Blogbook -- White Language Supremacy and the Golden Rule
Up to this point, I’ve offered a way to think about racism and White supremacy in our literacy and language classrooms and society as racist discourse. This allows a teacher to consider racism as historical and structural, growing out of particular ideas about race in Western European thought and traditions that all work in concert with societal structures and institutions (see posts 5 and 6). This allows racist discourse to get used to do a number of things in the world, to organize our lives and languages, all of which can be considered racial or racist projects (see posts 3 and 4).
Racist discourse (see posts 9 and 10), then, is a mutually reinforcing dialectic (see post 18) in much the way Marxism offers its dialectic (base and superstructure). The Marxist dialectic describes how people behave and come to know themselves and their world. It’s an analytical tool for investigating one’s life conditions, and the meaning and significance we might make of our lives. The dialectic can also be used to critically investigate one’s life and choices (or the choices presented to the person).
Similarly, the dialectic that can be analyzed in racist discourse consists of conditions, materials, and outcomes in the world that amount to verum-certum (things achieved and certain) on one side, and language, symbols, logics, and explanations that amount to verum-factum (facts made by people, often through words) on the other (see post 16). Both sides reinforce or validate each other to create racist common sense in the world. Because it’s structural, built into the systems that make our society and ourselves, racist discourse is often unacknowledged standard operating procedures (SOPs). Racism is the status quo.
So, we often experience racism as just the way things are, which makes it hard to recognize by many. It appears to be many other things. And this is because it is also those other things, language standards, economics, banking policies, behaviors, etc. This can also make It seem fair to many people much of the time. Understanding racist discourse helps a literacy or language teacher build an antiracist orientation by having an informed philosophy of race and racism that accounts for both sides of the dialectic and provides a way to interrogate literature, language, and standards for judging language, ideas, and people. We need theories that connect historical racism with our languaging, and this includes how and why we judge language in the ways we do.
As I discussed in post 22, antiracist orientations that work from a cogent and informed philosophy of race and racism, such as my formulation of racist discourse, usually engage with at least twelve habits, which can be grouped into three areas. What I have not discussed, but have referenced a few times, is White language supremacy.
I now turn more directly to this topic. I will discuss this phenomenon in the literacy and language classroom and in society. It is a part of racist discourse. It may be difficult for some to accept some of what I have to offer, especially since it will appear that I’m either suggesting that clear and effective communication is arbitrary and perhaps elusive, or that teachers have very little to offer their students in classrooms since we are all different and come to language differently. I do not advocate either of these positions.
I do hold that the dominant ways in which teachers of all stripes have come to language and obtain their positions as literacy teachers is by mimicking an elite, White, middle- or upper-class, monolingual English language. This English language, along with the standards that go with it, is only one way to do language, communicate, think, reflect, and understand ourselves and the world. Yet it is used as a singular, universal, yardstick to determine grades, success, intelligence, and opportunities in schools and our society at large.
Languaging in White Language Supremacy
James Paul Gee, the recently retired Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and a Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University, defines “Discourse” in a similar fashion, and his description is a useful way to understand my use of “language” as both a verb and a noun that encompasses a wide range of things. Gee says that “what is important is not language, and surely not grammar, but saying-(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations. These combinations I call ‘Discourses,’ with a capital ‘D’” (note 132). Gee’s Discourse, and my use of language, then are both kind of like embodied toolkits that we have to use to be (to exist), to judge, and to communicate in the world.
Let me use a different metaphor, using language is like using a car. Communicating is driving around in your car with people in it. So my use of “languaging” references simultaneously a number of things: the particular kind of communication car you drive people around in; what that particular car has available in it and its capabilities; and how you drive that car, what roads you take us on, how fast you go, etc.
This is all to say that to language is not just to express ideas or communicate. Gee explains: “Discourses are ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes.” So when I say that my use of “language” is like Gee’s “Discourse,” I mean that it’s embodied, performative, and linguistic, that it is more than a vehicle for communication. It’s also how you’ve tricked it out, and where and how it’s driven.
