Blogbook -- Confronting the Borderlands of the Language Race War

Entry 32

Let’s return to the CCSS, and drill down a level to the grade-specific standards that the anchor standard L.11-12.1 (from post 30) is translated into. Through the details, we might see ways to teach through such outcomes that may be demanded of literacy teachers at both the secondary and postsecondary levels. Many of us teachers are required to use such universal standards or outcomes.

The grade-level standards L.11-12.1.A and L.11-12.1.B are articulated for only eleventh and twelfth grades. And they are the more specific outcomes for classrooms. According to these two standards, eleventh and twelfth grade students should be able to do the following: “Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested” (L.11-12.1.A); and “Resolve issues of complex or contested usage, consulting references (e.g., Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Garner's Modern American Usage) as needed” (L.11-12.1.B). 

Standard 1.A expects students to apply an understanding of language as three things: conventions, practices that may change, and practices that are “sometimes contested.” So using language is primarily using a set of stable conventions, with an understanding that those conventions can change over time, and are sometimes contested. This standard when translated into lessons and curricula in classrooms too easily means the first item only: Teach the conventions of a dominant elite white English language, the ones teachers know, the ones in the literary canon, the ones used in colleges to train secondary English teachers, the ones in your grammar books and style guides, and the ones that will give you a higher score on the AP exam, but definitely not the ones most poor and minoritized students and their friends and families use on the daily. 

Are these white, middle- to upper-class English language standards and practices inherently bad or racist? No, not inherently. There is nothing inherently racist or white supremacist about an elite, white English or its grammar (to read more about this, see my post “Is Grammar Racist? A Response”). It may sound obvious, but no group’s English is universal nor apolitical, yet we treat one English as such in our classrooms, even though that English isn’t even unified or the same everywhere. We just talk about it as if it were the same in Delaware, California, Australia, and elsewhere. My point: It is how we use that English in our classrooms that makes the classroom participate in white language supremacy (WLS). 

That elite white English is like a hammer. Ain’t nothing bad about a hammer. It’s quite useful for putting nails into boards and building houses. It builds beautiful homes. But it’s not useful to drive screws into places, or saw an even edge, or open things. The hammer has its uses and contexts, and those uses and contexts are cultivated by particular people, people who found and cultivated uses for hammers. Now, my metaphor breaks down a bit, but my point is that there are lots of groups of people in the U.S. that use different versions of English, or variations of it. And yet, the English language referenced in the CCSS standard assumes a single universal standard of England. This is a primary battle front of the language race war. 

Even a casual investigation of English shows that there are no universals in language. Most Americans can probably recognize or list some differences in British and American English. There are lots of vocabulary and spelling differences we could list, lorrie for a truck or semi, lift for an elevator, and colour for color. But there are grammar differences as well. British English speakers often use the “-t” ending to indicate a past tense, such as “learnt,” or they may say, “at the weekend,” whereas Americans would usually say, “on the weekend.” In many parts of England, people use emphatic tags or phrases at the end of sentences, such as: “He’s a smart guy, is John” or “I was there at the game, so I was.” 

In Hong Kong, English is often used with some Cantonese at the ends of sentences to indicate similar kinds of emphatic meaning, such as “ar,” “la,” “ga,” and “wor.” In Hong Kong, you could hear the following exchange: 

    “My brother is coming to town tomorrow wor.” 

    “We have dinner together la!”

In this case, “wor” indicates new information offered, while “la” shows a suggestion (note 210). Thus, because we can find different Englishes all over the place used effectively to communicate, we should question a standard that holds one of those Englishes as universal or as the correct way to do English in all settings. To see and hear a discussion of Hong Kong English as code-meshed English, see the video below from Sampson Lee. 

Brave Work

Write for 10 minutes. 

Child development and language experts agree that the first three to eight years of a child’s life are critical in the language(s) they acquire and use the rest of their lives. Consider your first eight years of life: Where did you live? Who lived with you? What language activities did you do (i.e. talking, reading, playing with words or letters, games, TV or other media, etc.)? Where and with whom did you do those activities? 

After you’ve finished writing, look carefully at what you wrote. Read it. Who controlled your first years of languaging? How would you describe them and their language(s)? Did you share the same racial and gender positions as them? What economic and other material conditions dictated your languaging? How much control and decision-making power did you have?

The presence of multiple Englishes, and the code-meshed versions above, means one version doesn’t hold all of the keys, or even most of them, to meaningful and useful communication. One key to seeing this is that business is conducted globally in many different Englishes every day, and to good effect. These differences are patterned in societies by economics, geography, national borders, local customs and cultures, and the intermixing of nearby languages. Of course, all these things often are differences drawn along racial, social, and geographic lines.  

