Several months ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Do Black Lives Matter in Bilingual Education?” After writing this blog post I was able to connect with Joseph Wiemelt, the Director of Equity and Student Learning; Bilingual & Multicultural Programs for Urbana School District 116. He shared with me the work that his district has undertaken to ensure that black students have equitable access to dual language programs. I was so excited to hear about this work that I invited him to submit a guest post to the blog. I am certain that many of you will find his experiences relevant to your work advocacy work.


Do black lives matter in bilingual education in my school district? That was the question I asked myself after reading Dr. Flores’ critical post on exploring the concept of #blacklivesmatter in bilingual education. As Director of Equity & Student Learning; Bilingual & Multicultural Programs for Urbana School District 116 (USD116), it particularly resonated with me.

Pulling from Dr. Flores’ five ways related to how anti-blackness may have influenced the discourse and decision making in our implementation, I will analyze how some of these issues complicated the process of establishing a dual language program in one elementary school that served a predominately black neighborhood. Additionally, I will highlight the successes of how we have intentionally worked to serve black students, and all students across race, as well as the areas of struggle that we are continuously working to improve in order to provide an equitable dual language program that serves all students.

In 2012, USD116 decided to phase out transitional forms of bilingual education to start dual language programs in order to improve the opportunities for emergent bilingual Latinx youth. While we were cautious around the idea of Fetishizing Two-Way Immersion Programs as the Gold Standard of Bilingual Education, we still believed that we could move to dual language programs and also be intentional in our approach to ensure a quality program for Latinx children and our entire community across race, including black students.

As such, this resulted in expanding the program to multiple schools. Because USD116 has neighborhood attendance boundaries for elementary schools, and due to racially segregated neighborhoods across the community, several elementary schools reflect the neighborhoods that they serve. With this in mind, the decisions to determine which schools would house the dual language programs became intertwined with issues of race and racism. Moreover, questions related to access and opportunity to be part of the dual language program was complicated by assumptions and perspectives of which schools, and therefore which students and families, would be most appropriate to start a dual language programs. While the importance of ensuring excellent bilingual programs and opportunities for Latinx youth was at the center of this work, the questions related to who the “English speaking students” would be was also a key equity initiative.

Assuming Native English Speakers to be White was a key issue that we have faced. In the process of considering which schools would house the dual language program, the district considered multiple schools for this opportunity. The overall community was excited for the plan to implement dual language programs and many families across racial groups expressed their interest. However, when the possibility of starting a program at the school of predominately black students arose, questions and concerns related to whether or not the program would be effective and successful surfaced. While explicit conversations related to whom the “native English speakers” should be did not necessarily take place in public, the implicit messages being sent related to why would we even consider putting a dual language program at this school were present. From online, anonymous comments in the local newspaper to behind the scenes comments, people across the community questioned whether or not this would be a wise decision due to the assumption that this program would be better for white students who “spoke English well” rather than black students who “didn’t speak English well”.  As Dr. Flores states, explicitly naming who the students are who come from positions of privilege (white native English speakers) and those who come from positions of oppression (black native English speakers) was important for us to acknowledge.

Even with the racialized discourse surrounding this decision, the school district received board approval to start the program in one predominantly white school and one predominantly black school. From there, the work began to ensure that black and Latinx student enrollment was equitable and accessible, and the work to prepare to serve both student groups well was initiated.

Ignoring English Language Variation is also an area that has challenged our work. We have had to continuously work at changing the narrative around language variation across English and Spanish. All too often, black vernacular is viewed in deficit-oriented ways, especially in the school setting, similarly to how different language varieties of Spanish can be viewed as “informal”. As such, we have had to work diligently at understanding language varieties across both English and Spanish while also working to better understand the concept of translanguaging for emergent bilingual youth in the US context, with a particular focus on how students across different racial and linguistic groups translanguage.

Now, five years into our program, we have seen great success in the enrollment and success of black, Latinx and white students in the dual language program across schools. We have waiting lists of students from English only backgrounds across race applying from all over the community to get into the school and the program. This is the same school and program that was once questioned as whether or not the students and families were the “right fit” for dual language. Today we continuously get visitors who are surprised that black students are enrolled in the dual language program and doing so well. Interestingly enough, many times I have given tours of our classrooms and people are shocked to see black students speaking Spanish, becoming bilingual, and developing biliteracy skills.