How we language with each other uses gestures, our bodies, clothes, habits, dispositions, etc. This is why communicating through words on a page or screen is so difficult and invites multiple meanings and translations of what’s communicated. While textual languaging affords a number of things, it is still stripped of many of the bodily cues and other markers of meaning that people use to make sense of communication. We don’t see or experience the actual human body that created the textual words we read. We have fewer cues and markers of meaning to go by in order to make sense of the languaging we are experiencing.
Thus when I talk about White language supremacy, I mean more than one White group’s habits of communicating in a textual or linguistic manner, more than a standard of writing, more than a cannon of White authors’ books, more than a dominant way to communicate in speech, more than a dominant way to judge words and students in classrooms. I mean that White language supremacy carries with it preferences for certain, to use Gee’s terms, “words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes . . . social identities, as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes.” To put it bluntly, we language ourselves in the world, and this languaging is fully embodied and social.Braiding Sweetgrass, she speaks of learning the language of her people, the Potawatomi, in a class by the remaining fluent speakers of the language. As of 2013 when the book was published, only nine fluent speakers of Potawatomi existed in the world, a dying language, a dying people. One of those nine elders, all of whom are old and frail, a “great-grandmother,” speaks to the class: “The language is the heart of our culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the world. It's too beautiful for English to explain” (note 133). Language is our culture’s heart, is our thoughts, is our way of seeing, is our tribe’s beauty.
Our languaging is often too beautiful for other languaging.
And so, our languaging in the world is how we exist in a number of ways and perform and embody our identities. Teaching and expecting only one version of English languaging in our classrooms means we value only one kind of student, who is already gendered, classed, raced, and abled, among other things. So that standard for English languaging carries with it a whole set of embodied and racialized assumptions about who the student is or should be, where the student comes from, or should have. We too often ignore the nature of languaging when we teach only one tribe’s words and habits of language. This allows us to use inhumane excuses to teach and promote a singular dominant elite White English in our classrooms. What I’m speaking of is the preparation argument.
We often make the excuse that because other so-called “real world” spheres, like business or the next class or college, will expect an elite White brand of English from our students tomorrow, that today we must grade using our version of that same standard. Promoting one version of English languaging, a single standard, overly values elite, masculine, abled, heterosexual, White bodies, gestures, and language habits. It overvalues habits of White language, which means it overvalues masculine, abled, heterosexual, White bodies in our classrooms. It does this at the detriment of Brown and Black languaging and bodies, disabled bodies, bodies marked in many other ways. Thus the effects of such White language supremacy in classrooms is quite uneven.
Now, we can (and should) still offer our students our judgements of their languaging from our perspectives, which are important for them to hear or see. But to try to make all of our students' languaging like ours (teachers’) is blatant colonization. It’s a recipe for inequality and for the continued dominance of habits of White language at the expense of others’ embodied languaging. It is participating in White language supremacy without naming our standards of language as racially White.
So what is White language supremacy exactly? It is the historical conditions in classrooms, schools, and society where rewards for mimicking habits of White language are given in determined ways to people who can most easily reach them, because those people have more access to those preferred and embodied habits of language, and part of that access is a structural assumption that what is reachable at a given moment for the normative, White, monolingual English user is equally reachable for all. So White language supremacy refers to conditions that are set up by racist discourse that we have inherited, and that are too often considered normal and neutral.
Now, White language supremacy does not directly reference opinions or beliefs about a superior race, or skin color. It mostly operates outside of such explicit beliefs and ideas, even as it produces White language privilege. White language supremacy is a condition set up historically that reproduces unfair and unequal racial hierarchies through its outcomes. These outcomes are products of racist structures in school and classroom systems. It is a very particular and ubiquitous kind of racist discourse in schools and in literacy and language classrooms.