L.11-12.1.A doesn’t address these language facts, even as the standard appears to acknowledge them. It avoids them because they are messy. These language facts introduce racial and other politics into the literacy classroom. This standard avoids the racial politics of language and encourages teachers and students to assume that there are no politics in language, or at least, when we teach English, we don’t need to talk about its politics. And so, there appears to be only one standard -- that’s the message to students that gets reinforced. But this message is dangerous and works to linguistically colonize most of us who do not come to the classroom using the standardized English expected there. 

The CCSS standard assumes that to say, “he gone” instead of “he is gone,” is not political. It assumes that to judge the first case as wrong, substandard, or even inappropriate for some settings, is not a political act. But it is. It assumes that both ways of languaging are not equally important to how different people feel their languages in their bodies. But they are. It assumes that both are not vital to how each communicates to others and understands and relates to the world. But they are. It assumes that all our languaging is just a choice people make. But our languaging is not simply a choice. It is an embodied inheritance. It is an accumulation of habitual ways in the world with others in the places we commune. It is a product of circumstances that people mostly do not control.

You can see these assumptions in the grammar of the standard itself. It front loads dominant elite white English language conventions. The first understanding it offers is “that usage is a matter of convention.” This sets up elite white habits of language as primary, as first, since it simply assumes that there is a set of standard conventions that are the preferable way to do language, to communicate, to think, to reflect, to learn. It states this idea first, making it the most important idea in the statement. This is a political choice that has uneven consequences on locally diverse students. It is the standard’s tacit racial politics at work.

Acknowledging that there is a dominant set of English conventions is not the same as saying there should be. And it’s definitely not an imperative to teach only it, nor force all students to learn it, nor withhold society’s and schools’ opportunities if one doesn’t mimic it. While we can acknowledge that in the language race war, a white, middle- to upper-class English language has been established by those same groups as a dominant standard, this is not the same as saying it is right, nor preferable, nor more communicative or effective in language tasks. 

In fact, identifying up front the racial positioning of the language conventions we “teach”  can acknowledge the white language supremacy in the language race war. It can prompt classrooms to inquire about the nature of the conditions that create particular usages as conventional. What social, historical, and literary conditions made such conventions possible? Who has controlled those conditions and who has benefited from them? This acknowledgement is not conceding victory. It sets up conditions that allow us to work through such politics together in our classrooms with students. It’s setting our antiracist orientation against systemic linguistic injustice that is encapsulated in the CCSS.

Now, if you want to get technical and historical, there never has been any official language ordained by the U.S. federal government. In fact, in the first century of the U.S. colonies, English was not the only language used. In the Pennsylvania colony, it was also German. In New York, at the time called “New Amsterdam,” it was Dutch. In the Louisiana territory, there was French and Spanish spoken mostly. 

And of course, in all these places, there were many indigenous languages already used for centuries before any of these white settlers arrived in North America (note 211). And I’m not even mentioning all the dialects and vernaculars of English we might list today, say, the English from Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Albuquerque, Baton Rouge, Knoxville, Missoula, or Seattle, or those Englishes across the seas from the U.S., such as the various New Zealander, Hong Kongese, Australian, South Afrikaner, British, and Indian Englishes, all influenced by the people, geographies, politics, languages, and histories in those places. 

When we assume only one set of conventions as standard, we elide the contested political grounds of the English language that already always exists. We miss our necessary opportunities to investigate, to honor other ways with words, to learn more, and perhaps grow our own brands of Englishes. We unwittingly maintain white language supremacy. We avoid the inherent politics in teaching a single standard and forget that standards are actually standard-ized, made standard by some group of people with their own purposes and politics. And so we end up enforcing hegemony, and maintaining the dominance of a particular group of people through the promotion of their version of English. An antiracist orientation sets itself against such white language supremacy in schools, curricula, and classrooms. Contesting, then, the last element in L.11-12.1.A, is the most vital part of this standard. 

If in the CCSS we front loaded the natural processes of language contesting by groups of people in history, our classrooms could make primary the racial and other politics of language as students studied language. This means there are things worth learning in this anchor standard. You just need the right antiracist orientation in order to rearrange the standard’s grammar, or see and hear it for what it is. You also need the right conditions in your school, meaning you have to be able to do this political language work with students meaningfully. Contesting dominant standards actually has to be able to count as languaging. And of course, this all assumes the teacher already has an antiracist orientation. 

