Voices in Education

The Raciolinguistic Catch-22
Despite the fact that heterogeneous linguistic repertoires have been a norm throughout human history, language diversity is often viewed as problematic in mainstream US educational contexts. Presumptions about alleged problems with linguistic diversity hinge on the meritocratic myth that access to Standard English will enable racialized populations to overcome the racial hierarchies that permeate US society.

The perpetuation of this meritocratic myth spans the political spectrum. Subtractive or assimilationist perspectives at the conservative end of this spectrum posit that schools can most effectively help racialized students to access mainstream society by replacing their home language practices with Standard English. The progressive end of the political spectrum embraces additive or multicultural frameworks that advocate allowing racialized students to maintain their home language practices while learning to use Standard English when appropriate. Although these perspectives might appear to oppose one another, both ends of the spectrum focus on modifying the language practices of racialized speaking subjects and offer linguistic solutions to racial stratification.

We reject the notion that the solution to racial inequalities that plague schools and society is teaching racialized students to conform to standard conventions when appropriate. This is because ideologies of linguistic appropriateness are intimately linked to processes of racialization that shape how bodies, practices, and symbols come to be perceived as either appropriate or deviant. We develop the notion of raciolinguistic ideologies to theorize this interplay between language and racialization. A raciolinguistic perspective seeks to shift the focus of inquiry from the language practices of the racialized speaking subject to the marginalizing processes enacted by the white listening subject.

The white listening subject rejects the legitimacy of racialized language practices in ways that are unrelated to empirical linguistic forms. Instead, it hears linguistic deficiency in racialized speaking subjects even when they engage in language practices that would be deemed normative were they produced by a white speaking subject. Indeed, the white speaking subject is endowed with the capacity to derive cache from both engaging in normative language practices and appropriating racialized language practices. Conversely, racialized speaking subjects face a catch-22 in mainstream institutional contexts: “You need to sound like me but I will never acknowledge that you do.” If attempting to teach racialized populations to employ “appropriate” language practices ignores this double bind, then what alternative models of educational justice might we envision?

About the Author: Nelson Flores is an assistant professor of educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. His research seeks to denaturalize dominant language ideologies that inform current conceptualizations of language education.

Jonathan Rosa is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research focuses on language ideologies, racialization, and educational inequality in urban contexts.