterns. Focusing on exceptions entices many to ignore the racial dimensions of our intersectional identities in favor of other dimensions, like cognitive ones or one’s based on class and geography (see graphic representation from Community business, Intersectionality and Multiple Identities).
While our languaging is influenced by more than our racial affiliations, throughout history race and the languages that travel with groups of people have circulated together, influencing each other. We don’t escape this fact just because we see a few in our midst who defy the patterns in our schools and colleges. A kinder way to say this is that the above kinds of arguments often ignore race as a factor because they don’t want to ignore other social factors in life, such as class and geography, or perceptions of lazinessness, or neurodiversity. And of course, we shouldn’t ignore any of these important dimensions of people when we consider what language is, how to teach it, and how it is judged in the world.
But what dimension is going to be prioritized and why? What social dimension that affects our languaging is most salient in your classrooms? How do you know? I don’t know these answers for you, but I can say that race, and perhaps gender, might be understood as master domains. If we understand how they generally affect our languaging and judging, then we have a template for how other social dimensions may affect languaging and its judgement.
Additionally, the above arguments ignore where all languages come from and evolve, that is, language evolves in groups of people who are also distinguished by race and other social dimensions in the world. This makes the languages that groups create and use racialized as much as classed, gendered, geographically marked, etc. Biases travel with these linguistic racial markings. And this makes sense because language and dialects of a language have racial associations because they circulate idiosyncratically in the world among groups of people who are already racialized. We can, and should, notice such racial markings in languaging, as we avoid ranking such marked language on a scale of value or efficacy in our classrooms. This noticing allows teachers and students to have our languaging biases and expectations, our habits of language, while also continually coming to understand these language habits in critical ways, ways that reveal the politics of our languaging.
A good example of this is “linguistic profiling” (see the video above). Everyone participates in it to some degree. John Baugh, the inventor of the term, studied voices in phone calls to learn just how pervasive linguistic profiling was and its effects. Baugh found that linguistic profiling occurred pervasively and had racist consequences for Black and Latine voices, but not for voices that sounded like standardized English, that is, White voices (note 142).
In a different set of studies, Princeton researchers found pervasive racist linguistic biases in computer algorithms on the Internet, in such technologies as search engines and algorithms that process language in resumes. They found that the algorithms had the same biases that people do. Black sounding names were associated with “unpleasant” words while White sounding names were associated with “pleasant” words (note 143). Not only is our linguistic profiling pervasive and difficult to notice in our daily lives, but even our technologies are racist and can exhibit White language supremacy. This is part of what Ruha Benjamin (see picture) calls, "the new Jim Code."
These ideas are true, but they do not negate the existence of White language supremacy. One’s ability to do something and one’s access to the conditions it takes to learn that something in the time and manner expected in our schools today are not the same variables in any system or person. And in our society and school systems, these variables tend to benefit White middle and upper class people because our society’s systems and schools are designed to do this.
And part of this systemic design is the fact that SEAE comes from a particular elite White group of language users. Those people will of course gain benefits in a course, college, or school that uses that SEAE as the target version of English. Again, White language supremacy is designed in our schools and society.
Of course, just because everyone has the ability or capacity to learn SEAE in school doesn’t mean everyone has the same access to learning that language, nor does it mean that everyone comes into the classroom with the same proximity to the habits of language that SEAE prioritizes. That is, it is easy to forget that students come into the classroom starting in different places and have different conditions in their lives that afford or limit their learning. Some of these starting places are preferred and rewarded because they already match the languaging expected of that classroom. Parents’ education and habits of language at home, issues of food scarcity and housing insecurity, crime and issues of safety in students’ lives, for example, all affect students’ access to learning SEAE, and their starting places.
These risk factors are often more tenuous in BIPOC students’ lives because historically BIPOC have been oppressed by most or all of society’s systems, housing, banks, jobs, education, justice, police, etc. Oppression is an inherited condition. It is systemic and historical. You don’t get to choose who your parents are, nor the money and jobs they have, nor the life-chances they got twenty or thirty years ago, nor their parents’ life-chances and opportunities. You don’t choose how safe your childhood neighborhood was or how many grocery stores there were nearby. Oppression in systems like ours is not a choice. It is a condition we find ourselves in or we don’t. When we forget or ignore this fact, we can easily blame the oppressed for their problems and seeming lack of merit and ability.
And so, our capabilities toward language may be equally distributed in all of us, but our conditions in life are not equal. Furthermore, if language is more than words, as Gee’s definition of Discourse shows (see post 23), then expecting all students to use SEAE and determining their success and grades based on how well they mimic it, means we privilege White languaging, that is, White bodies, habits, dress, dispositions, voices, etc. White students, then, get advantages, and it's easy to fall into the trap of comparing those White students’ languaging to BIPOC or other students who do not come into the classroom already using some form of SEAE or inhabiting a body with White racial markers.
It’s easy to be fooled into believing that because some of our students can do SEAE in a particular way today that everyone can if they just tried harder. This is also why a teacher’s implicit biases are so important to understand and continually investigate. No matter how fair or impartial we think we are, we have biases. We use them to judge because that is what judging is. It’s the exercising of bias. It’s the applying of our biases to a particular case of something.
Write for 15 minutes.
Take an inventory of your educational background, both formal and informal, as it has influenced your languaging.
Who were your parents and what did they do for a living? Did they go to college? If so, where? What college did you go to? What was your major and what books did you read? What were the conditions of your schooling? Did you have to work full time and go to college? Who were your friends in college? What were their majors and what do they do now? List these people and things.
Think of all these people and elements of your educational experiences as influences. How would you identify each influence racially?
