Blogbook -- The Habits of White Language (HOWL)

Entry 28

To really understand what White language supremacy is exactly, and how we might decenter and counter it in our classrooms, we have to understand what the habits of White language, or HOWL, are. Their use and circulation is an important aspect of White language supremacy. HOWL can be used as a heuristic to help students identify these habits and critique them as they decide what they wish to take on as their own habits of language. 

All people have habits of language, ways of seeing, saying, and judging things, ideas, and other people. These habits afford our ways with words. They also, when understood from a thirty thousand foot view, constitute the dominant rhetorical moves that are considered appropriate or preferred in any given context. That is, when we pan back and look at the long view of history and the wide view of who controls language practices in schools, universities, professions, and disciplines, this long and wide view of language habits reveals that elite, White, masculine habits of language are the standards of correctness and appropriateness, of “clarity,” of the “logical,” and are considered what “audiences want.” But from another view, they are correct and appropriate and clear and logical because they are what elite, White masculine people in charge have wanted.

Geneva Smitherman, a groundbreaking and important Black scholar, a linguist, a University Distinguished Professor Emerita and the Co-Founder of the African American and African Studies program at Michigan State University, has published several books on the ways that Black people in the U.S. language. Her work is vital if you want to understand, for instance, habits of Black English language (note 181). From her extensive work, it’s clear that Black English is just as rule-governed and logical as the dominant White English is, yet it also shares deep structures with other Englishes (as discussed in post 27). I want to emphasize at this point that having habits of language and judgement, even ones from White racial groups, is not a problem. We need our habits of language. That’s how all language works. It’s when one group’s habits get used as the standard by which all other people are judged, regardless of their own habits or their goals as students or people.  

To complicate this, some of a person’s habits of language, or the way they language in the world, are idiosyncratic and hybrid. I, for instance, like using the word “judgement” not “judgment.” I like the first better because it leaves the “e” in the noun, which keeps the associated meanings that I see in the noun “judge” and the verb “to judge.” It reminds me that any judgement is made by a judge in the world who has a particular subject position, a particular orientation, and is a product of a subjective act of judging. That is, judgement comes from a judge who judges. There are no judgements that just appear or exist in the world. Judgements are the products of people who do things with language.  

I should make clear that the habits of White language below should not be used as essential, or in a way that may reify Whiteness as some static, monolithic construct in the way people act, speak, read, or think. Whiteness is a dynamic category of experience in the world, just as Blackness and Brownness are -- it’s phenomenological, and paradoxical at times. There are many ways to be and language Whiteness, just as there are for Blackness, or Latine-ness, etc., in part because these are racial dimensions that indirectly influence the ways we come to our languaging (note 182). So these habits can change historically and are in flux, just as all of our identities are. 

These habits, however, are a part of racist discourse, so are historical in origin, and a set of social structures that can often be difficult to discern or notice. Understanding them critically and using them in your own antiracist orientation is not about eliminating them. It’s about asking a few hard, brave questions about your own habits of language and how they circulate in your classroom -- how do you use them against students? The goal in these brave questions is to develop ways to use them in consciously antiracist ways. These questions can help a teacher shape their antiracist orientation toward their own HOWLing through brave, inner work. It takes time though. Again, it’s brave, ongoing work we all must do. 

  • How do I already use habits of White language (HOWL) in my teaching and judgements of students’ languaging? How do I enforce my habits of White language on my students in ways that may create or reify my own language habits as universally correct? How does standard language ideology (SLI) operate in my classroom or in my grading practices and assignments?  
  • How does HOWL make up what happens in my classroom and how I arrange students’, their language performances, my assessments, activities, texts, etc.? How might I be more self-conscious about my HOWLing at students? How might I contextualize, historicize, and racially politicize my habits of language when I practice them or offer them to students? 
  • How do I not use my habits of White language against my students, but use them with my students? How do I allow everyone’s habits of language to circulate and create critical juxtapositions in the classroom, in assignments, and in responses to language? 

Because they are a part of our systems, training, and school, HOWL are a part of all of us. The six habits that make up HOWL constitute paradoxes in our language in school and society. For instance, language diversity exists in the world, yet we need some agreements about language in order to communicate and understand each other. Forcing all students to language like you, or in one dominant way, both offers students ways to succeed like you and oppresses some more than others because of where they come from and how their languaging will be judged in the future by others. That is, your students cannot actually language in the world like you, just as you cannot do so like them, and this fact is more important as our subjectivities get farther apart, as we share few aspects of our social identities, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ability and disability, or neurodiversity. A teacher might ask: What are the deep structures of English that we all share and what are the unimportant surface structures? This may help us discern where our HOWLing begins to oppress and devalue others’ languaging. 

So think of the six habits below as historical embodiments of an orientation to the world, making the first habit (an unseen, naturalized orientation to the world) most central and necessary for any instance of HOWLing to be White language supremacy. The test of a habit or disposition as White supremacist, then, is in how it is used or deployed in the classroom, how it circulates, and what it produces both in terms of power relations and outcomes in students. Is the habit used as a standard for everyone? What orientation or position in the world and to language do your habits of language assume? Is that orientation really shared by all? What uneven effects or outcomes does your habits of language create in your classroom? What do your habits produce when you circulate them in your classroom? 

Often White language supremacy can be noticed in how HOWLing tends to reinforce, reproduce, or support conditions or outcomes that conform to the characteristics of “White supremacy culture” that Tema Okun has discussed (note 183).

Again, paradoxes will always exist. Contradictions are common in White supremacist systems because no one really wants White supremacy or racism as outcomes in the systems we live in, but that’s how the systems have been made. That’s what they reproduce. Racism is good for the health of the system, even as it is bad for the people in that system. Your classroom is not inherently made to be a racially fair or equitable place. So when you circulate habits of language in racially fair and equitable ways, it is counter to the already White supremacist culture. It likely will feel wrong at first, or like you aren’t doing your job. You will produce paradoxes or systemic contradictions (note 184). 

