Does the racialized subject have language?

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.

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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.

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[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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