Erasing the Experiences of Afro-Latinxs was also to be a key issue that was overlooked and misunderstood, and is still an area of struggle. Questions related to the key equity issues of ensuring that our educators reflect the students we serve are important ones. Usually in the context of bilingual education we understand this to be focusing on the increase of Latinx teachers in our bilingual programs. However, if black lives matter in bilingual education, we have to ensure that we also have black teachers and Afro-Latinx teachers. Through past teacher recruitment efforts we have worked to ensure an increase in US Latinx and bilingual teachers, and we have also begun working to recruit and retain Afro-Latinx teachers. Not only is it important for all of our students to see themselves reflected in the teaching staff, we also want to continue to strengthen our curriculum and units of study to reflect the students we serve.

Positioning bilingual education as a panacea for racial inequalities is also an area we are challenging. While we have advocated and argued that strong dual language programs have the potential to be transformative in our community, we also acknowledge that even strong dual language programs are still situated in a broader system of white supremacy and racism across the country. As part of our district wide unified professional development plan, our district has made a commitment to racial equity in order to dismantle inequitable practices and rebuild them through an intentional equity-oriented approach. As such, our dual language program staff is working on being critical of our own practices within our dual language programs that serve a multiracial community.

Lastly, in the conversation related to black lives and bilingual education in USD116, we need to take a hard look at our educational plans to serve the growing population of African immigrant emergent bilinguals and trilinguals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Outside of the context of Spanish/English bilingual education, populations of low incidence languages are often underserved in schools. Thus, our approach to serving our black emergent trilingual students across Lingala, French, and English must be a critical component of our district wide efforts to serve all students moving forward.

As Dr. Flores states, “The only way to ensure that bilingual education is a tool for social change is to ensure that it is situated within a broader project that seeks to dismantle anti-Blackness. Anything less than this is tantamount to treating Black lives as if they don’t matter”. At USD116 we are working to ensure that our bilingual education programs are a part of this broader project. While we have many areas we have to improve, and our programs are not perfect, particularly for black and Latinx students, we have and will continue to work to change the norm that black lives don’t matter in education, and bilingual education in particular.

As a researcher who analyzes the working of white supremacy in educational linguistics, I have come across 5 different strategies used by academics as attempts to derail discussions about white supremacy. Over the years, I have worked to develop responses to these strategies that prevent this derailment. Below I describe each strategy and my response.

1.) You’re not being objective.

This comment exists on a continuum. On the one end of the continuum are people who accuse me of being ideological in ways that call into question the scholarly value of my work. On the other end of the continuum are people who express support for my work but who worry that I may be imposing my own perspective on the data. Though coming from different positions and with different intent, both ends of the continuum presuppose that the role of researchers is to objectively describe the world and that my overtly ideological position may be compromising that objectivity.

My response:

My research seeks to denaturalize linguistic categories that have historically been positioned as objective in the hopes of developing new conceptualizations of language that resist racial hierarchies. My decision to denaturalize linguistic categories is certainly an ideological stance. My decision to do so as part of efforts to dismantle white supremacist framings of language is also ideological. At the same time, the decision to uncritically use these same linguistic categories is also an ideological stance that reinforces white supremacy.

2.) It’s not about race. It is about social class.

This comment is sometimes a theoretical inquiry related to whether the marginalization that I am describing is really about social class as opposed to race.  More often it has been a more specific inquiry into how I account for the stigmatized language varieties used by poor white people.

My response

White supremacy was created within the context of colonialism as part of the creation and spread of global capitalism. To talk about social class without accounting for the working of white supremacy is to overlook a key component of global capitalism. In response to this oversight, my research centers the impact of white supremacy on people of color through a focus on the emergence and spread of raciolinguistic ideologies within the context global capitalism. That said, the marginalization of poor white people is an important research topic that I certainly think warrants further study by scholars.

3.) Your use of standardized academic language means that you can’t critique them.

There are two major forms of this comment that I have encountered. One form is openly belligerent with some people going as far as suggesting that I am speaking like a white person so cannot critique whiteness. Another form is from people who wish that I would practice what I preach and embody the critique that I am offering by engaging in subversive language practices. Both are working from the position that standardized academic language is an objective set of linguistic features that I am completely adhering to in my presentation.

