After Whiteness

J. P. B. Gerald, Vijay A. Ramjattan, and Scott Stillar present the first part of a vision of a possible future for English language teaching

From the canon to hiring practices to the classroom, we would be speaking about an entirely different field of English language teaching (ELT) if Whiteness were no longer centered, and although we are years of hard work away from this possibility, any calls for radical change are well served by pointing toward a possible future, and as such it is valuable to entertain the idea. As a rare Black voice in the field, I (Gerald) have spent much of this year speaking on the goal of decentering Whiteness in ELT, basing my presentations on an article I had published last spring (Gerald, 2020). Though it was conceptualized months earlier, its release just after the beginning of the ongoing racial justice uprising was such that it sparked a necessary and long overdue conversation in our field. As we are now approaching the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, it is fitting that I offer a continuation to an article that gained prominence in the language education space because of a long-overdue reckoning with racial injustice in the field spurred by last spring and summer’s uprising.

The article discusses how, much like in broader educational structures, Whiteness is centered in the teaching of the English language, and the ELT field serves as an arm of racist and capitalist oppression while claiming it as a force for positive change, with detrimental implications for students and educators of color. It suggests that language teaching—of all settler colonial languages, but of English in particular—needs to come to terms with the impact of its centering of Whiteness while taking substantive steps away from the status quo. This includes bringing an examination of racism and Whiteness into language teacher training programs, rejecting the White-centric canon, and, especially, encouraging all White language teachers to examine their own Whiteness and how it affects their teaching.

As discussions have developed across the field throughout the summer and fall, many have asked what ELT might actually look like if the article’s argument were to succeed, i.e., what would ELT look like after Whiteness had been decentered? I did not, however, want to merely share my own opinion of how this future might look, and I consulted with two trusted colleagues—Scott Stillar and Dr. Vijay A. Ramjattan—with whom I had spoken on the topic at length. My own focus is specifically on Whiteness in language teaching, whereas Stillar researches the intersections of language ideologies and Whiteness within post-secondary language-learning spaces, and Ramjattan pursues research concerning the aesthetic dimensions of race and Whiteness in (language-teaching) labor. The following is our collaboration in envisioning a post-Whiteness ELT, which we hope to live to see. We have broken our re-conceptualization into three articles on three related topics, which are as follows:
Classrooms
Training and labor
The industry


This article represents the first of a three-part series, with subsequent work to be published later this year.


A brief terminology note: Whiteness and White supremacy are used somewhat interchangeably in this essay, because the concept of Whiteness “is a colonially constituted construct, and thus implicitly indexes White supremacy” (Hesse, 2016, p. 2).

Re-Envisioning Classrooms

As a point of entry, we can begin by re-envisioning the classroom and our ways of teaching the language. In doing so, it is crucial that we first dismiss linguistic prescriptivism (i.e., the idea that grammar and language should be corrected and regulated) in lieu of a more robust perspective that privileges the cataloguing and acceptance of language sans power-dominant judgements of the linguistic forms from which language acts derive (i.e., descriptivism). By this point, many of us in the language field would agree that prescriptivism is harmful and tied very distinctly to Whiteness and capitalism in education, a remnant of what some have called linguistic imperialism (Phillipson, 1992). Suggestions are often made that we should focus merely on descriptivism, as it is less harmful, but this fight is now decades old. We think that we need to go a step further and actually propose what can be described as counterprescriptivism.

In a post-Whiteness version of ELT, racialized students should be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect. Meaning-making is ultimately a negotiation of power, and if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction. This would be a deeply post-structural way to approach language teaching, but part of dismantling Whiteness is dissolving artificial and coercive hierarchies, and sharing corrective power between both teachers and students is one valuable way to ensure Whiteness remains decentered. In the following sections, we provide select snapshots of what counterprescriptivism might look like.

Unstandardizing English

The language we use to refer to ourselves and our industry also has an impact on our racialized constituents. We do not, in fact, teach “Standard” English, but standardized English, an imagined form of English that has been constructed as the normative means of communication in order to further the ends of imposing White supremacy as the standard norm (Bonfiglio, 2002). A simple change would be to stop framing standardized English as the only desirable form of the language, and one way to cause this shift is to be direct about what we’re teaching. If we began to call ourselves “standardized English teachers,” we would then have the choice to consciously teach not just the language but also the features of its standardization and the decisions behind why certain types of languaging are valued more highly than others. We could also choose not to teach standardized English and instead teach the varieties surrounding a school’s location, comparing the equally valuable differences. For example, a school near where Gerald lives in New York could teach the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English.

This would not inherently destroy standardized English but would relegate it to a decentered role within the larger ecosystem of the field while elevating other forms of the language. With these changes made, our vision of the post-Whiteness ELT classroom moves closer to a possible realization of empowerment, rather than the current submission to power-normative ways of being. In such a space, imposition of monolingual principles that enforce strict adherence to White-normative language forms are confronted and rejected in favor of students being encouraged to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process. In doing so, ideologies that tether Whiteness to a standardized form of the English language are recognized as nothing more than attempts to standardize Whiteness itself, and students are well served by being aware of these forms but not by being forced to measure themselves against their own oppressors.