If literacy classrooms are using L.11-12.1.A as a way to design curricula and lessons, then students are supposed to apply these three ideas to their own written documents and writing habits (and of course, be assessed and graded on their demonstration of those habits). So students are to write using dominant white language conventions of English, first and foremost (the first clause). They are also to write knowing that those conventions “can” change (the second clause), and they write knowing all conventions “sometimes” get contested (the third clause). This is a hierarchy, a set of ranked values that imply how teachers should teach to this CCSS. But as I’ve been arguing, the hierarchy has problems. 

Who gets to contest dominant English conventions and when? Do you think that a typical classroom, say yours, asks students to do anything other than follow dominant English conventions? Have you ever asked your students to defy or challenge conventions without translating them back to the standard conventional English you know? How are they rewarded for their contesting? What exactly does the grammar book you use say about contesting any of the so-called “rules” of English language and usage? What messages do your grammar or writing lessons send to your students about the contesting of language conventions or practices? 

At the end of the day, how are your students graded on communicative effectiveness in writing? How do you allow for their language challenges and changes? What do you do with their language differences, the ones that contrast to the dominant English you hold in your ideas of the standard? What is on your test or in your grading rubrics exactly? 

What an antiracist orientation asks teachers to do with a standard like L.11-12.1.A is to contest all conventions of English language as a matter of course, not enforce one version, but explore many in the lessons and work we do with students. Contesting such dominant standards is a primary purpose in learning or unlearning those standards, and it starts by naming the standard as elite white standardized language, as one group and its worldview being enforced as universal. It means you are pointing out those three habits of white language I started with above: an unseen, naturalized orientation to the world; a stance of neutrality, objectivity, and apoliticality; and a singular sense of clarity, order, and control (see post 28 for a discussion of HOWL). 

Brave Work

Write for 15 minutes. 

Imagine a lesson or classroom activity that took as its starting point these two ideas: 

  • The rules of English grammar and the conventions of writing given in our textbook are rules and conventions made by an elite white group of mostly men who had the power to enforce their language rules and conventions as a “standard.” 
  • Those who control language and its standards control not just society and the opportunities it offers to people but controls how that society officially is understood, seen, felt, heard, and experienced.

Now, in a fully democratic and deeply compassionate classroom, what should happen next?

For instance, you can point to the contested use of “I” and “me” in formal and other writing. Why is it not always important to acknowledge who is saying something? Why hide the agents speaking or writing in our own speaking and writing? How does this language practice arrange the racial politics of language and its judgement in favor of white authorities who have controlled up to this point all of the language standardization in schools? Who in the world right now needs to be identified as saying something when they say things to others, for instance, when speaking about racism or social justice or police brutality or who has control over a woman’s body?

Here’s a few other contesting lessons a literacy teacher might engage in. You could consider the use of the Oxford comma in a series or list. How important is it? Does it just make some readers feel better? Why? You can point out the absence of definite articles before certain nouns. Cantonese and Japanese languages have no definite articles. This means students who have such languages first may not be in the practice of orienting themselves to nouns as needing articles, like “the book,” or “a dog.” It’s just book and dog. Not using articles is actually more economical languaging. Are articles really needed if we always make sense of words in the context of other words around it?

Or you might consider the politics in the practice of the “zero copula” in Black English, that is, the absence of the verb “to be” in many expressions (note 212). How does it nuance or make meaning? How does it change one’s experience or worldview when we compare sentences such as: “She next to me in line” versus “She is next to me in line.” And what about the practice of the “habitual be” in Black English: “She be next to me in line” versus “She is (always) next to me in line” (note 213). Added meaning? Economy? When has concision not been a good thing in languaging? 

Robin Wall Kimmerer
Or our contesting might go deeper into the fundamentals of the orientation to grammar that English as a language has and that is not universally shared with all languages. Robin Wall Kimmerer offers a comparison between English and her indigenous language, Potawatomi: “English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent” (note 214). This means, as Kimmerer explains, that the world is alive and moving, dynamic and changing. A bay, for example, is not static. It’s alive and animated. “When bay is a noun,” she explains, “it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa -- to be a bay -- releases the water from bondage and lets it live.” She continues, “Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms” (note 215). These ideas come in a chapter called, “Learning The Grammar of Animacy.”

The point is how we experience the world is how we language, and how we language is how we experience the world. They are intertwined. And if you’ve become accustomed to experiencing the world as verbing, if you’ve come to know that you language yourself into the world -- that you be languaging -- then it will be pretty hard to change that orientation to experience the verbs around you as nouns, or to conjugate the copula when your friend right here next to you. Languaging will not so easily be languages. Your verbs will not so easily become nouns. And it all be political.