My response

I have utilized a range of linguistic resources throughout my presentation including technical vocabulary, pop culture references, jokes, some Spanish words and perhaps the occasional curse word. You heard me to be engaged in standardized academic language based on an assemblage of factors including linguistic criteria but also nonlinguistic factors such as the conference presentation format, my academic credentials, and your own previous experiences. It is quite possible that somebody engaging in similar practices in other contexts without these credentials might not be perceived as using standardized academic language. Thus, I invite you to join me in interrogating the language ideologies that shape our perceptions in the hopes that we can develop new ways of listening that challenge white supremacy.

4.) Students of color need to master standardized academic language in order to be successful in life.

This type of comment is sometimes hostile with the commenter arguing that I am doing a disservice to students of color by suggesting that they should not have to master standardized academic language. More common, however, is for the commenter to indicate agreement with my overall argument but note that teaching students of color standardized academic language remains the only viable option for preparing them for life in a white supremacist world.

My response

The issue of how to prepare students of color for the realities of a white supremacist society is a difficult one that can be thought about in many different ways. My point of entry into thinking about this issue is through a focus on theories of change. The theory of change implied in teaching students of color standardized academic language places the burden on people of color to dismantle their own marginalization. The theory of change that I am proposing focuses on addressing the broader structural racism that are the root causes of the marginalization of communities of color. I am not suggesting that teachers should not try to teach students of color the codes of power. What I am suggesting is that we cannot expect these efforts to address the root causes of racial inequality. Schooling in a white supremacist society will always reinforce white supremacy. The only viable option for ending racial oppression is to dismantle white supremacy.

5.) This is all too theoretical. What practical solutions are you proposing?

This comment is almost always from somebody who expresses strong agreement with my analysis but who is struggling to imagine what the implications are for their work as researchers and/or teacher educators.

My response

The focus of my research is on examining how deeply entrenched white supremacist framings of language are in everyday discussions of educational linguistics and to point to structural change that is needed to dismantle this white supremacist framing.  The quick move to practical considerations without taking time to understand the workings of white supremacy may serve to do more harm than good. That is not to say that classroom practice cannot be improved, but that we need to situate educational reform initiatives within broader efforts to dismantle white supremacy if we are truly committed to combating racial inequalities.

It is common to treat language differences in terms of dichotomies. A prominent dichotomy in educational linguistics is academic vs. non-academic language. The assumption undergirding this dichotomy is that there is something fundamentally different between academic and non-academic language. At best, the difference is discussed in terms of different domains with academic language seen as belonging to academic domains and non-academic language seen as belonging to non-academic domains. At worst, the difference is discussed in terms of hierarchies with academic language seen as more cognitively demanding than non-academic language.

Over my past several years of work with teachers I have come to question the utility of adopting this dichotomous view of academic vs. non-academic language. In particular, as an advocate for language-minoritized children I have witnessed the ways that this dichotomy is often taken up by educators. White middle class children are positioned as coming from homes where they are socialized into academic language while language-minoritized children are positioned as coming from homes where they are socialized into non-academic language. This often leads to self-fulfilling prophecies where teachers overdetermine language-minoritized students to be linguistically deficient and unable to meet the demands of the Common Core Standards.

It is for this reason that I have previously called for a moratorium on the use of the academic language.  This begs the question, what is the alternative? After all, don’t the Common Core Standards demand that students master academic language? Not necessarily. The reading and writing anchor standards include no mention of academic language. Instead, there is a focus on skills such as reading in order to analyze “how specific word choices shape meaning and tone” and writing in ways that are “appropriate to task, purpose and audience.” That is, the Common Core are not demanding mastery of academic language. Instead, they are asking for students to become language architects who analyze the general conventions of language use in their reading and who adapt these general conventions in ways that reflect their own unique authorial voices as writers.

This focus on language architecture can be found in the prominent focus in the Common Core on the close reading of complex texts. Students are expected to engage in close reading in order to critically analyze the author’s language choices and the impact of these language choices on shaping the meaning of the text. They, in turn, are expected to use the insights from this close reading to inform their own authorial voices as they construct texts belonging to a range of genres.

