Is Bilingual Education Inherently Anti-Racist?

Being a bilingual education advocate has always been a source of great pride for me. I have pride in the fact that the work I do continues in the tradition of the Latino community activists who came before me–the ones who fought to get districts and schools to enact bilingual education programs as (an often overlooked) part of the Civil Rights Movement. These community activists saw bilingual education  as a necessary component of a larger anti-racist transformation of educational institutions–a larger transformation that I am proud to continue to fight for.

Yet, being a bilingual education advocate has also been a source of great frustration. One area of particular frustration have been the ways that some supporters of bilingual education have responded to attacks on these programs.  For example, in response to an initiative to ban bilingual education in Colorado proponents of bilingual education used a three million dollar donation from a rich White heiress whose daughter was in a two-way immersion program to pay for racial charged commercials warning the public about the “chaos in the classroom” that would occur if  “those kids” were put in classes with “our kids.”  In other words, the Colorado initiative did not fail because the citizenry rejected the racism and xenophobia of anti-bilingual education activists but rather because they accepted the racism and xenophobia of pro-bilingual education activists.

Another particularly egregious example can be found in a recent incident where a Brooklyn principal justified her desire to hire a Spanish teacher by stating: “if you don’t speak Spanish, you’re going to clean your own house.”  The principal later said she was misunderstood asserting that “diversity is an issue that is near and dear to me.” However the statement is pretty clear and difficult to misunderstand–the “gifted and talented’ children at her school could not possibly already come from Spanish-speaking homes and must learn Spanish so that they can speak effectively with their future maids. That is, bilingualism is not understood to be part of anti-racist societal transformation but rather as a tool for reinforcing the racial status quo.

In short, just because one is a proponent of learning in a language other than English does not mean that one is a proponent of continuing the anti-racist struggles that began in the Civil Rights Movement. This point is especially important to consider in light of a recent article documenting growing interest in Spanish-Language Immersion Programs among non-Spanish speaking parents. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether non-Spanish speaking children who learn Spanish in school are going to work in solidarity with the Latino community for a more racially just future or use their new bilingual skills to collude in our continued oppression.

A recent conversation I had with a principal of a two-way immersion program with an explicit social justice mission points to the importance of addressing this question. This principal expressed shock and frustration at the lack of awareness of White privilege that White graduates of the program demonstrated. During this conversation we both reflected on how deeply racial hierarchies shape our society, the difficulties in challenging these hierarchies even in programs where two languages are used in instruction, and the ways that providing privileged White students language skills that will make them marketable without instilling in them an awareness of their White privilege may inadvertently serve as a tool for maintaining the very hierarchies these programs were originally designed to dismantle.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that White parents should not want their children to become bilingual. What I object to is the individualistic narrative that is often associated with their support for bilingual education. It is about how bilingual education can benefit “my child” through providing marketable skills and cognitive advantages.  If there is any acknowledgement of benefits for minoritized students it is framed as an afterthought. Minoritized children are depicted as the benefactors of altruistic White families who bring cultural and financial capital that would not otherwise be available to them.

In contrast, a truly anti-racist agenda would avoid uncritically celebrating bilingual education. Instead, it would make the concerns of minoritized students and communities central to any advocacy for these programs. It would raise questions about the unequal racial distribution of political and economic resources. It would challenge the racialized discourses that position White middle and upper class cultural norms as more valuable that the norms of minoritized communities. It would reject dominant beliefs that White middle and upper class children are more intelligent than children from minoritized backgrounds. We have a long history of minoritized community struggles that can guide us in enacting this anti-racist agenda. Perhaps we should revisit these struggles as we work to develop anti-racist policies, curricula and practices in bilingual education.


8 thoughts on “Is Bilingual Education Inherently Anti-Racist?

  1. “In other words, the Colorado initiative did not fail because the citizenry rejected the racism and xenophobia of anti-bilingual education activists but rather because they accepted the racism and xenophobia of pro-bilingual education activists.” (Flores, 2014) I will have to examine carefully my racism and xenophobia and how they contributed to my activism to support bilingual education for Latino bilinguals. Sheila Shannon


    1. Thanks for your comment. The point that I was trying to make was that the decision to run racist and xenophobic commercials by the official group opposing the initiative undermined any authentic anti-racist work being done in Colorado related to bilingual education. These commercials were not advocating for Latino students but instead played up racist troupes in ways that negatively impacted the Latino community.


  2. Hi Nelson, Thank you for writing this post. You bring up some very important issues that should not be ignored. What you wrote about are the same issues that my husband and I talk about when we think aloud about the effects — both intended and unintended, both noticeable and subtle — of bilingual educational programs here in the city. While bilingual education is without a doubt beneficial and necessary, we need to also question whether or not these programs will also teach about the communities and people who speak this language, the struggles these communities continue to face, and the cultural contexts of Spanish-speaking people of the world (a very diverse group indeed!). I have shared your blog with my husband (the Central teacher — I told you about him at the Southwark Open House earlier this week) and he definitely agrees with everything you wrote. We’ll be sure to follow your blog to keep up with your future posts! -Kay


    1. Thanks for your comment! One of the nice things about Southwark is that the principal has done such a great job of outreach to both the English-speaking community through the civic association and the Spanish-speaking community through Puentes. It is definitely a model to follow!


  3. I was wondering who the author of this piece is? I am a graduate student at the University of Washington, and my dissertation is on racial discourse in bilingual teacher education courses, and White, bilingual teachers. I’d love to cite this if possible. Thanks!


  4. What about children who don’t come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds? I know that’s the main minority language in the US, but I’m also aware that there are hundreds of other languages spoken by immigrant communities. What sort of provision is there in cities for children who come from, for example, Arabic-speaking or Mandarin-speaking homes? Is there a bilingual option for them?

    I’m in Australia, where we have so many community languages that a bilingual education system is unfeasible (although I think they’re trialling it in the eastern states for Mandarin, which is considered a very important trade language). Most schools here are English-speaking with special provision made for pupils who need it, but there is a strong “ethnic school” system which is mostly afternoons and weekends, and is basically, for example, the same sort of German language classes you’d get in a school in Germany. There are 49 languages in about 100 ethnic schools in my city alone. It still leaves children from an anglo-celtic background at a disadvantage, unless their parents are proactive about sending them to an ethnic school, but it does mean that bilingualism/bilteracy is common… for the first few generations, at least.


    1. Thanks for your comment. Bilingual education is one model of education offered in the United States. Though most bilingual programs are Spanish-English, there are many cities that offer bilingual education in other languages including Mandarin. Many of these programs are two-way programs that include English-dominant students whose parents would like them to become bilingual. That said, there aren’t nearly as many bilingual options available as there should be. Most English Language Learners receive some type of ESL support, which sound similar to the special provisions that you describe in Australia. However, even these programs can (and sometimes do) affirm and celebrate the home languages of students. A great example of schools that have many languages and still supports and builds on the home language practices of all of their students are the International Network for Public Schools. You can find out more about them here:


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