Do Black Lives Matter in Bilingual Education?

#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.

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11 comments
  1. Absolutely artificial “problem”…. Sad that the author is not aware of real problems in bilingual education. In addition , is there a way someone will proofread and edit articles before they get published?

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    • Artificial means “made or produced by human beings” so yes anti-Blackness is an artificial problem that was created by white people in order to maintain white supremacy. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. Research is overwhelmingly in support of bilingual education. To make children of any race excel in literacy, promote bilingual education.

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    • Agreed. The challenge is that there is very little research in bilingual education that focuses specifically on Black students. The limited research that does exist indicates that they may not excluded from or marginalized within these programs. I find Deb Palmer’s work illuminating here: https://ows.edb.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/users/dpalmer/AEQRacePowerEquity.pdf

      The challenge is how we confront the marginalization of Black students to ensure that they do have opportunities to participate in and excel in these programs.

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  3. I hope to see some research linked to the new Independence Charter School Spanish immersion program in SW Philly. This school is situated in an African American community and has taken 50% of its enrollment directly from the community.

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  4. gliset said:

    What a great read!! I am a proponent of bilingual education, I also identify as Afro-Boricua and stand in solidarity with the black lives matter movement. This was very enlightening for me and showed me how I was still marginalizing this group, even though unintentional, still a reality. GRACIAS.

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  5. Gracias Nelson, for this critical analysis, all the points need to be explored by those of us who advocate for bilingualism and for social justice and equity.

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  6. Thank you for this. I read your guest blog post prior to reading this one, but as a mother of black children in dual immersion programs, that has been a constant critical question that I have for administrators who cannot seem to see beyond the “novelty” of the programming. There is potential to discuss dual language education by centering African American children in Australia that has never before been considered as “language is not our thing.” This is refreshing to read.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experiences. The only way for these programs to serve the socially transformative goals that they have for themselves to ensure that they are inclusive of students of all racial backgrounds. Keep speaking up. I will too :-).

      Liked by 1 person

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