The typical narrative around close reading is that it requires academic language that is far removed from the non-academic language that language-minoritized students come to school with. But what would happen if we refused this dichotomy? What if we, instead, began from the perspective that language-minoritized students who navigate two or more languages or language varieties as part of their daily experience have already developed the metalinguistic skills that are needed for engaging in close reading? That is, what if we began from the perspective that the lives of language-minoritized students are already Common Core-aligned?

In the spirit of treating the language practices of language-minoritized students as Common Core-aligned, Elaine Allard, Holly Link and I developed a unit plan for Spanish-English bilingual programs. The unit has two overlapping objectives. The first objective is to familiarize bilingual children with the practice of close reading. The second objective is to support these children in making connections between the language architecture they engage in as bilingual people on a daily basis and the language architecture required by the Common Core.

At the core of the unit is the picture book Abuela, by Arthur Dorros. This book describes the experiences of a child who flies around a city with her grandmother. The author engages in translanguaging rhetorical strategies that parallel the types of translanguaging that bilingual children engage in on a daily basis. The narrative of the text is primarily in English. However, when abuela speaks, her dialogue is primarily in Spanish. The author also offers clues in the narrative that support readers who are not able to read Spanish. The unit plan was designed around close readings of Abuela as a vehicle for supporting students in making connections between the language architecture they engage in on a daily basis—often with their own abuelas—and the language architecture of the author.

This unit recognizes that young bilingual children are already language architects. It has them reflect on when they use Spanish, when they use English, and when they translate for people from one language to the other. It then supports them in making connections between these everyday language practices that characterize their lives and the translanguaging rhetorical choices made by the author of Abeula.

In short, the unit refuses a dichotomy between home and school and, instead, draws on the language architecture that is a natural part of the lives of young bilingual children as a point of entry in supporting them in engaging in Common Core aligned literacy practices. In this way the unit sends students a powerful message that their home language and literacy practices are not dichotomous with the language and literacy practices demands in school but rather integral to their success as students. It also sends teachers a powerful message that the lives of bilingual children are already Common Core aligned if only they reject the dichotomy between academic and non-academic and recognize the language architecture that characterizes the lives of bilingual children.

During this week’s presidential debate my social media exploded with commentary about Donald Trump’s use of the term “bad hombres.” Many linguistics immediately saw this as an example of Mock Spanish, most notably developed in Jane Hill’s book The Everyday Language of White Racism. In the CNN panel discussion that followed the debate Trump supporters insisted that “bad hombres” is not racist and criticized Hillary Clinton supporters for being so easily offended.

This is precisely the power of Mock Spanish. White people can use Mock Spanish to position themselves as cool and funny while being able to hide behind the shield of plausible deniability against charges of racism. In the case of Trump, he was able to use “bad hombres” within a discussion of immigration policy to strategically conjured up images of violent Latinxs who are destroying nice white communities by supposedly giving heroin to white teenagers while being able to distance himself from overtly racist language.

The covert racism embedded within Trump’s use of Mock Spanish can be seen in its reception among his base. Most notably, the support he received from his supporters stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s own criticisms of Jeb Bush for using Spanish or his supporters’ criticisms of Tim Kaine for using Spanish. It was well-received by his supporters precisely because of the racializing imagery it conjured. This conjuring up of images of dangerous people of color is a common strategy used by Trump. This can be seen in his discussions of the importance of “law and order” and his descriptions of communities of color as “hell.”

While Clinton has historically also engaged in this racializing imagery—most notably through her use of the term “super-predator” in the 1990s—in her current campaign she has instead conjured up an image of a basket of deplorables who pose a new danger to the fabric of US society. She defined this basket of deplorables as “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.” Though she apologized for referring to half of Trump’s supporters in these terms, she never took back the general idea that many of Trump’s supporters were deplorable bigots.

For many liberals, Trump’s use of “bad hombres” and Clinton’s discussion of a “basket of deplorables” may seem unrelated to one another. After all, Trump was engaged in Mock Spanish designed to further marginalize the Latinx community while Clinton was speaking out against bigotry. Yet, a closer reading of Hill’s book illustrates that both of them are produced as part of what she describes as “the language of white racism,” which starts from the premise that “racism is entirely a matter of individual beliefs, intentions, and actions.” From this perspective “a racist person is a person who believes that people of color are biologically inferior to Whites, so that White privileged is deserved and must be defended.”