This also means that White language supremacy is not about White people behaving badly. This is why we can have racism without racists, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s important sociological studies show us (note 134). We can have good intentions, be good people, demand “clear and logical” writing from students, yet through our language standards and judgements we end up promoting White language supremacy because those standards and expectations come historically from a White racial formation in the Western world and tend to accrue benefits to White racial groups.
And I’m not saying here that BIPOC students cannot learn a dominant White standard of English. Of course we can. I'm saying that it's unfair to ask us to do this and not ask White students to learn a new English themselves. I'm talking about the structures in our classrooms and society that make such an ask seem reasonable and even fair.
I’m talking about the structural and systemic ways that such a standard already confers benefits to students who come to the classroom already embodying White habits of language, and that we just accept this privilege as something other than White raciolinguistic privilege. I’m talking about how when we use singular standards they always end up hurting BIPOC and poor students more than middle and upper class White students today. I’m talking about languaging benefits that travel with groups of people and that work apart from what people can or cannot do.
Just because I got the ability to learn any English I put my mind and labor to does not mean that in schools and classrooms I’ll be treated or judged fairly when I use that new English, or that I’ll actually have equal chances at learning that English. History does not bear out these assumptions.
White groups of people still benefit most from school and classroom systems by having their languaging privileged over all others, or by more easily matching more of the markers of standardized languaging expected in schools. Additionally, all other languaging becomes seen or judged as deficient, and punished by lower grades and fewer opportunities. In short, when singular standards for languaging are used to decide grades and opportunities for everyone in schools, those schools and classrooms perpetuate White language supremacy.
Write for 15 minutes.
Consider the representations accessible or present to you in popular culture that symbolize smart or intelligent speakers and writers, and maybe ones less so, perhaps uneducated people. These representations may be characters in TV shows or movies, or in novels. They may even be ones in your head when you read things. If it helps, do a quick Google search for something like “movies about geniuses.”
What does a typical intelligent speaker or writer look like in popular culture? Name at least five examples. They aren’t hard to find. Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), or Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” (2014), Mckenna Grace in “Gifted” (2017). How are they racially represented? Where do these smart languagelings come from? How do they language?
None of us are immune to the influence of culture. How might such representations be a part of your judgements of language use in your classroom? You might look underneath your feedback to student writing or how you set up language activities, and how you describe appropriate language use?
If White language supremacy makes up the conditions in literacy and language classrooms today, then we have to NOT be conventionally fair with our standards -- that is, we can’t treat everyone’s languaging the same, as if they are the same. We cannot treat everyone as if they stand in the same spot in our educational or societal systems. We don’t all have the same relation to that dominant English language, nor to the power structures and politics that make that English dominant or that use it against students.
The majority of all of the world’s spiritual traditions confirm theologically this idea. The idea is that it is preferable and ethical to treat each person on their own terms, which includes judging them and their languaging. In Western traditions, this is called “the Golden Rule,” or “do unto others as you have them do unto you,” or “treat others as you would want them to treat you if the roles were reversed.” Harry Gensler, an ethics and philosophy professor at Loyola University has written several books on the Golden Rule. He concludes that it is as close to a universal tenet of all spiritual and religious traditions on the planet as one can get (note 135).
In 2008, 42 spiritual scholars and leaders got together in Geneva, Switzerland and wrote the “Charter for Compassion,” which began from a TED Talk by Karen Armstrong. The Charter for Compassion is offered as a way to alleviate inter-spiritual conflict and it centers on the Golden Rule (note 136).
On September 04, 1993 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 143 leaders from many of the world’s spiritual traditions signed “The Declaration of a Global Ethic,” which centered on the Golden Rule as universal. Because it so clearly can be applied to antiracist and anti-White supremacist work in classrooms, the opening of the declaration is worth reading in full:
We are interdependent. Each of us depends on the well-being of the whole, and so we have respect for the community of living beings, for people, animals, and plants, and for the preservation of Earth, the air, water and soil.
We take individual responsibility for all we do. All our decisions, actions, and failures to act have consequences.
