Why We Need Raciolinguistics

In my many years of experience as an educator it has been fairly common for me to hear people complaining about the grammar of their students. Occasionally, I will see educators share memes on Facebook and Twitter that list a particular pet peeve or make another statement related to the importance of grammar.

A meme that I saw shared a few months ago stood out to me: “I don’t judge people based on race, creed, colour or gender. I judge people based on spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure.” This meme reflects a commonsense idea in mainstream society–that it is possible to separate judgments of appropriate language usage from judgments of race and other forms of social difference.

Below I provide three examples from my own life that indicate that separating language and race is not always so simple.

  1. At a recent conference I had 20 minutes to cover lots of information and I was trying to go as quickly as possible. The first question I received from the audience was from a White graduate student who was wondering why Latinos spoke so quickly. When I assured her that there was no evidence to suggest that Latinos spoke more quickly than any other racial or ethnic group her response was “Oh come on. You people speak way faster than we do.”
  2. At a recent professional development I facilitated one of the teachers objected to the idea that the “Spanglish” of her students could be used as a springboard for academic learning. She provided “rufo” as an example of the linguistic deficiency of “Spanglish” insisting that “techo” was the proper word for the inside roof and “azotea” for the outside roof. I explained that the emergence of terms like “rufo” were a natural part of language contact and that from a linguistic perspective neither term was more correct. She did not look convinced.
  3. One of my Chinese graduate students came to me frustrated at constantly receiving feedback that she should be more explicit in her analysis. She told me that she felt like this was a very American way of writing and my insistence on this contradict my stated philosophy of appreciation for linguistic diversity. In the conversation that ensued she told me how she felt overly targeted as an international student in a US university, as if professors were seeking to find flaws in her writing simply because they expected to find flaws since she was not a native-speaker of English.

In the first example, the audience member asking the question connected my  rushed presentation  with my Latino background. It would be hard to imagine her asking a White person rushing through a presentation why it was that White people spoke so quickly. Instead, she would likely assume that either the person had a lot to cover or that the person was an individual who spoke quickly but was certainly not representative of all White people.

In the second example, the stigma associated with Spanglish is not related to the linguistic practice that made the term rufo possible. After all, monolingual English speakers ordering tacos at a restaurant or discussing haciendas in history class are using words that were developed through the same process of language contact. The issue is not the fact that English and Spanish have impacted one another but rather the racial positioning of the speaker of the product of this language contact. The result is that “taco” and “hacienda” go unnoticed but “rufo” is marked as linguistically deficient.

In the third example, I (somebody who has worked with his students to challenge dominant ideologies reflected in the second scenario) is challenged for implicitly doing the very same thing that I critique others for doing. That is, linguistic theory has not made me immune from my own forms of prescriptivism that (at least according to my student) are a reflection of my American upbringing. She connected my criticism to the extra scrutiny she felt as an international student who professors assumed was not fully proficient in English. Was I complicit in this extra scrutiny? Did I find issues with her writing that I would not have seen as a problem if the writer were a US monolingual English speaker?

All three examples illustrate that language and race cannot be as neatly separated as conventional wisdom would posit. Therefore, while often discussed as separate objects of inquiry—meaning that one is a scholar of race or a scholar of language—I propose that we become raciolinguistic scholars. Raciolinguistic scholarship begins with the premise that it is, in fact, impossible to discuss one without the other and seeks to examine the co-construction of language and race—or the ways that both language and race are inextricably interrelated with one another. It seeks to examine the complex role that language ideologies play in the production of racial difference and the role of racialization in the production of linguistic difference.

For more information on raciolinguistics check out my new article with Jonathan Rosa “Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education.” We welcome you to join us in developing raciolinguistics as a new field of inquiry.

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5 comments
  1. Betsy Rymes said:

    Great post! Another example that comes to mind: Faculty and staff assuming that all “brown” students in a k-12 school are designated as “ESL.” I have even heard of a case where a professor who grew up in the United States speaking English and Spanish and who looked “latino” and was conducting an evaluation of a school was asked by faculty: “What was it like for you, growing up as an ESL student?”

    Like

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