This framing of racism is precisely the framing being used by both defenses of Trump’s use of “bad hombres” and defenses of Clinton’s use of  “basket of deplorables.” Trump supporters claim that Trump’s use of “bad hombres” is not racist because Trump is not making overtly racist claims against Latinxs nor articulating explicit beliefs about the superiority of white people over Latinxs. Similarly, Clinton supporters can claim that many of Trump’s supporters are, in fact, deplorable because of their individual bigotry thereby perpetuating the idea that racism is primarily an individual attribute of bad people rather than a system of oppression that is embedded within the very fabric of US institutions. More importantly, it also perpetuates the idea that people without these overt racist ideas (presumably those who do not see themselves as part of the basket of deplorables) are not complicit in the continued maintenance of racial inequalities.

In short, both the Republicans and Democrats frame discussions of racism through the use of the everyday language of white racism that positions racism as an attribute of individual racist beliefs and anti-racism as the absence of these individual racist beliefs. This framing of racism obscures the deep-seated nature of racial inequalities in US society that are a product of centuries of white supremacy. In some ways, this framing is especially ironic when it comes from Clinton who has discussed the importance of dismantling  “systemic racism”  while continuing to perpetuate the idea that racism is a problem associated with some deplorable people rather than a problem built into the fabric of US society.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Republicans and Democrats are identical. I am also not addressing the question of political tactic related to whether those of us committed to anti-racism should vote for Clinton as the lesser of two evils. What I am suggesting is that the racial understanding that permeates both presidential campaigns is informed by the same logic of white supremacy that positions racism as a problem of individuals and consequently that positions the solution to racial inequalities is at the level of individuals.

So while Trump’s use of “bad hombres” does provide an excellent example of Mock Spanish, Hill’s theorization of the everyday language of white racism offers us tools to push conversations about racism even further. It offers us tools for critically examining the limits of how racism can be discussed within mainstream society. It opens up the possibility for moving beyond the individual intent of individuals toward the effect that individual actions have as part of broader racializing processes. It shifts the point of entry to discussions of racism away from individuals and to the systems of oppression that lie at the root of racial inequalities.

Bringing this analysis to the forefront allows us to move beyond discussions of whether Trump’s use of Mock Spanish was racist or offensive and toward a focus of the societal impact of the circulation of racializing tropes of Latinxs within US society. It also allows us to move beyond discussions of how deplorable Clinton thinks Trump supporters are and toward how she plans to dismantle the systemic racism she alluded to in presidential debates. After all, it is the discussion of how to dismantle the systemic racism that benefits both deplorable and admirable white people that will pave the way for a more racially equitable future.

#BlackLivesMatter has brought increased mainstream attention to the marginalization of Black people within US society. Though I have encountered discussions of #BlackLivesMatter in many of my social circles, I have yet to see it explicitly addressed in discussions relating to bilingual education. If bilingual education activists consider ourselves to be allies of #BlackLivesMatter we must ask ourselves: Do Black lives matters in bilingual education?

It may be tempting to reflexively answer yes. After all, Black students are welcome to participate in these programs in the same way that everybody else is welcome to participate in these programs. Yet, this logic parallels the #AllLivesMatter counter to #BlackLivesMatter that refuses to engage with the specific manifestations of anti-Blackness that #BlackLivesMatter seeks to bring attention to. In a society that was founded on anti-Blackness and continues to perpetuate anti-Blackness through its institutions, bilingual education is by default anti-Black regardless of how inclusive it prides itself on being. The only way to combat this anti-Blackness is by first recognizing it and then explicitly confronting it with the goal of dismantling it.

Below I lay out five ways that anti-Blackness may be reproduced within bilingual education. I focus specifically on Spanish-English bilingual programs both because most bilingual programs in the US continue to use these two languages and because these are the programs with which I have the most direct experience. It is possible that some of these observations are also applicable to bilingual programs that focus on other languages. It is also possible that some of these observations are also applicable to the experiences of non-Black people of color who participate in bilingual education programs. However, in this post I am centering anti-Blackness as an attempt to respond to the challenge poses by the three founders of #BlackLivesMatter to potential allies “to investigate the ways in which anti-Black racism is perpetuated in their own communities.”

