A Review of “After Whiteness” by Gerald, et. al 2021.

 

The article 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. Given this premise, Gerald argues that 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, “to pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness without full equity”.

While I think Gerald has managed to find a good position for himself in the field of raciolinguistics by focusing on his chosen construct of “whiteness”, his argument seems to me to be still embryonic and sketchy. Gerald’s articles give me the impression that his attempts at elegant prose (rarely successful) compensate for lack of scholarship. There’s a lack of substantial content, a tendency to showy froth, in the texts. Compare them with the work of Phillipson himself, and those of Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas (2009), Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000), Skutnabb-Kangas & Cummins 1988), and Skutnabb-Kangas et. al (1995), for example. Still, I agree with Gerald’s position, as far as I understand it. 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, the authors 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 shouldn’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 do (following a radically changed syllabus, one supposes) 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”.

But the pointers this article gives towards the ideal future ELT 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? Should we teach as many local varieties as possible? Or maybe a “formal” (Standardized) and “informal” (local) variety? What? What are the limitations on the splendid injunction “Anything goes”? 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 be banished from ELT? Gerald’s published articles, both of them, use a highly stylized version of Standardized English which has all the hallmarks of the preferred style of academics who adopt a socio-cultural framework: “plain English” it most certainly is not. Does Gerald, I wonder, recognize the irony of referring to racialized students as those who, at best, can “pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness”? Does he not come across as one of those awful revolutionaries who knows what’s best for the rest? On Twitter, Mura Nava 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”.

“Sometimes”? “However you can”? Really? It strikes me that Gerald consistently and deliberately chooses to drive to the protest not “however you can”, but rather in a gaudy stretch limo, which, just maybe, is unfit for purpose.      

References         

Bell, D. (1995). Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory? University of Illinois Law Review, vol.1995. 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. https://doi.org/10.14288/bctj.v5i1.345

Gerald, J.P.B, Ramjattan, V.A., &  Stillar, S. (2021).After Whiteness. Language n 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.

16 thoughts on “A Review of “After Whiteness” by Gerald, et. al 2021.

  1. Hi Geoff

    my initial question to Gerald et al was “it’s not clear in article if you see standard langauge as an issue in speech, writing or both?” they answered both. i was surprised by this response.

    and i think this lack of distinction leads to you asking in languagemagazine post about the article “whether there are any limits to an “anything goes” attitude” and “would people who are accustomed to using standardized English find it incomprehensible?”

    my surprise at a lack of distinction between speech and writing comes from reading literature which does distinguish the two in relation to the standardising language issue, i.e. linguists in this literature do see value in teaching standardized writing, by contrast teaching standardized speech is a different matter – so from this perspective it is not an issue of “anything goes”.

    and i did try to post a point to your question about incomprehensiblity, but the languagemagazine site seems to have ate my posting ( while allowing 3 versions of an awful comment!) so i post it here – “incomprehensible” point misplaced – people can read Middle English Chaucer (with/without effort) & people can read non-standardized written English similarly. That (outside of Chaucer fans) not many people comprehend Middle English is because it is not conducive to accumulation of capital.

    i hope they will justify in future posts why they do not distinguish between speech and writing, they may well have a good argument which counters accusations of “anything goes”.

    if we can class Gerald et al as “a politics of refusal” O’Regan (2021:214) makes the following point:

    “In our context, this incessant reproduction [of written conventions] is what makes the standardized language what it is. Capital also shows no sign of taking heed of linguistic refusal, or even of opting for a policy of inclusion. This is because language as a normative written grammar is an elemental capitalist distinction which separates the language of capital from the ‘lesser’ and more diverse linguistic practices of the ‘multitude’”.

    still i was intrigued & curiously hopeful to read that in the field of historical linguistcs on the origins of “standard English” the following from Wright (2020: 515) :

    “Stenroos (Chapter 2) and Schipor (2018) show that the first writings in English were not the output of officialdom but initiated by less-wealthy, less-powerful classes. Stenroos reports “early texts in English are certainly found in much larger numbers in northern archives than in non-northern ones”, that is, the people furthest from the seat of power. In a study of 7,070 Hampshire docu- ments, Schipor (2018) locates the main usages of early passages in English in the context of estate and money-management.”

