Raciolinguistic Ideologies are not Individual Thoughts, They are Structural Racism

A common narrative that I have worked to debunk in my work are the raciolinguistic ideologies that frames low-income students of color are linguistically deficient in comparison to their white middle class counterparts. A common misreading of my attempts to challenge these raciolinguistic ideologies is that I am calling individuals who reproduce deficit framings racist. In reality, what I am attempting to do is to illustrate the ways that mainstream discourses available to us to describe the language practices of racialized communities have inherited a legacy of white supremacy that reifies their racialization regardless of the intent of individuals who rely on these discourses.

Contemporary raciolinguistic ideologies are descendants of raciolinguistic ideologies that were integral components to the perpetuation of European colonialism. For example, Spanish colonizers depicted indigenous languages as animal-like forms of simple communication. In a similar vein, French colonizers typically engaged Black French speakers as if they were children and refused to recognize them as legitimate French speakers with the same intellectual capacity as white people. These raciolinguistic ideologies were part of broader colonial efforts at the dehumanization of indigenous and African populations that could then be used to justify the violent conquest and genocide associated with European colonialism.

In the US context these raciolinguistic ideologies were integral components to the construction of whiteness as property. As Cheryl Harris argues, the slavery and settler colonialism that shaped the foundation of US society constructed whiteness as property in that people deemed white were permitted to enslave Africans and conquer indigenous lands. After the Civil War this whiteness as property shifted toward the ability to access space that was designated for white people through both de jure and de facto segregation, the relegation of indigenous peoples to reservation and the conquest of other settler colonial lands through the Mexican American War and the Spanish American war.

The Civil Rights era witnessed efforts to reform US institutions without addressing the multiple generations of racial exclusion associated with whiteness as property. Ujju Aggarawal traces the reconfiguration of what she refers to as the ideological architecture of whiteness as property in the post Civil Rights era to the Brown vs. Board of Education. She points to the ways that the discourses surrounding the Brown decision were focused on the psychological damages caused by segregation on the internal psyche of African American children in ways that obscured the legacy of racialized material inequalities that shaped their lives. From this perspective, the solution to this racial inequality becomes to fix the deficiencies of the African American community rather than dismantle the structural barriers confronting these communities.

A raciolinguistic court precedent related to school segregation was Mendez vs. Westminster. This decision made in 1947 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals 7 years before the Brown decision, focused on the segregation of Mexican-American students in California. The argument made by Orange County school districts in defense of their segregation practices was that the segregation of Mexican-American students was justifiable because of their supposed language handicap. Particularly striking in the courts decision is the primary rationale for ending this segregation, which was not the material consequences of attending inferior schools on the multi-generational prospects of the Mexican-American community but rather in the fact that segregation leads them not to learn English. This framing has striking similarities to the primary problem with the segregation of African-American students identified by the Supreme Court in the Brown decision. The underlying theory of change in both decisions is that integrating will fix the perceived educational deficits of Mexican and African-American students and allow them to become the system rather than to transform the system.

The consequences of this ideological architecture of whiteness as property can be seen in the institutionalization of bilingual education in the post-Civil Rights era. In order to determine eligibility for bilingual education programs, students were administered language proficiency assessments in both English and Spanish that included tasks that were disconnected from their daily communicative practices. Many students performed poorly on these decontextualized assessments. As a result many of them were labeled “semilingual,” or not fully proficient in either English or Spanish.

The use of the term semilingualism has gradually disappeared from both scholarly and school-based framings of the language practices of Latinx students. Importantly, this new framing did not question the validity of the designation but rather thought the issue was one of a poor choice of words. Therefore, while within the context of European colonialism raciolinguistic ideologies were utilized to frame indigenous languages as animal-like in ways that are incompatible with civilization and Black people as child-like and in need of racial uplift, contemporary raciolinguistic ideologies frame racialized students home language practices as incompatible with our modern education system and in need of remediation. It is this phenomenon that a raciolinguistic perspective is challenging us to consider—namely, that while discourses have superficially changed over time the underlying framework has remained the same. There is something about the language practices of racialized communities that needs to be fixed.

The challenge of a raciolinguistic perspective is not, therefore, whether we individually have racist thoughts. Instead, it is about how the mainstream discourses available to us are a continuation of the logic of colonialism that frame racialized communities as inferior to the white population. It is about how these mainstream discourses place the onus on racialized communities to combat multiple generations of racial oppression by modifying their linguistic practices. It is about exposing how deeply entrenched structural racism is in the ways that we talk about language, even when our intention is to promote anti-racism.

A raciolinguistic perspective pushes us to critically examine the ways that we frame problems, which in turn informs the solutions that we provide. If we frame the problem as one of modifying the language practices of racialized communities, we leave intact the logics of colonialism that produce contemporary raciolinguistic ideologies. If we frame the problem as one of multiple generations of racial oppression, then our solutions can more readily focus on dismantling structural racism. While dismantling structural racism may seem like a daunting task, it is the only way to truly dismantle the raciolinguistic ideologies our society has inherited.

For more information, check out my latest article with Jonathan Rosa:

Unsettling race and language: Toward a raciolinguistic perspective

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