Race and Language Teaching

Sheri Spaine Long shares her personal reflections

I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1988 from Los Angeles, California. Even Birmingham’s undeniable legacy of racial injustice and violence could not quell my youthful anticipation of beginning my first academic appointment at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Prior, I had taught as a graduate student at the University of Iowa and UCLA. Before that, I cut my teeth as a Spanish teacher in the public schools in Iowa. None of these experiences prepared me completely for teaching in the Deep South.

I am a White female. I am a language educator and humanities professor by training. I was a child during the civil rights movement led by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From that time, I understood that we all have to work on not being racist every day. It is a process. The educational community has a responsibility to work on this process constantly with our students collectively and individually.

I can still recall my initial semesters of teaching at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the early 1990s. On the first day of classes, my undergraduate students in introductory Spanish classes would often sort themselves by race into a black and white seating arrangement. It was eye-opening to see such unapologetic self-segregation. At those moments, I remember also feeling empowered because I was a Spanish teacher. In the language classroom, I knew that I would have all of my students working together in Spanish in small groups regardless of race. Three times a week, I reshuffled my students again and again to make sure that they got to know each other well.

In introductory Spanish, one of the universal experiences is the attempt to communicate with limited vocabulary. A typical in-class exercise for beginners is to learn how to talk about family and family members with reduced Spanish. These were opportunities to create common ground among classmates. While students shared that their abuelas were old and short, these interactions chipped away at the racial divide. These simple utterances linked students through their common human experiences. None of my pedagogy was revolutionary. However, it was a step. In large part, my students had been educated in Alabama high schools that did not receive high marks for desegregation due to long-standing racist practices. My goal was to try to make people comfortable with each other. Typically, my classes were made up of roughly 25% Black and 75% White students in the 1990s.

From time to time, I was fortunate to have the same students enroll in my classes over several years and follow me from beginning to more advanced Spanish classes. It was gratifying to see familiar students discontinue the practice of sitting by race because they had developed friendships across color lines. Admittedly, these were baby steps toward the confrontation of an enormous problem.

During my teaching career, I also had a variety of difficult dialogues in class and teachable moments during my office hours. I spoke openly about race and identity in my classes and encouraged my students to do the same. I recollect a White student who visited me during office hours. She came in and closed the door. I will call her Amy. She was engaged to be married. Later, she shared that her fiancé lived in a mobile home near Birmingham. She said to me, “I just don’t get it.” At that moment, I was expecting to rehash for her some nuance of Spanish grammar, but Amy went on to clarify. She genuinely wanted me to explain to her the issue with the Confederate flag that flew regularly above her fiancé’s home. She seemed baffled about why some of her classmates taunted her because of it. That was not the last time I had to explain that the Confederate flag made (and still makes) lots of people uncomfortable. That day in my office, Amy also received a bonus history lesson.

Over the years, my Black students taught me many things. One was about the power of imagery and identity. In the late 1990s, it became apparent that my Black students could not see themselves in mainstream Spanish teaching materials. The images found in instructional materials were overwhelmingly of White Spanish speakers worldwide. The visuals omitted Afro-Hispanic history and Afro-Latinx presence—not to mention the absence of other marginalized groups like the large Spanish-speaking Indigenous populations. After all, it may be easier for Black students to see themselves speaking Spanish if they see, hear, and learn about Afro-Cubans, the Spanish speakers of Equatorial Guinea, and multicultural Puerto Ricans, among others. My Black students helped me to dig deeper to develop and publish more inclusive and thought-provoking instructional materials to use with all of my students. While these anecdotes may sound dated, why are similar experiences that highlight racial inequities and bigotry still repeating themselves 30 years later?

Language teachers are well-positioned to contribute to the fight against racism in little and big ways. Language teachers build trust and influence learners. Language teachers know how to cross cultures and generally are comfortable in uncomfortable situations. The language classroom offers a space to share culture, customs, and friendship. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the protests, language teachers and learners must make a positive contribution to change.

At present, I am the executive director of a large teaching association. Organizations such as the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP) stand ready to work with individual teachers to share diverse materials that combat racism. We promote and practice inclusion. We commit ourselves to celebrating Afro-Latinidad at our conferences, in AATSP publications, and in the classroom. We are committed to advocating for justice for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Muslim, LGBTQ, and other marginalized people. However, so much more needs to be done. I am excited about the next phase of the development of a more direct and systematic language pedagogy dealing with inequality, race, and ethnicity. Language teachers are purveyors of empathy and understanding. Language teachers do not have all of the answers, but our engagement and leadership in the process will be essential as we move past the stormy summer of 2020.

Sheri Spaine Long ([email protected]) is executive director of the American Association of Spanish and Portuguese Teachers.

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