    O’Regan, J. P. (2021). Global English and political economy. Routledge.

    Wright, L. (2020). 18. Rising living standards, the demise of Anglo-Norman and mixed-language writing, and standard English. In The multilingual origins of Standard English (pp. 515-532). De Gruyter Mouton.

    ta
    mura

  2. Hi Mura,

    Thanks for this.

    Just to be clear, I used the “Anything goes” phrase, and it’s not one that Gerald et. al have ever used, as far as I know. But what’s certainly the case is that Gerald et. al should explain what they think does go, both in spoken and written English.

    And I agree that Gerald’s reply to your question “Do you see standard langauge as an issue in speech, writing or both?” (“Both”) needed a fuller response!

    The rest of your comment is fascinating. I haven’t read O’Regan (2021), but the quote puts me off it.

    Take care, Mura, and go thee well.

  3. I find it your commentary on Gerald’s writing troubling — why focus on one writer in a multi-authored article? Your tone in this post is quite dismissive — focusing on ad hominem attacks like “Gerald’s articles give me the impression that his attempts at elegant prose (rarely successful) compensate for lack of scholarship. There’s a lack of substantial content, a tendency to showy froth, in the texts.” Who are you to say his prose is “unsuccessful” and “showy froth”? Do you respond to white academics in this way? You deride his work for being “a highly stylized version of Standardized English” yet, not “elegant” enough for your tastes, and then bemoan the fact that it’s not written in his New York dialect. This…EXACTLY THIS is the Whiteness that Gerald et al are talking about. He’s not writing “whitely” enough to be white (i.e. acceptable in your eyes), and not “blackly” enough to be his authentic self (in your mind). Try writing about his ideas without policing his language usage.

  4. I support the contention that ELT is racist. Not by declaration but by history and culture. I’ve written about this, long before. So getting that out of the way. But when it comes to language itself being racist – as an anthropologist, got to scream. Look at the money, power, policies but don’t give me this shit about language itself being inherently, “dominant, imprisoning, violent, etc .. bla… bla .. bla…

    I think the criticisms are warranted and I’ll leave it there. But unfortunately, frat boys want to “become” and follow power to X sum. The years will teach them.

  5. It seems that the idea of decentering whiteness has got you riled up.Is it so hard to imagine a different perspective? One that is inclusive and updated?

    You seem to have a personal gripe with JP Gerald. Why not just say that?

  6. In reply to Cheryl Fretz,

    I focused on Gerald’s writing in the first part because I was talking about his 2019 article. At the end, I pointed to a problem that he himself acknowledged.

    If you look at posts of other books and articles I’ve reviewed – by Harmer, Dellar, Ur, Roberts, Maley, Thornbury, Long and many others – you’ll see that I also comment on their style. It’s usual for reviews to comment on the writing style. Sometimes – particularly in the cases of Harmer and Dellar – I have harsh words to say, including that their work is unscholarly and stylistically terrible.

  7. In reply to Anonymous,

    The idea of dencentring whiteness has not got me riled up. I support the idea.

  8. I refer to the authors of the article as “Gerald et. al” in line with APA guidelines, which recommend its use when there are three or more authors.

    When not referring to Gerald’s own work, I refer to Gerald et. al, or “the authors”, recognising that it is a collaborative work.

  9. You’re a senior, white academic telling a younger black academic that his use of language is not sufficient for his scholarship to be taken seriously (despite it being published). This is markedly different from you telling an older, established white man (i.e. Harmer) the same thing. The power relationship is different. This is the aspect of whiteness that you need to understand. You’re a self-appointed gatekeeper of academic writing, and it seems that any deviation from what you see as the norm is loosey-goosey “anything goes”, and you seem quite threatened by that.

  10. In Reply to Cheryl Fretz’s 2nd comment,

    I didn’t tell Gerald his use of language wasn’t sufficient for his scholarship to be taken seriously.

    I don’t see myself as a gatekeeper of academic writing.

    I don’t see any deviation from what I see as the norm s “loosey-goosey “anything goes””, and I’m not threatened by deviations from the norm.