Rethinking Intelligibility

If teachers do in fact decide to teach different varieties of English, this would then allow for relaxed expectations regarding how students should use the language. Taking the example of pronunciation, it is important to appreciate the bodily labor that students must perform to adhere to the sonic dimensions of Whiteness. While racialized students may have to train their lips, tongues, teeth, etc., to articulate unfamiliar phonemes found in standardized Englishes of the global north, they may also need to train their ears to distinguish these Englishes from “improper-sounding” ones found in their own communities and elsewhere (Sekimoto and Brown, 2016). However, if students learn the varieties of English of where they live, they will come to know that “deficient-sounding” features of pronunciation are actually common and thus do not need to be changed in order to ensure successful oral communication. Moreover, to avoid the temptation to emulate hegemonic types of speech accents, students need to focus on critical listening. By focusing on developing their listening, students would appreciate that certain racialized accents are not inherently unintelligible, but rather are made unintelligible by ears conditioned by ideologies of White supremacy.

Depending on one’s vantage point, classrooms could be classified as either the most or least impactful part of the type of systemic change our field needs—most in the sense that, no matter what happens in the broader industry, if our pedagogy remains the same, most students will hardly notice a difference; least in the sense that a pedagogy that decenters Whiteness is necessarily disempowered in a field that continues to perpetuate the same hierarchies, which is precisely what any language teacher pushing against current restraints might be feeling today. We do hope that more members of our field choose to join those who are working against the structures that have long remained in place, but in order to support anyone who makes that important choice, we need to substantively shift the power within the broader industry itself. Accordingly, in the next part of our series, set to debut later this summer, we will tackle training and labor and the ways in which an ELT field fully divested from Whiteness would better serve its workers. Stay tuned…

References

Bonfiglio, T. P. (2002). Race and the Rise of Standard American. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Gerald, J. P. B. (2020). “Worth the Risk: Towards decentring whiteness in English language teaching.” BC TEAL Journal, 5(1), 44–54. https://doi.org/10.14288/bctj.v5i1.345
Hesse, B. (2016). “Counter-Racial Formation Theory.” In Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation, P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods (eds.), vii–x. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford.
Sekimoto, S., and Brown, C. (2016). “A Phenomenology of the Racialized Tongue: Embodiment, language, and the bodies that speak.” Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 5(2), 101–122. doi: 10.1525/dcqr.2016.5.2.101

J. P. B. Gerald is an education doctoral student at CUNY–Hunter College whose scholarship focuses on language teaching, racism, and Whiteness. You can find his public scholarship at jpbgerald.com and his excessive Twitter opinions @JPBGerald.

Scott Stillar is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Second Language Acquisition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation research investigates the ideological intersections of standardized American English and whiteness within English language education spaces.

Vijay A. Ramjattan received his PhD in Adult Education & Community Development from the University of Toronto. His research interests pertain to the intersections of language, race, and work(place learning). He often talks about these interests on Twitter: @Vijay_Ramjattan

12 COMMENTS

  1. Is this article written in standardized English? If so, is there any inconsistency involved in writing texts like this and your professed goal of decentralizing Whiteness and overthrowing the White-centric canon? If you had written this article in the New York version of African-American English or Dominican English would people who are accustomed to using standardized English find it incomprehensible?

  2. I am reluctant to continue our months-long debate about this sort of thing, Mr. Jordan, but, dismissive tone aside, there IS a legitimate discussion to be had about the fact that we do tend to use standardized English in our own writing, and how that can reify the same structures.

    I don’t believe you are making that point in good faith, but what to do about the fact that others are less familiar with unstandardized English is a genuine complexity worth exploring. Not in this piece, though maybe in the final installment later in the year.

  3. I’m certainly not interested in continuing any months-long debate with you, Mr. Gerald, but I’m genuinely interested to know how you tackle what seems to me – and to others – like an important mismatch between your central argument – your thesis we might say – and the way you make it. I notice that on Twitter you replied to a similar question from Mura by saying “I’m writing towards this in my book a small amount – how can I change things while using this language? – but ultimately it’s a bit like driving to a protest. Sometimes you have to get there however you can”. Your published work uses a highly stylized academic version of standardized English, which, far from being any old way of driving to the protest, looks to me like you’re being driven there in a gaudy strech limo.

    I reckon you could put the real content of the article above into a couple of short paragraphs, and then improve it with a few less abstract, more down to earth “snapshots” of what counterprescriptivism might look like. The article might be even better if you abandoned your present “Scholarly” version of standardized English and wrote in the style used by New York African-Americans.