  • Assuming Native English speakers are White. A common mantra in many discussions of bilingual education is that Native English speakers come from the dominant culture. This dominant position is contrasted with the marginalized status of Native Spanish speakers. The uncritical equating of Native English speaker with the dominant culture erases the anti-Blackness experienced by Black Native English speakers both inside and outside of school. An easy way to prevent this erasure is to be precise in our descriptions. This means to explicitly name the racial backgrounds of Native English speakers and to clearly distinguish those who are coming from positions of privilege (White Native English speakers) from those who are coming from positions of oppression (Black Native English speakers).
  • Erasing the experiences of Afro-Latinxs. Being Black is not mutually exclusive with being Latinx. Yet, this is often the message that is expressed in dominant representations of Latinidad within the Spanish language media in the US and Latin America that celebrate whiteness. Relying on materials developed in Latin America or Spain, as many bilingual programs do, may contribute to this celebration of whiteness and give students the impression that Black people cannot be Native Spanish speakers. The best way to counteract this erasure is for bilingual programs to actively seek out materials that include representations of Afro-Latinxs and to make concerted efforts to infuse these representations throughout the Spanish language curriculum.
  • Ignoring English language variation. Bilingual education circles that I find myself in often include discussions of Spanish language variation by country along with ways of incorporating this language variation into the Spanish language curriculum. Less common has been a discussion of variation English language variation and ways of including this in the English language curriculum. Yet, there has been a great deal of research related to features of African American English as well as exploration of ways of incorporating these features into the school curriculum. When exposing children to English in bilingual programs it is important to bring attention to and legitimize these linguistic variations by helping students to understand the historical context that allowed for their development.
  • Fetishizing two-way immersion programs as the gold standard of bilingual education. Two-way immersion programs seek to have an equal balance of Native English speakers and Native Spanish speakers. Though these programs are great when working with schools that have equal balances of the two groups, the hyper-segregation of US society means that many Black children find themselves in Black-majority schools. To insist on two-way immersion as the gold standard is to deny Black students in segregated schools the opportunity of bilingual education. It is important to develop models for high-quality bilingual education that are responsive to the many different student demographics that exist across US schools. We must also ensure that these high-quality options are equitable distributed so that low-income Black communities have as much access to these programs as affluent White communities.
  • Positioning bilingual education as a panacea for racial inequalities. In attempting to justify the investment in bilingual education programs, advocates often point to research that illustrates the effectiveness of these programs in closing the achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELLs as well as US business-sector needs for a bilingual workforce to remain competitive in the global economy. The pervasiveness of anti-Blackness is usually not considered in making these justifications. Being able to speak Spanish will not prevent a police officer from shooting an unarmed Black person and having bilingual skills will not in and of itself resolve the racial wage disparities that exist between Black workers and White workers. Instead, we need to situate advocacy work for bilingual education within broader efforts that work in solidary with movements such as #BlackLivesMatter that are working to dismantle anti-Blackness in US society.

While it may seen counterintuitive to focus on combating anti-Blackness in discussions of bilingual education that have most been associated with the Latinx community, as the founders of #BlackLivesMatter remind us “when Black people get free, everybody gets free.”  The only way to ensure that bilingual education is a tool for social change is to ensure that it is situated within a broader project that seeks to dismantle anti-Blackness. Anything less than this is tantamount to treating Black lives as if they don’t matter.

In recent years there has been a trend for states to pass a Seal of Biliteracy. A raciolinguistic approach to analyzing the effects of the Seal of Biliteracy needs to account for the racial disparities that currently exist between white English speakers and language-minoritized students of color. In this guest blog post, Owen Silverman Andrews , an educator and activist working in Baltimore, offers such a raciolinguistic approach to his advocacy work related to the Maryland Seal of Biliteracy. I encourage all of you to both support Owen in his efforts to reshape the Maryland policies to be more racially equitable while also applying the lessons learned from his experiences in your own communities.


Twenty-two of the United States and the District of Columbia have approved some form of a biliteracy seal to add to the diplomas of graduating high school seniors who are proficient in more than one language. The states that have approved a seal of biliteracy cut across many of the traditional dividing lines of U.S. culture and politics, including: California and Texas, New York and Georgia, Minnesota and Louisiana, Washington state and Utah. Five more state legislatures or boards of education are considering similar measures, and six more are in the “early stages” of adoption.