  11. How on earth are you still incapable or writing a measured critique of work that you disagree with without resorting time and again to ad hominem. As someone else already pointed out, your tendency to obsessively fix on specific authors and harass them—unprofessional, weird, and worrisome on its own—takes on REALLY troubling implications when race comes into play…

  12. Consistently criticising the work of Dellar and Harmer is not harassment. I’ve written a number of posts on their work because they are influential figures whose published work needs debunking. In my posts on their work I do not resort time and time again to ad hominem.

    Critiques of work that I disagree with include posts on Dellar and Harmer, and also on Ur, Schmidt, Thornbury, Hoey, Maley, Krashen, Lewis, Roberts, R. Ellis, N.Ellis, Selivan, Teacher, Walkley, Anderson, and Holliday, for example. An examination of these texts will demonstrate that your accusation that I resort time and time again to ad hominem is false. And that your accusation that the critiques are unprofessional and weird, showing a tendency to obsessively fix on specific authors and harass them is unfair.

    You might also look at the more than 100 posts in the blogs that critique and comment on the work of scholars whose work I recommend, and at the other posts on SLA, syllabus design, environmental issues, the philosophy of science, etc. But I suppose these count for nothing.

    I’ve been harassed myself – a lot. Dellar has reacted to my criticisms by a stream of personal attacks on me, including comments on my wife and the repeated suggestion that my criticisms of him are motivated by frustrated sexual desire. And of course Gerald responds to my criticism of his work by calling me a racist.

    Your disapproval is noted. As is the fact that, as usual with this type of response, you make no attempt to discuss the content of the post.

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  14. Hello Geoff,
    I cannot see how confusing the acquisition process of accepted–because common–language features can do students any service. But I guess it is the normality of things in society that inspires adverse reactions, i.e whiteness and white supremacy and systemic racism etc. I guess it was just a matter of time until Michel Foucault’s view of society would creep into language teaching. This must be the moment when Queer theory enters the room, or where hegemony has to be interrupted. The debate feels like we are watching an MMA fight where different fighting techniques merge into a rather explosive mixture and only knockout is an acceptable conclusion. It is rather astonishing how Foucault’s and Chomsky’s lineage are crossing wires here. Correct me if I am off track here, but one reason why this conversation is at odds is a fundamental difference between Chomsky’s commitment to universals (in the sense of inquiry into the nature of things), whereas for Foucault the socially constructed norm is all there is. And whatever happens to be deemed normal by definition is exclusive for some, and that it is necessary to force the normal to the edge and bring the outside in. I guess this is the reason only whites can be racist and only English can be dethroned.

    I need to re-watch the Foucault / Chomsky interview of 1971. Here we are 50 years later, and Foucault clearly seems to have made some headway. The irrational perspective is taking a hit at the rational one.

    From a more pragmatic and more mundane perspective, my own, I was an ESL student in California and later in Texas. I am glad that in both places I found a familiar English in the classroom. My instructor in LA was Chinese. My very first English teacher when I was a teenager came from Hungary. The only confusion that to this day I deal with is the interruption of British spelling into my generally American upbringing. English was also the only language that allowed me to interact with other internationals, Poland, Ghana, Malta, Argentina, etc. Somehow, I am glad all of us gravitated towards a norm. And I remember returning in wonder to the cashier in Texas when I heard “Y’all come beck now” asking if I forgot to pay for something.

    Best,
    Thom

  15. Hi Thom,

    Thanks for this. It’s interesting that you trace the surge in popularity of a relativist, socio-cultural approach to political theory, sociology, and sociolinguistics to the 1971 Chomsky / Foucault debate. I’ve got more time for Foucault than for other relativists (e.g., Lyotard, Baudrillard, Derrida, Lacan, Brinner, Culler, Shawver) and I think he shudders at some of the stuff that’s published citing him as its inspiration. I think the article “After Whiteness” is typical of the style and faux intellectual postering that characterises so much of the work of “Critical Qualitative Research”, and particularly lacking in interesting content. As you suggest, they seem to adopt the relativist view that the socially constructed norm is all there is.

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