Why a Raciolinguistic Perspective Passes the Classroom Reality Check

It has come to my attention that a senior scholar in the field has been encouraging his audience to figure out who I am and to give my work the “classroom reality check.” His basic argument is that the frameworks that I have developed alongside my mentors and colleagues have little bearing on the lives of actual classroom teachers. If you have decided to do this homework and have actually found me (since he apparently refers to the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies without citing those of us who coined the term), I would like to take this opportunity to make the case for how the concept does, in fact, pass the classroom reality check.

My journey into developing the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies emerged out of my experiences as an ESL teacher at a high school in the Bronx. The majority of my students were born in the United States and felt quite comfortable communicating in English, with many even reporting to me that they felt more comfortable communicating in English than in Spanish. Using the knowledge gained from my teacher education, I hypothesized that subtractive bilingualism had prevented them from gaining a strong mastery of academic language in either English or Spanish.  I determined that my job was to promote additive bilingualism by teaching them academic language. Yet, as I got to know my students more, I began to experience a big disconnect between the discourses I had available to me to describe their language practices (as lacking) and the fluid bilingualism that I observed them engaging in on a daily basis. Eventually, I began to wonder how it was possible for students who I observed using English and Spanish on a daily basis to be considered deficient in both.

It was this question that led me in collaboration with Jonathan Rosa to coin the term raciolinguistic ideologies. Raciolinguistic ideologies point to the ways that within the context of European colonialism and its aftermath that language and race have become co-constructed in ways that frame the language practices of racialized communities as deficient and in need of remediation. A key aspect of our raciolinguistic perspective is the shift from a focus on the speaking practices of racialized students toward the listening practices of the white listening subject. From this perspective, there is nothing about the language practices of racialized communities that make them deficient. Instead, the problem lies in the ways that they are taken up by listeners who have been socialized into hearing the language practices of these communities as deficient as a legacy of European colonialism.

Providing spaces for classroom teachers to reflect on the ways that their listening practices and the listening practices of their colleagues reflect the hegemonic position of the white listening subject is immensely important. Indeed, when I introduce this shift from the speaker to the listener to bilingual educators, it instantly resonates with their own experiences as teachers working with low-income Latinx students. They witness firsthand the disparities between the ways that the bilingualism of their students is framed versus the ways that the bilingualism of more affluent student populations is framed. They report their frustrations at the ways that other teachers argue that dual language education is not right for “our kids” and that it should be reserved for gifted students in more affluent schools who can already speak English well. The concept of raciolinguistic ideologies provides them with discourse to call out this double-standard and contextualize it within a broader history of colonial relations of power.

In my work with teachers, we push the conversation even further than this. We reflect together on what to make of the fact that contemporary framings of the language practices of racialized communities sound so eerily similar to the ways that the language practices of racialized communities were discussed within the context of European colonialism. We struggle with the ways that dichotomous framings of language into “academic” and “non-academic” seem to imply that the “non-academic” home language practices of racialized communities have no place in the modern educational system. We work to contrast this with a close examination of the ways that students from racialized backgrounds negotiate socially constructed linguistic boundaries on a daily basis. We reflect on the unique affordances these students have for developing an understanding of the importance of considering your audiencewhen making language choices as well as the impact of particular language choices on meaning. We brainstorm what it might look like for teachers to shift their goal away from teaching students academic language toward helping them to make connections between their existing knowledge and the seemingly unfamiliar tasks demanded by the standards. This opens up the possibility of challenging us all to develop new ways of listening/reading that recognizes that the home language practices of racialized communities as inevitably aligned with as opposed to dichotomous with the language demands of school.

The teachers I have engaged in these types of conversations have almost always embraced the conversation with open arms. They feel validated by the acknowledgement of the real structural constraints that they confront as educators working with low-income racialized students in under-resourced schools. They also appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the biases in their listening practices and the space for developing new pedagogical approaches that resist these biases. They express a genuine desire for alternative discourses that help them to name the linguistic dexterity that they observe their students engaging in on a daily basis and the ways that this linguistic dexterity is devalued in school and the broader society. But perhaps most importantly, they appreciate being able to discuss how to navigate the tension between pressures to meet the language demands of their curriculum while positioning the home language practices of their students as legitimate both inside and outside of the classroom. Though there are no easy answers or magic bullets for how to resolve this tension I can’t imagine anything more connected to classroom realities than that.

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4 thoughts on “Why a Raciolinguistic Perspective Passes the Classroom Reality Check

  1. Thank you for making this argument! I work with a subgroup of Students in my HS that are at least one year behind in math. The elephant is they are majority Latinx.(As are the Ss in all our math support classes). Can you direct me to learn more about the strategies and supports I can offer to my students? I am always impressed with their fluid ability to switch from English to Spanish and blend the languages together. It is so musical to my ears and I always let them know how impressed I am with them. There are some times when I wonder how to bridge my snobby academic biases, especially around words like “hecka and hella.” So more reading would be a good exercise for me.

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    1. Thanks for reading my blog and for your comments. I think the best place to start would be to check out the teaching resources on the CUNY-NYSIEB website, especially the translanguaging guides: https://www.cuny-nysieb.org

      The resources provide a great introduction to the idea of how to recognize the rich linguistic practices of students and how to make these linguistic practices central to what we do as educators. They are also very teacher friendly resources!

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  2. It seems that a lot of people who perhaps are not as familiar with terms like hegemony, (post)colonialism, etc., and “woke” to the concepts they represent, initially balk at the kinds of ideas put forth on this blog. I’m thinking primarily of some of the hostile responses on a post from this blog that I’ve been following, posted a few years back, about white people speaking Spanish to Latinx folks. It seems, though, that people balking is part of the sociocultural conditioning of empire: to render those who question the status quo as unrealistic or as making “a big deal out of nothing.” But isn’t that how oppressed communities (and, sometimes, their allies) have been treated through the centuries? “Oh, it’s just a bunch of women whining.” “Oh, it’s just the rabble outside.” This process of discounting and dehumanization allows those with power to continue as-is without interrogating their complicities and privilege. So — educationallinguist — you are a prophet, speaking truth to power and urging others to do the same. Please keep up the leadership in thinking and writing and reflecting.

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