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.