There have been two previous installments in this series. In the first, we spoke about some pedagogical ideas teachers could employ to challenge Whiteness in their classrooms (Gerald, Ramjattan, and Stillar, 2021a). In the second, we discussed the way we reimagined training and labor in English language teaching (ELT) such that nativeness is no longer something to which the field would ascribe and the positive impact this ideological shift might have (Gerald, Ramjattan, and Stillar, 2021b). We now return for a final time to put forth our ideas for how the broader ELT industry could evolve if Whiteness were indeed successfully decentered. As we have said more than once in this series, we hope to share a vision that may help clarify the potentially murky water into which we would all be jumping if Whiteness were decentered. We understand that a seismic shift in our discipline would be destabilizing, but as you consider this final installment, understand that, difficult though it might be to achieve, it would be worth working toward.
Action Research as a Goal
A post-Whiteness ELT would strive not just to change the classroom or even the field but also to make a post-Whiteness world. Rather than seeing their purpose as simply teaching English as a “skill” to be honed for participation in a neoliberal capitalist economy, ELT practitioners would use their work to strive for some micro- or meso-level changes in their contexts to combat Whiteness. Consider, as we mentioned in Part One of this series, pronunciation teaching as just one area to elucidate this point. While most pronunciation teachers would likely state that their goal is to make their students more intelligible, they often neglect how their students’ racialization in society can shape external perceptions of their intelligibility and, furthermore, how these perceptions have material consequences. In the realm of employment, for instance, White “foreign-accented” job applicants are typically perceived as more intelligible/employable than their racialized counterparts, thereby suggesting that there are racial hierarchies when it comes to assessments of employability in relation to speech accent (Hosoda and Stone-Romero, 2010). More work on this topic was included in this very Pass the Mic series last month (Romney, 2022).
To fight against reduced employment prospects and other material disadvantages on the basis of accent, teachers need to use their pedagogy as an opportunity to challenge these inequalities. For example, teachers and students could engage in some sort of action research where they interrogate and challenge local employers’ aversion to hiring racialized “foreign-accented” applicants, which has the potential to substantively shift hiring policies in students’ communities.
The Un-Canon of Lived Experience
Ultimately, if we depend upon the same ideas from the same people and places, the foundation upon which our knowledge is based will remain the same. Thus, in our vision, the canon itself would be removed, but it would also not be replaced. Expertise would be sought from students’ communities and histories. This would require extensive student-generated input but would help to dismantle linguistic and racialized hierarchies within the conceptualization of English. Students would be asked to take note of the way that their neighbors and relatives use English and bring it to share with classmates, becoming active participants in applying educational research for direct use in their classrooms.
Part of this epistemological shift involves getting over the idea of the “ownership of English.” As noted by scholars such as Widdowson (1994), standardized English is believed to be the “property” of White native speakers from the global North, and as a result, they have the authority to shape the language as they see fit. But in striving for a post-Whiteness ELT, we need to reject such a White supremacist, capitalist notion of language. Specifically, we need to think about English as part of a linguistic commons: the language does not belong to anyone; rather, it is a community resource that all users contribute to and draw from. Therefore, as an example, when we see the word prepone, a word in so-called Indian English meaning to move an event ahead of schedule (Widdowson, 1994), it is important to remember that this is not a “made-up” word but rather a concise and useful antonym for postpone. If you were teaching students who needed to interact with Indian English users, why would you not want to teach such an innovative word?
Teaching the Perceiving Subjects
Ultimately, one of the aspects of English that we lose when we idealize Whiteness and the ideologies that descend from it is the creativity evidenced by words such as the one above. How much could we gain by not only teaching students different Englishes but, perhaps more importantly, by treating minoritized varieties as the ideal? How might the White perceiving subject (Flores and Rosa, 2015) be taught to perceive more effectively? Why can’t the teaching of pronunciation be a two-way street, where the majoritized teacher is given time to practice listening to different Englishes and only sent off into the classroom once they have gained a certain level of experience with the population they might want to work with? Indeed, if there’s anything that is a true deficit, it’s monolingualism and the insistence upon language boundaries, so why shouldn’t all future ELT practitioners be freed from the cage they’ve long been placed in? We know that people worry about the potential impact on standardized exams and the like, but we submit to you that, so long as raciolinguistic ideologies are in place, the racialized languagers will always “fail,” so there’s far more risk in the status quo than there would be if we reversed the positions of who was in need of linguistic support.