And at an historical level, we can see White language supremacy too. It shows us how difficult it is for any teacher, classroom, or school to avoid participating in White language supremacy. Who has voiced the rules of language in your schooling history, in your training, in your college or high school classes? I mean, who are the people, the teachers, the books, the authors, the models? Where did they come from? Are most or all of them White? What kind of English do these people and texts use? What about in the school in which you teach? Are most of the literacy and language teachers White? If you match national trends, then you’d have to say yes.
Nationally, 80% of all elementary and secondary teachers are White, while only 49% of all the students they teach are White (note 144). In colleges and universities, the faculty racial demographics are just as unbalanced. As of 2018, the vast majority of faculty were White (see graphic above), with those with the most power and stability (full time Full professors) being more frequently White and male (note 145). These historical and structural conditions make White language supremacy too.
But let’s look at White Language supremacy from another historically structural angle, textbooks used in schools. Look for a grammar or writing textbook written by a BIPOC author. You will not find one. They are so rare that I’ve never found one. All the authors are White. Imagine yourself as a student of color (some of us do not need to). Imagine the implicit but continually reinforced notion that English language grammar and writing textbooks only come from White authors, year after year, classroom after classroom, textbook after textbook. Would it be reasonable to think, or assume, that White people are the originators of and embody the standards of English languaging in any classroom? How do you think these conditions colonize your own mind as a BIPOC student, or a White student, or teacher?
Let’s get a bit more specific. Who writes the most popular English language grammar books and style guides, the ones often used in college classrooms? Let’s say, the ones used in college where you and your teacher-colleagues were trained? All of these English grammar and style guides are written by White, mostly male authors who often are from the East coast. And each book offers the same habits of White language, usually as rules to follow, not descriptions of a particular group’s habits of language and judgement. That is, they are prescriptive not descriptive.
And what of the most popular style guides outside of school? The top style guides sold on Amazon are written by White men from the East coast. But really, there’s no competition. Strunk and White’s classic style guide has been and still is the most used of any. In fact, it’s also the most assigned textbook, bar none, of any textbook assigned in all college syllabi from across the nation, according to the Open Syllabus Project, which archives and draws on 7,292,573 syllabi as of this writing (note 146). The next closest textbook is also a writing textbook, Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference. She is also a White author from the east coast, but her book is not really a style guide. It’s a grammar textbook.
reviewed or rated 80,469 times, with an average rating of 4.15 (out of 5). It receives on average several hundred additional ratings each month. Nearly half of all the ratings (46%) give it 5 stars. As a way to compare those ratings, the next two closest style guides of English in terms of numbers of ratings are William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, and Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014). Zinsser’s book was first published in 1976, and has an average rating of 4.25 by 23,901 readers. Pinker’s book has an average rating of 4.06 by 7,220 readers. This means that for every one reader of Pinker’s book who rates it, there are over eleven who read and rate Strunk and White. For every one of the over 80,000 readers who rated Zinsser’s book, there are over three readers of Strunk and White’s.
By these measures, Strunk and White’s guide is by far the most influential English style guide in the last 100 years. But Pinker and Zinsser are not that dissimilar to Strunk or White. Pinker is a Harvard cognitive psychologist and linguist, who was born in Montreal, Canada, and received his PhD at Harvard. His father was a lawyer, and mother was a vice-principal of a high school, while his grandparents owned a small, Montreal necktie factory. William Zinsser was born in New York to upper class parents, attended private schooling in Massachusetts, and graduated from Princeton. He was a journalist and editor for the New York Herald Tribune, and taught at Yale and Columbia. Pinker’s and Zinsser’s backgrounds offer similar conditions and credentials that Strunk and White had.
William Strunk was born in Cincinnati. His father was a teacher and lawyer. Strunk got his Ph.D. at Cornell, then taught there for 46 years, where E. B. White met him as his student. E. B. White was born in Mount Vernon, New York to upper class parents. His father was the president of a piano firm, and his mother was the daughter of the famous American painter, William Hart.
Write for 30 minutes.
Make a list of all the books you read in the last three years. What were they about and who were their authors? If you need to, do a bit Googling to find out about each writer, their preferred gender, race, and ethnic background, as well as their education. Did they go to college? Where? Do they use more than one language? Which ones? You may also do this same listing with the books you checked out from the library alone, or the books on your reading bookshelf, or on your Kindle.
Now, calculate a crude ratio for your reading practices. Let’s call it your White language supremacy index.
# of White writers read
# of All writers read
What do you make of your index? If your index is close to 1, that means you have read almost an equal number of BIPOC writers as White writers. The larger your number, the more White language supremacist your reading practice likely is.
How racially diverse are the writers and texts you have found yourself reading in the last three years? Don’t try to make excuses. Just notice this. What factors contribute to your reading list and your index? How has race been a factor?
The point I’m making is this: White men like these have created our language habits and standards from their places, the people around them, and the schools they attended. And because as teachers and educators, we’ve ignored how these places, people, and their languaging are racialized, we have a difficult time talking about -- or even acknowledging -- standards of English as White language supremacy in our classrooms. These elite White men’s languaging norms are so ubiquitous as standards that they seem neutral, like we’re just asking for clear and effective language in classrooms.
And so, to resist the idea that White language supremacy is the actual conditions in our classrooms is to resist the facts of history and who has determined the standards of language we inherit. We should not resist this history or the systems that make us and our languaging habits. We should find ways to be honest with ourselves about our own participation in White language supremacy. We should investigate every day with our students and privately our own habits of language and judgement. And we should cultivate antiracist orientations and actions to counter it all.
This blog 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 to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.