  4. For the record, though I do have a distinct style (and of course this was a collaboration, you just have a problem with my work), by all accounts it’s far more accessible than most “scholarship.” I’m sorry that it seems to rub you the wrong way. I’m not sure why you feel entitled to repeatedly give me unsolicited advice.

    Your opinion is noted, and, the way you are on my twitter feed, ignored (anyone reading, he’s been doing this for months). Editorial staff, I apologize for bothering to engage with him.

    Mura’s opinion is valid and will be engaged with, and we will do so.

  5. Just in case you misinterpret my comments above, I make them in good faith.

    First, I’m keen to understand your argument, and I don’t think you make it clearly. Examples of classroom exchanges using alternatives to standardized English would help, as would discussion of whether there are any limits to an “anything goes” attitude, and if so, what they are. Obviously, we need to ensure mutual intelligibility.

    Secondly, I’d really like to see a version of this article written in a voice that you haven’t been forced to adopt. I appreciate it’s difficult, that you probably wouldn’t get it published in any “respected academic journal” that you have every right to be heard in such journals, etc., but it would be informative. The question at the end of my first comment, above, was not intended to be “dismissive”, quite the opposite, in fact.

    I won’t make any further comments.

  6. Sorry, Mr. Gerald, but “he’s ben doing this for months” is a preposterous lie. I haven’t written one word in response to anything you’ve said on Twitter or anywhere else for months.

  7. Great article! Looking forward to the rest of the series. As raciolinguistics connects our language ideologies with embodiment, and how this reifies both to oppress those that come from racialized groups / language communities, I’ve been giving some thought to the sources of these ideas. Especially as whiteness is framed as a colonial construct, often merged with capitalism, I have been considering an epistemological core to the connectedness of the above ideas. Do we consider language communities as a subset of racial categories (not exclusively), or do language communities form the boundaries of racial categorizations (also not exclusively)… I am writing a chapter now exploring the epistemological background of the theories of language of Saussure and Chomsky (and to some extent, Volosinov) and how it relates to justifications for oppressive ELT practices. I hope it can contribute to the great work you are all doing!

  8. Michael, yeah, that’s really an interesting series of issues. Does one subsume the other, in what ways do they differ, etc? It’s something I’m chewing over (racism/whiteness, capitalism, settler colonialism, and also the use of ability and intelligence as racial constructs) in my book I’m currently building towards. Get that chapter out there so we can learn from it! Knowing academia, it’ll be 4 years from now, but hey.

  9. If Geoff is interested in hearing about these issues in a different voice, I’d go and check out the Unstandardized English podcast. There’s a lot of good stuff on there that is in a less academic voice. Listening to it you’d almost thing that JPB had thought about how to get his message across a great deal and then decided to be prolific and persuasive in a range of media and voices to do so ‍♂️.

  10. The unsurprising anti-Blackness of some of these comments is obscuring the fact that this article has three co-authors, all of whose voices were valuable in bringing this to bear.

  11. An interesting article. One thing I think needs addressing though is the different contexts of teaching. It seems like this article is heavily from a North American perspective, where the typical learner is likely to be a racial minority and/or speak a non-standard variety of English with the aim of being able to communicate in a majority English-speaking country. Most students in the world aren’t in this situation. They are learning and using English in an environment where they are the racial majority and are using it to speak to other primarily non-native speakers. And yet this idea of the “standard” British or American varieties being preferred persists. But I think the solution to that is probably more of an English as a Lingua Franca approach, with a variety of (preferably non-native) voices for receptive practice, and productive practice focusing entirely on intelligibility as determined by the research into lingua franca communication.

    The idea of teaching African American or Dominican varieties of English in New York (receptively) might be useful for certain students who are going to be exposed to it, but using it as a model for production is surely incompatible with respecting the students’ own variety of English. All you’ve done there is replace an impossible white standard with an impossible black one, neither of which likely reflect the student’s own variety. So while one would be an example of decentering whiteness, it’s not necessarily an example of meeting the students needs, which as teachers, is what we’re paid to do. The idea of any native speaker model being a realistic goal has been long-debunked (which doesn’t mean it’s not still implicitly there in materials and through classroom practice).

    But as classroom teachers, we also have to accept the reality of the society we are preparing our students for. Things far beyond the control of ELT industry (which is complicit, don’t get me wrong) conspire to create a situation where people in the USA, UK, Canada, etc, are unable or unwilling to understand particular foreign accents (or non-standard native accent – search for “Graham Norton Scottish Accent” on Youtube for a particularly cringeworthy example) unless they’re heavily reduced because they are simply never exposed to these accents through media or in their daily lives. Our job is to help students communicate in society as it is, not in society as we want it to be. So I have reservations about the idea that the classroom should be the place where this particular battle is fought. But I’ll read with interest the next two parts for what practical solutions can be made (I think looking at English testing would be an interesting area, which often still makes explicit reference to native speaker models).

  12. Could someone give me a few concrete examples of racism and white supremecy in ELT? I’m looking for something really specific in plain English. Thank you.

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