Unseen, Naturalized Orientation to the World -- This is an orientation, a starting point, of one’s body in time and space that makes certain things reachable. It assumes, or takes as universal, its own proximities or capabilities to act and do things that are inherited through one’s shared space. It can be understood as an “oxymoronic haunting,” leaving things unsaid or unstated for those in the classroom to fill in (note 185). It is often stated or understood as “clear only if know” (or COIK) (note 186). The authority figure knows precisely and assumes everyone else does too. When a teacher, writer, or authority embodies this habit, they often do not realize it, assuming that everyone has access to the things, language, concepts, histories, and logics that they do. In this way, the classroom, or an ideal paper, or an expected language performance becomes an extension of the White body, its habits, and its languaging in such a way that it is hard to distinguish it as an orientation, body, or space in the classroom. It’s just, for instance, a standard that is both associated with but understood as separate from, Whiteness and White bodies (note 187). 

Hyperindividualism -- This is a stance or judgement that primarily values self-determination and autonomy as most important or most valued. It often centers or assumes values of the self as an individual, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-control, which tends to also support logics like “survival of the fitness,” “free and open markets,” and competition as proving grounds for discovering the best or most ideal. It can appeal to ideals of universal truths and knowledge that come from inside the individual. This personal insight is often understood as universal insight. The logic is that everyone is the same because we are all the same inside, while also holding on to the importance and primacy of the individual, even the individual as the exception. Individual rights and privacy are often most important and construct the common good or what is best in society or groups. Thus the best outcome of a class or an assignment or activity is something personal, a personal grade, a personal insight or learning, a better draft, but not a benefit to the community, group, or class as a whole. In this way, the point of society, school, the classroom and its activities is to serve the interests and growth of the individual, not the community (note 188). 

Stance of Neutrality, Objectivity, and Apoliticality -- This is an orientation that assumes or invokes a voice (and body), or its own discourse, as neutral and apolitical, as non-racial and non-gendered. This is often voiced in the style of a “god-trick,” which is a universal vantage or viewpoint by which to know something else in a nonpolitical or purely objective way. It is a view that is outside the person speaking or expressing the ideas. Often, this stance also manifests as an urge toward universalism, or a one-size-fits-all mentality. Facts are just facts, not created or manufactured by people or processes or language. Contexts and histories are deemphasized or ignored. Ideas, from this orientation, can be outside of the people who articulate them. A rubric or set of language expectations in a classroom is assumed to be apolitical, outside of the gendered and racialized people who made it or use it (and the racialized and classed groups and places those people come from) (note 189).

Individualized, Rational, Controlled Self -- This is a stance or orientation in which the person is conceived of as an individual who is primarily rational, self-conscious, self-controlled, and self-determined. One’s own conscience guides the individual. Sight (ocularity) is the primary way to identify the truth or to understand something (i.e. seeing is proof; seeing is understanding; seeing is believing). This makes social and cultural factors into external constraints to the individual, which must always be ignored or overcome. Meaningful issues and questions always lie within the rational self. Individuals have problems, making solutions individually-based. Thus, both success and failure are individual in nature. In a classroom, failure is individual and often seen as weakness or confirmation of inadequacy, or a lack of control. Personal control of one’s self, body, and voice are important because it shows that the student or teacher is in control and rational. Often part of self control is the ability to continually work and stay busy, or be industrious and productive in approved (or predefined) ways within the system or classroom (note 190).

Rule-Governed, Contractual Relationships -- This habit focuses on the individual in a contractual relationship with other individuals, either formally or tacitly, that tends to be understood as benefiting the individuals in the contract, not the whole community or group. This can be seen in syllabi as one kind of assumed social and educational contract that is dictated by those in power (teachers and schools) for the assumed benefit of individual students. Additionally, a focus on or value in “informed consent” (often confirmed in writing) is important. Ideal relationships are understood to negotiate individual needs, individual rights, which are apolitical and universal. Meanwhile, socially-oriented values and questions are less important and often understood as inherently political (and therefore bad or less preferable). There is an importance attached to laws, rules, fairness as sameness and consistency, so fair classrooms are understood to be ones that treat every individual exactly the same regardless of who they are, how they got there, where they came from, or what their individual circumstances are for learning. Very little, if any, emphasis is given to interconnectedness with others, relatedness, or feelings in classroom arrangements, activities, and relationships. Individuals, whether they are students or teachers, keep difficulties and problems to themselves because the important thing is the contractual agreement made, which is about consistent (the same for everyone) policy (note 191).

Clarity, Order, and Control -- This habit focuses on reason, order, and control as guiding principles for understanding and judgement, as well as documents and instances of languaging. Thinking and anti-sensuality are primary and opposed to feelings and emotions. Logical insight, the rational, order (often linear), and objectivity are valued most and opposed to the subjective and emotional. Rigor, order, clarity, and consistency are all valued highly and tightly prescribed, often using a dominant standardized English language that comes from a White, middle- to upper-class group of people. Thinking, rationality, and knowledge are understood as apolitical, unraced, and can be objectively displayed. Words, ideas, and language itself are disembodied, or extracted, from the people and their material and emotional contexts from which the language was created or exists. Language can be separated from those who offer it. There is limited value given to sensual experiences, considerations of the body, sensations, and feelings. A belief in scientific method, discovery, and knowledge is often primary, as is a reliance on deductive logics. Other logics that often distinguish this habit in classrooms are those that emphasize usefulness or unity and pragmatic outcomes, all of which are predefined for students by authorities, such as the teacher (note 192).


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