We have been working on this project for the better part of a year now, a time during which we’ve received feedback across the spectrum, from constructive (which we tried to incorporate) to dismissive (in the comments here and on social media) to baldly racist and threatening (in personal emails). For reasons that should be clear if you have read all three of these, trying to offer an alternative to the way English is conceived of and taught makes a certain subset of our field very upset, but we still believe that the vision we have put forth is one that would be far more supportive of the many racialized learners and teachers whose ideas and identities have always been shoved to the side. What we have sketched out in these three articles is something of a dream, but that doesn’t mean it can’t become reality. To paraphrase Kendrick, “Do you hear us? Do you feel us? We gon’ be all right.” But only if we take the leap to a world that doesn’t yet exist.
Indeed, we imagine a world in which advertisements for international teaching positions are no longer geared toward inexperienced White college graduates (Ruecker and Ives, 2015). We imagine a world in which additional labor is not demanded of racialized educators who don’t fit the expected aesthetics of the field. We imagine a world where the standardized norms of English are no longer simply treated as neutral regulations disembodied from the power-dominant populations who imposed them.
We make all of the above recommendations not out of disdain for the field of ELT but out of affection for the people harmed by it. Thus, our ideas are born of love, not hatred, as we seek to move toward the demolition of the rotten foundation that sustains White supremacy in ELT. We do so with the hope that in its reconstruction, a field that centers the empowerment of students from marginalized ethnoracial backgrounds may be resurrected in its stead. We do not know if our ideas would work, but we do know that what we have now is harmful and oppressive and, at heart, ineffective at much other than keeping racialized learners and languagers in their place below the dominant group.
Even in 2022, when I (Gerald) am highlighted at a conference, I am usually the only prominent Black voice. There are many of us out there, but still so few of us who are given the same consideration as our White counterparts. So long as Whiteness remains centered in English language teaching—and in education overall—our racialized learners will never be truly safe in the classroom, and our racialized colleagues will never be safe in the industry. The importance of this ongoing Pass the Mic series should not be understated, because it is one of the few ways that many of us can have our voices heard by those who might otherwise never have a chance to listen to what we have to say about the field, and we encourage you to keep reading.
As we enter Black History Month and consider the actions that can be taken, we need to take substantive steps toward breaking the ties that bind our field to historical legacies of White domination and move toward a vision wherein the full humanity of all of our students is prized. This will not be possible without a radical shift in the way language teaching is conceptualized as a vector for White supremacy.
Keeping in mind the resilient nature of Whiteness in its maintenance of a White-dominant status quo, there is no certainty that any of our suggestions will come to pass. However, we reside with the firm belief that the ideas we discussed are undoubtedly beneficial to both the field of ELT in general and students and teachers from marginalized backgrounds in particular. Ultimately, the dangers of a centered Whiteness are plentiful, and any work we can do to combat its power would be worthwhile. We hope we can begin along this path as soon as possible, and we hope you are willing to join the effort alongside us. The three of us thank you for following us throughout this project, and we welcome ongoing, constructive discourse. (But not racism.)
Flores, N., and Rosa, J. (2015). “Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education.” Harvard Educational Review, 149–172.
Hosoda, M., and Stone-Romero, E. (2010). “The Effects of Foreign Accents on Employment-Related Decisions.” Journal of Managerial Psychology, 25(2), 113–132. doi: 10.1108/02683941011019339
Gerald, J., Ramjattan, V., and Stillar, S. (2021, May 17). “After Whiteness, Part One.” Language Magazine. www.languagemagazine.com/2021/05/17/after-whiteness
Gerald, J., Ramjattan, V., and Stillar, S. (2021, Sept. 14). “After Whiteness, Part Two.” Language Magazine. www.languagemagazine.com/2021/09/14/after-whiteness-part-two
Romney, M. (2022). “But You’re Not What We’re Looking For.” Language Magazine, 21(5), 28–30.
Ruecker, T., and Ives, L. (2015). “White Native English Speakers Needed: The rhetorical construction of privilege in online teacher recruitment spaces.” TESOL Quarterly, 733–754.
J. P. B. Gerald is an EdD candidate at CUNY–Hunter College whose scholarship focuses on language teaching, racism, (dis)ability, and Whiteness. You can find his public scholarship at jpbgerald.com and his excessive Twitter opinions @JPBGerald.
Vijay A. Ramjattan received his PhD in adult education and 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.
Scott Stillar is currently a PhD 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.