We must treat others as we wish others to treat us. We make a commitment to respect life and dignity, individuality and diversity, so that every person is treated humanely, without exception. We must have patience and acceptance. We must be able to forgive, learning from the past but never allowing ourselves to be enslaved by memories of hate. Opening our hearts to one another, we must sink our narrow differences for the cause of world community, practicing a culture of solidarity and relatedness.
We consider humankind a family. We must strive to be kind and generous. We must not live for ourselves alone, but should also serve others, never forgetting the children, the aged, the poor, the suffering, the disabled, the refugees and the lonely. No person should ever be considered or treated as a second-class citizen, or be exploited in any way whatsoever. There should be equal partnership between men and women. We must not commit any kind of sexual immorality. We must put behind us all forms of domination or abuse.
We commit ourselves to a culture of non-violence, respect, justice, and peace. We shall not oppress, injure, torture, or kill other human beings, forsaking violence as a means of settling differences.
We must strive for a just social and economic order, in which everyone has an equal chance to reach full potential as a human being. We must speak and act truthfully and with compassion, dealing fairly with all, and avoiding prejudice and hatred. We must not steal. We must move beyond the dominance of greed for power, prestige, money, and consumption to make a just and peaceful world. (note 137)
While there are many things to highlight and embrace in this declaration that centers on the Golden Rule, let me point to just two things that have bearing on anti-White supremacist work in literacy and language classrooms.
In the fourth paragraph, the statement moves to acknowledging our interconnectedness as a human family. It lists a number of actions, behaviors, and orientations that fall into this category. It states: “No person should ever be considered or treated as a second-class citizen, or be exploited in any way whatsoever.” How does one get exploited or treated as a second-class citizen in a language classroom? Do we not use language and literacy as the means and ends of learning? If so, can’t one group’s language be used as a form of oppression by using it to grant both present and future opportunities in school and out of it? In your own grading practices, how do you treat some students as second-class citizens, or second-class languagelings?
In the final paragraph, the declaration moves to actions that must be done in order to achieve the Golden rule of ethics. It says: “We must strive for a just social and economic order, in which everyone has an equal chance to reach full potential as a human being.” In what linguistic place do you think any given student’s full potential as a human being lies? Does one kind of English have a monopoly on this? Do you think your habits of White language are the only way a student might achieve their full potential as a human being? If not, then why force that on everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from, who their parents are, or what they hope to do or be in the world? All of these things help make your students' languaging.
Thus, if we believe that treating others in ways that we would want to be treated is ethical and right, then we cannot have singular universal standards for language and judgement in literacy or language classrooms. It does violence to all of our students, and more so to our BIPOC and poor students. It causes domination as much as it may integrate many students into the current systems. I’m convinced that our current economic and civic systems are themselves in need of change, in need of being more structurally fair. We don’t live in a socially just society. If we did, you wouldn’t need this blogbook to help you teach.
Status quo teaching, the use of a single, dominant standard of English languaging is not compassionate teaching or assessing. It does not treat justly our BIPOC and other students on terms that they would agree to if they understood just how racist and how White supremacist and elitist that standard for languaging is. And most of us ain't teaching our language standards as unjust standards, ones that do violence to our students. Most of us teach them as things that help them be better tomorrow. But what we really mean is be different than who they are, and for BIPOC students this means be White.
Write for 5 minutes.
Consider the Golden Rule in your assessing and grading of student writing in your classroom. In a perfect world, how should you use this rule to design and implement a grading system for writing and other work? What would have to change in your school and classroom to make such a system work ideally? How would your learning goals for typical language assignments have to change? What factors work against using the Golden Rule in grading? Where do those factors come from?
We must do better and that means we must be brave. Teaching up to the Golden Rule means we acknowledge White language supremacy in our classrooms and schools, in our standards for English, and in our society. It means our response is to act compassionately and bravely and owning up to our complicity and participation in White language supremacy.
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.