In seemingly stark contrast to the “language wars” in U.S. schools in the 1980s and 90s—when English only ballot measures passed in California and elsewhere and few were predicting the growing, if contested, power of Latinxs and immigrants in this country—celebrations of multilingualism have become seemingly more mainstreaming. This mainstreaming of multilingualism poses significant questions for multilinguals from oppressed communities and their allies, most pointedly: How do we move beyond seals of approval to shifting power and resources to language and dialect minoritized learners in U.S. schools?

This is a question that I have been grappling with in my advocacy work in Maryland, where I live and work with immigrants acquiring English. The General Assembly passed The Maryland Seal of Biliteracy Act and it was signed into law April 26, 2016. The Bill’s language assigned responsibility for defining biliteracy and the implementation process to the State Department of Education, and included a provision that allows county school boards to opt in or out. The State Department of Education held hearings on August 23rd. I was the only non-suit in the hearing room of the Maryland Board of Education Hearing Room.

I will save you the play by play. Suffice it to say that the definition, assessment, and access points currently being pushed by Susan Spinnato and others within the Maryland Department of Education will serve to pad the transcripts of English L1 learners in high performing schools located in wealth school districts who receive a 4 or a 5 on their foreign language AP exams. Learners whose L1 is not English will have to go to unspecified private testing institutions outside the school system to have their native language proficiency assessed at Intermediate High or higher based on ACTFEL standards to receive the same seal that their English L1 peers can obtain much more easily. In short, as it stands, Maryland’s proposed Seal of Biliteracy will reinforce education inequality along lines of wealth and language, which are often correlated to race and country of origin.

For the next month, the Board of Education will receive and review feedback from the public on the Seal’s enabling regulation. After that, it’s set in stone (for the medium-term, at least). Learner, ELL, and immigrant activists and their allies must move swiftly and bring considerable pressure to bear on the Board—particularly Republican Governor Larry Hogan’s newly minted Superintendent, Dr. Salmon—to pressure board members to revise the Seal regulation with ELL equity, access, and empowerment in mind. When contacting the Board (email, cc, and bcc owen.s.andrews(at), several demands should be included (please post your letters to the Board in the comments section below):

  • English Language Learners should have access to the same in-school, curriculum-based assessment (e.g. AP tests without having to take the AP class in their LQ) to qualify for the Seal of Biliteracy as their English L1 peers.
  • The AP exam, which is much more accessible in high-performing schools in wealthy school districts with predominantly White and English L1 learners, should not be the sole means of assessment.
  • The standard should be adjusted from ACTFEL’s Intermediate-High to Intermediate-Low, which is the standard in some of the other states that have offer the Seal of Biliteracy.
  • A learner with six or more years of education in a school where a language other than English is the primary language of instruction should automatically qualify for the seal if their English is proficient enough for them to graduate from a Maryland high school.

Shifting power and resources to language- and dialect-minoritized learners in U.S. public schools begins at the grassroots, with the classroom conditions we teachers create with our learners. However, if state bureaucrats are actively working to thwart this shift by reinforcing inequity through policies like Maryland’s proposed Seal of Biliteracy regulation, we need to push back. Please take action today! Email Susan Spinnato and Charlene Necessary and call Superintendent Salmon at (410) 767-0462!

Given that implementation of some form of a biliteracy seal is now becoming the norm, rather than a cause at the vanguard of the language justice and immigrants’ rights movements, it is time to focus on next steps that empower and shift resources to the communities than a dissection of the legislative process.  The question that we must consider moving forward is how to move beyond seals of approval toward shifting power and resources to language and dialect minoritized learners in U.S. schools.

Those of you who have followed my work may be familiar with the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies. I developed this concept in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor at Stanford University. Jonathan has been at the forefront of research on the racialized bilingualism of the Latinx community in the United States. I am thrilled that he accepted my invitation to write a guest blog post. Below he weaves together personal experience with his scholarship to critically interrogate the ways that bilingual Latinxs are often positioned as languageless by schools and the broader society. This is important work with important implications for all of us. I encourage you to share it widely and to read his latest article that explores these issues in more detail referenced below.


Does the racialized subject have language? [1]

While conducting research in a predominantly Latinx Chicago public high school, I asked the principal, an institutionally savvy and administratively effective bilingual Puerto Rican woman, about the interactional divide that I observed between linguistically mainstreamed students and those classified as English Language Learners. When I suggested that these classifications obscured students’ shared bilingual repertoires, she quickly interrupted me, noting that bilingual students “don’t know the language.”