Richard Nisbett, the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan, has offered research in understanding the ways various cultures around the world think in different ways and see the world differently. A big part of this is the orientation to language and judgment. For instance, in The Geography of Thought, Nisbett shows through various studies conducted that many East Asians experience the world as a set of interdependencies, not as individualism, as most Western cultures and languages do. This means for most East Asians meaning is made in context and by discerning the relations of people and things. It’s the difference between noticing mostly the context or a field of relations in a picture, rather than noticing a central actor or figure in it doing something (note 216). Tapping into such cultural and languaging differences in classrooms can provide much material for examining the politics of language and its judgement. 

This is not to say that the dominant version of English, the white language habits of English, would not be important in this antiracist classroom or these lessons. We must pay attention to how we are dominated, pay attention to the system of rules that do that domination, regardless of how we feel about the system or its rules. This, in fact, is the job of the literacy classroom. To study something, say English languages, you have to ask questions about them, test them, poke at them, contest them. 

This is in fact how language becomes what it is. English language usage and conventions always be contested. Our languaging exists because of acts of contesting. Often, we don’t take the contesting seriously. We write it off as an individual or group speaking or writing improperly. We don’t ask enough: That expression is improper to whom? The CCSS standard gets the contesting right, but it puts it at the end of the standard, then qualifies it with “sometimes,” softening it, weakening this really important and vital part of all living languages in history, their natures as always in the act of being contested. What is a new word or a shift in usage of an old one but tacit contesting.

Gloria Anzaldua
If the contesting of languages is truly definitional to languages, then perhaps Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is a more appropriate style guide or grammar book for our students than Strunk and white’s The Elements of Style. It makes language and the bodies that circulate it political. In the opening chapter, Anzaldúa offers a poem that begins: “Wind tugging at my sleeve/feet sinking into the sand/I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean/where the two overlap/a gentle coming together/at other times and places a violent crash” (note 217). She isn’t speaking just of languages but of people and the places they inhabit, the borderlands, a dynamic place of change, a place that is alive. She is also explaining the ways settler colonialism takes and creates landscapes and makes borders, both out of the land taken by the colonizer and the languages yanked out of the mouths of the indigenous by force. 

In the book, she boldly claims her Spanish, Tex Mex, Chicano, and English parts of her tongue and does so with those languages all mixed in together. Her book itself dramatizes the contesting of languages that have been around her in her life, that make her. She and we are richer in our languaging because of this mixing. A few pages later, Anzaldúa provides in my view a way to reorient literacy classrooms and teachers, reorient our standards so that we acknowledge the language race war happening in our places, and what it does to us all. It’s an ecological metaphor, the borderland, but it’s also a contested, political, and dangerous place for non-white bodies and tongues. She says: 

The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country--a border culture. Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. The border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who crossover, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal.” (note 218)

In the chapter, “La Conciencia de la Mestiza/Towards a New Consciousness,” she completes this orientation. It is not just that we see ourselves, our languages, and the places we dwell as borderlands that are the home of mixed people with mixed languages. It isn’t just that we understand that we live in contested language terrains. It is that because we are mixed and live in the borderlands of languages, cultures, and peoples, we encounter change within and around us. Place is alive with people and people are alive because of their places. And we and our places be making each other over and over, in part through our languaging.  

We live in “perpetual transition.” She calls it “un choque, a cultural collision.” And so, “the new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (note 219). The point I wish to make with Anzaldúa is that her orientation to language is actually a more realistic and compassionate one. It is political and front loads the contested nature of language by noticing the place of embodied language contestation. It refuses to accept that learning languaging is simply a matter of choosing words. It embraces the jostling and banging around of various languaging and bodies in the room. It is a political act, often of dominance and oppression, sometimes of survival, and sometimes a radical act of linguistic revolution. Regardless, over and over throughout our lives, we be born into language-places, born from political and linguistic borderlands.

But what I’m also saying is that groups of people are always challenging other groups of people in, through, and about language. Language changes because people use it differently. We often have different needs and uses for language in different places and times. The kink in this historical process is that some have more power to dictate standards and judge those around them and their languaging. And these people with power have been mostly elite whites. Even when they haven’t, say a teacher of color who comes from a working class background, can still be an agent of the white hegemonic system by being the enforcer of historically white habits of language and the dominant white standard of English. This happens all the time too. It’s often how people of color make it in white supremacist systems.


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.