5 Ways Academics Try to Derail Conversations about White Supremacy and How to Respond

As a researcher who analyzes the working of white supremacy in educational linguistics, I have come across 5 different strategies used by academics as attempts to derail discussions about white supremacy. Over the years, I have worked to develop responses to these strategies that prevent this derailment. Below I describe each strategy and my response.

1.) You’re not being objective.

This comment exists on a continuum. On the one end of the continuum are people who accuse me of being ideological in ways that call into question the scholarly value of my work. On the other end of the continuum are people who express support for my work but who worry that I may be imposing my own perspective on the data. Though coming from different positions and with different intent, both ends of the continuum presuppose that the role of researchers is to objectively describe the world and that my overtly ideological position may be compromising that objectivity.

My response:

My research seeks to denaturalize linguistic categories that have historically been positioned as objective in the hopes of developing new conceptualizations of language that resist racial hierarchies. My decision to denaturalize linguistic categories is certainly an ideological stance. My decision to do so as part of efforts to dismantle white supremacist framings of language is also ideological. At the same time, the decision to uncritically use these same linguistic categories is also an ideological stance that reinforces white supremacy.

2.) It’s not about race. It is about social class.

This comment is sometimes a theoretical inquiry related to whether the marginalization that I am describing is really about social class as opposed to race.  More often it has been a more specific inquiry into how I account for the stigmatized language varieties used by poor white people.

My response

White supremacy was created within the context of colonialism as part of the creation and spread of global capitalism. To talk about social class without accounting for the working of white supremacy is to overlook a key component of global capitalism. In response to this oversight, my research centers the impact of white supremacy on people of color through a focus on the emergence and spread of raciolinguistic ideologies within the context global capitalism. That said, the marginalization of poor white people is an important research topic that I certainly think warrants further study by scholars.

3.) Your use of standardized academic language means that you can’t critique them.

There are two major forms of this comment that I have encountered. One form is openly belligerent with some people going as far as suggesting that I am speaking like a white person so cannot critique whiteness. Another form is from people who wish that I would practice what I preach and embody the critique that I am offering by engaging in subversive language practices. Both are working from the position that standardized academic language is an objective set of linguistic features that I am completely adhering to in my presentation.

My response

I have utilized a range of linguistic resources throughout my presentation including technical vocabulary, pop culture references, jokes, some Spanish words and perhaps the occasional curse word. You heard me to be engaged in standardized academic language based on an assemblage of factors including linguistic criteria but also nonlinguistic factors such as the conference presentation format, my academic credentials, and your own previous experiences. It is quite possible that somebody engaging in similar practices in other contexts without these credentials might not be perceived as using standardized academic language. Thus, I invite you to join me in interrogating the language ideologies that shape our perceptions in the hopes that we can develop new ways of listening that challenge white supremacy.

4.) Students of color need to master standardized academic language in order to be successful in life.

This type of comment is sometimes hostile with the commenter arguing that I am doing a disservice to students of color by suggesting that they should not have to master standardized academic language. More common, however, is for the commenter to indicate agreement with my overall argument but note that teaching students of color standardized academic language remains the only viable option for preparing them for life in a white supremacist world.

My response

The issue of how to prepare students of color for the realities of a white supremacist society is a difficult one that can be thought about in many different ways. My point of entry into thinking about this issue is through a focus on theories of change. The theory of change implied in teaching students of color standardized academic language places the burden on people of color to dismantle their own marginalization. The theory of change that I am proposing focuses on addressing the broader structural racism that are the root causes of the marginalization of communities of color. I am not suggesting that teachers should not try to teach students of color the codes of power. What I am suggesting is that we cannot expect these efforts to address the root causes of racial inequality. Schooling in a white supremacist society will always reinforce white supremacy. The only viable option for ending racial oppression is to dismantle white supremacy.

5.) This is all too theoretical. What practical solutions are you proposing?

This comment is almost always from somebody who expresses strong agreement with my analysis but who is struggling to imagine what the implications are for their work as researchers and/or teacher educators.

My response

The focus of my research is on examining how deeply entrenched white supremacist framings of language are in everyday discussions of educational linguistics and to point to structural change that is needed to dismantle this white supremacist framing.  The quick move to practical considerations without taking time to understand the workings of white supremacy may serve to do more harm than good. That is not to say that classroom practice cannot be improved, but that we need to situate educational reform initiatives within broader efforts to dismantle white supremacy if we are truly committed to combating racial inequalities.

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1 comment
  1. Thank you for such an important piece. I am a teacher educator and my focus is mathematics education. The topic of classroom discourse (spoken language) and its impact on learning has become quite popular in recent years. Unfortunately very little attention is given to the fact that a majority of researchers, curriculum designers, and teachers formulating the ideas of what counts as mathematics classroom discourse are Euro-American (white). Even in the face of mountains of data showing the deleterious economic impact colonial Europe and European capitalism has had on Africana people via mathematical strategem, a belief that critical race mathematics and critical culture mathematics hinder real opportunities to learn (standardized) mathematics remains constant. Top researchers in mathematics rave about findings of (dubious) mathematics success with diverse learners without having employed the “divisive” rhetoric of race or culture. Others speak of how discussion of race may get in the way of “real” mathematics progress for African American children who need it so badly. And in some cases, nationally recognized panels on mathematics education simply do not mention the well-researched role race plays in learning. Your responses to statements number 2 and 4 where very helpful to my thinking on mathematics classroom discourse in the context of largely color-blind dominant discourse in mathematics. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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