I was initially confused by this claim, but then I realized that she was using the term “bilingual” to refer to students who were designated as English Language Learners and placed into transitional bilingual education programming. In this context and in U.S. public schools more broadly, “bilingual” is often used to identify perceived linguistic deficiency (commonly termed Limited English Proficiency) rather than dexterity. I realized that the meaning of “bilingual” had been inverted from a way of characterizing abilities in two or more languages to linguistic deficiency altogether.

In reflecting on this situation, I recalled how the deep shame associated with my personal experiences of language socialization was unsettled only when I began to study linguistics as an undergraduate student. My studies challenged me to reconsider received ideas about linguistic correctness. I learned that my father’s use of “tesses” as the plural form of “test,” which he regularly used to inquire whether I had taken any “tesses” on a given school day, was a legitimate, systematic practice that reflected his experiences of socialization within a largely Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood in New York City. I had learned to perceive and police his practices as signs of deficiency—“it’s tests, dad, not tesses”—but my linguistics courses taught me that the use of “tesses” reflects both a knowledge of the so-called African American English norm of voiceless consonant cluster reduction (where /st/ becomes /s/ at the end of words such as /test/) and the so-called Mainstream American English norm of pluralization (where words ending in /s/ are pluralized as /es/).

Meanwhile, I was pushed to rethink prescriptive perspectives from which I should avoid abbreviating or cutting off the ends of Spanish forms, which resulted in my reconsideration of the dismay I experienced upon learning that what I had perceived as individual words, such as /venpaca/ (“come here”), were “actually” three separate words (/ven para aca/). Thus, I had previously perceived my home-based language practices as deficient, but these insights challenged me to see that they were in fact demonstrations of dexterity; I had associated these practices with deficiency altogether, but I was compelled to recognize their skillfulness. These practices were not signs of linguistic deficiency, but rather multilingualism and multilectalism. This was deeply unsettling! What ways of thinking had I internalized?

Many progressive educators and linguists argue that we must respond to this stigmatization by emphasizing the linguistic skillfulness of racially minoritized populations. However, in mainstream educational settings, this charge is often interpreted simply as a call for the legitimation of racially minoritized linguistic practices as legitimate starting points from which to learn “real” language. How would our schools and curricula be constructed if we perceived these practices not simply as useful starting points but rather as academically beneficial practices in their own right? How might this change in stance reshape our views of curricula, pedagogy, assessment, and policy? What ways of learning, knowing, and communicating might we fully welcome into our classrooms rather than positioning them as educational starting point? Which community members and organizations could play leadership roles in such efforts, thereby rejecting arbitrary and problematic distinctions between “academic/school language” and “home/community language?”

In a new article in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, I refer to particular institutionalized perceptions of linguistic deficiency as ideologies of languagelessness. I am interested in drawing connections between stigmatizing perceptions of racialized groups’ language practices across social and historical contexts. I show how practices that might be perceived as signs of linguistic dexterity from some perspectives are continually policed and positioned as targets for remediation in mainstream institutional settings.

Thus, seemingly innocent linguistic corrections can be linked to broader racializing processes that position particular populations as perpetually illegitimate regardless of their linguistic repertoires. I suggest that, in future efforts toward linking language and social justice, we must redirect the gaze from subaltern or racially minoritized speaking subjects to hegemonic, institutionalized ways of perceiving that perpetuate raciolinguistic inequalities. Insofar as these modes of perception function on both individual and institutional levels, we must continually interrogate our everyday practices as educators and the broader institutional structures in which these practices are situated.


[1] Nearly 30 years ago, famed postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak rocked the intellectual world by posing the provocative question: “Can the subaltern speak?” Critiques of the privileging of speaking as a mode of communication and ideologies equating speech with empowerment notwithstanding, Spivak brilliantly critiqued the deceptive ways in which European theorists often re-center normative European subjects as the loci of knowledge and ideal models of personhood at the same time that they purport to represent authentically and give “voice” to formerly colonized peoples. Thus, the question she poses is not so much about the speaking abilities of subaltern populations, but rather the distorting modes of perception through which their practices and experiences are continually perceived and represented.

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