A Review of “After Whiteness”, Abridged.

Given the objections to my comments on Gerald’s style in the original version, I offer this abridged version which leaves them out. I think I should be allowed to make the comments I made without being accused of writing trash, of being a troll, and, inevitably, of being a racist, and I’m not bowing to the pressure of those who make these accusations. But by leaving out the “offensive” bits, I hope to make it clear that the bulk of my criticisms are aimed at the weaknesses of the article itself, and that the review is not intended as a personal attack on Gerald.

The article, by Gerald, et. al (2021) is the first part of “a vision of a possible future for English language teaching” and it discusses how English language teaching (ELT) might be practiced if Whiteness were to be decentered.

The authors explain that “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”. Not a lot is said in the article to support this preliminary assertion, but it is dealt with, to some extent anyway, in an article by Gerald (2019), who cites the work of Bell (1995); Bourdieu (2005); Canagarajah (1999), Bonfiglio, (2002), and Phillipson (1992), among others, to help him argue that English is the language of capitalist power, used to support a neoliberal ideology which sustains the status quo. ELT professionals promise non-whites, the racialized, that they can save themselves from the “precarity and pain endemic to powerlessness” by learning “Standardized English”, i.e., a manner of using English which white people use. The promise is an empty one, since whiteness is an ideology that depends upon exclusion, and thus the best that students can hope for is, as Gerald et. al put it in this article, is “to pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness without full equity”.

I recommend these further texts: Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas (2009), Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000), Skutnabb-Kangas & Cummins 1988), and Skutnabb-Kangas et. al (1995), and that the authors go into more depth about precisely how they are using the construct of Whiteness. In as far as I understand their use of the construct, I agree that it’s an issue that deserves to be more widely discussed and I agree that radical change is required to deal with it.  

The main part of the article is devoted to answering the question “What would ELT look like after Whiteness had been decentered?”. To do this, they set out to “re-envision” the classroom and current ELT practice. They insist that the “entry point” to this new vision is the dismissal of linguistic prescriptivism “(i.e., the idea that grammar and language should be corrected and regulated)”, and the adoption of “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.

They go on to provide “select snapshots” of what counterprescriptivism might look like. The problem is that the “snapshots” are extremely blurred. First up is the suggestion that, since ELT must stop framing standardized English as the only desirable form of the language, it follows that teachers should be “direct” about what they’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.

Let’s agree that we should not, in the ideal future of ELT practice that the authors envisage, choose to teach standardized English. Let’s suppose instead that the school near where Gerald lives in New York teaches the New York versions of African American English and Dominican English. What would that look like? Well, it would “relegate standardized English to a decentered role within the larger ecosystem of the field while elevating other forms of the language”, by encouraging students “to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process”.

OK, but what would it look like? We don’t expect a detailed description, but surely we have the right to expect a clear, well-focused snapshot. A sample lesson perhaps, or an outline syllabus, or something that would indicate the radical differences that are claimed to ensue. What would be taught? How? What does the teacher (following a radically changed syllabus, one supposes) do to encourage students to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process? Nothing is suggested; instead we are told that if the school near where Gerald lives in New York taught the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English (whatever that might involve) “ideologies that tether Whiteness to a standardized form of the English language” would be recognized as “nothing more than attempts to standardize Whiteness itself”.

The second snapshot involves “rethinking Intelligibility”. In the re-visioned ELT world, teachers would relax their expectations about how students should use the language. For example, regarding pronunciation, if students learn the varieties of English of where they live, they’ll appreciate 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, teachers would help students to focus on “critical listening”, so that students appreciate that “certain racialized accents are not inherently unintelligible, but rather are made unintelligible by ears conditioned by ideologies of White supremacy”.

And that’s it; that’s the second snapshot and the end of the article, apart from a short final paragraph.

Discussion

“Thin soup” is how I’d describe this article. It begins:

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”.

The pointers this article gives towards the ideal future ELT that the authors have in mind consist of two blurred and poorly described “snapshots”, more notable for their rhetoric than for their substance. Two particular issues need addressing.

First, how, in a post-Whiteness version of ELT, can racialized students be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect? What does it mean to say that if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction? All of us interested in radical change to current ELT practice accept the need to revise the “what” of English language teaching, so as to move beyond “Standardized English”. The question is what do we put it in its place? What knowledge of the grammar, lexis and pronunciation of English should we teach? As many local varieties as possible? A “formal” (Standardized) and “informal” (local) variety? What? This boils down to a question of the limitations of an “Anything goes” approach: what are the limitations on this splendid injunction? What do we do to ensure that people using English as a lingua franca enjoy easy, mutually intelligible communication with each other? Seen through the lens of a raciolinguist, how do we reform the current version of English so as to rid it of Whiteness? Without proper attention to these questions, all the stuff in this article is little more than hand waving.

Second, how does Gerald – in his own words “a rare Black voice in the field” – reconcile the way he uses English in his “published scholarship” with his insistence that standardized English, the language of the oppressor, must be banished from ELT? In a reply to a question from Mura Nava on Twitter, who asked Gerald about this mismatch, Gerald acknowledged the problem, and said:

“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”.

In my opinion, Gerald needs to tackle the problem by paying more attention to what version of English those involved in ELT should use. It’s a difficult question, and I don’t think this article gets very far in answering it.    

References

Bell, D. (1995). Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory? University of Illinois Law Review, 893–910.

Bonfiglio, T. P. (2002). Race and the Rise of Standard American. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bourdieu, P. (2005). Language and symbolic violence. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Canagarajah, A. (1999). Resisting linguistic imperialism in English language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gerald, J.P.B. (2020). Worth the Risk: Towards Decentring Whiteness in English Language Teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5, 1, 44-54. Retrieved from: https://ojs-o.library.ubc.ca/index.php/BCTJ/article/view/345

Gerald, J.P.B, Ramjattan, V.A., &  Stillar, S. (2021).After Whiteness. Language  Magazine, May 17, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.languagemagazine.com/2021/05/17/after-whiteness/#comment-637475

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. (1988). Linguicism: structures and ideologies in linguistic imperialism. In J. Cummins, J., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (eds.), Minority education: From shame to struggle. Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

 Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2009). The politics and policies of language and language teaching. In Long, M. H., & Doughty, C. J. (eds.), Handbook of language teaching (pp. 26-41). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education – or world diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Cummins, J. (eds.) (1988). Minority education: From shame to struggle. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Phillipson, R., & Rannut, M. (1995). Linguistic human rights: Overcoming linguistic discrimination. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

One thought on “A Review of “After Whiteness”, Abridged.

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