A Review of Part 3 of “After Whiteness”

Part 3 of After Whiteness by Gerald, Ramjattan & Stillar is now free to view on the Language Magazine website. It’s as bullshit-rich and content-poor as the first two parts; another mightily-righteous, mini-sermon which has the authors standing on the same flimsy pedestal (a rickety construction of parroted bits of Marxism, punitive moral dictums on racism and straw-man arguments) in order to preach to the choir. It’s about as edifying as a Chick tract. I’ll give a summary of the article and then comment.    

The article has 5 sections.

Introduction

Part 1 looked at pedagogical ways of challenging Whiteness. Part 2 “re-imagined” training and labor in English language teaching. Part 3 will look at ideas for “how the broader ELT industry could evolve” if “Whiteness” were “successfully decentered”.

Action Research as a Goal

A post-Whiteness ELT, we’re told, should be part of a post-Whiteness world in which ELT practitioners “strive for some micro- or meso-level changes in their contexts to combat Whiteness“. The only information offered about these new world “micro- or meso-level changes” is about pronunciation teaching, where in the post-Whiteness world, teachers would pay attention to “how their students’ racialization in society can shape external perceptions of their intelligibility and how these perceptions have material consequences”. One “material consequence” is alluded to:   

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).  

To challenge these inequalities, “teachers need to use their pedagogy”.  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.

“some sort of action research”? Really?

The Un-Canon of Lived Experience

This section suggests that “the canon” of ideas about English should be “removed, but not replaced”. This involves using “extensive student-generated input” to “dismantle linguistic and racialized hierarchies within the conceptualization of English”. Students can be asked to note how their neighbors and relatives use English and share the data with classmates as part of an “epistemological shift”, aimed at overcoming the idea of the “ownership of English”. Widdowson (1994) (sic) is cited to support the claim that standardized English is the property of White native speakers from the global North who shape the language as they see fit. Such a “White supremacist, capitalist notion of language” must be replaced by the view that English belongs to nobody: it is a community resource. This illuminating example is offered:

… 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?

That last sentence is the funniest example of a rhetorical question I’ve seen for quite some time!

Teaching the Perceiving Subjects

The section begins by redressing the deficit which results from “idealizing Whiteness and the ideologies that descend from it” (sic) through the imposition of standardized English. While teaching students different Englishes might help redress this deficit, the authors want to go much further. Why not, they ask, treat “minoritized varieties” as “the ideal”? They don’t explain what this radical proposal entails. What “minoritized varieties” would be included? How would these varieties form “the ideal”? What would it look like and sound like?

Moving quickly on, the authors ask the further question:

 “How might the White perceiving subject (Flores and Rosa, 2015) be taught to perceive more effectively?”

Again, they don’t explain what they’re talking about. What does the “White perceiving subject” refer to? Perhaps they assume that all readers are familiar with the Flores and Rosa (2015) article, or perhaps they’ve seen Flores’ helpful tweet:

The white listening subject is an ideological position that can be inhabited by any institutional actor regardless of their racial identity. It behooves all of us to be vigilant about how hegemonic modes of perception shape our interpretation of racialized language practices.

or perhaps they’ve read Rosa’s (2017) follow-up, where he explains that

the linguistic interpretations of white listening subjects are part of a broader, racialized semiotics of white perceiving subjects.

Anyway, let’s take it they mean that white subjects (whoever they are – noting that they’re not restricted to people with “white” features) should try to empathize with “racialized” people. Returning to the teaching of pronunciation, the authors suggest that teachers should be given time to practice listening to different Englishes so that they gain a certain level of experience with the population they might want to work with.  And this somehow demonstrates that until ELT practitioners are “freed from the monolingual cage they’re in”, so long as “raciolinguistic ideologies” are in place, the “racialized languagers” will always fail.

Conclusion

The authors admit that what they sketch out in their three articles is “something of a dream”, but they believe it can become reality “if we take the leap to a world that doesn’t yet exist”. Their ideas are born of love, not hatred. Their goal is to replace the “harmful, oppressive and, at heart, ineffective” practices which keep “racialized learners and languagers in their place below the dominant group”.

Discussion
What does this view of how the broader ELT industry could evolve if “Whiteness” were successfully “decentered” amount to?   

The first section on Action Research doesn’t make any sense. In a “post-Whiteness wold” where Whiteness has been swept away, surely there’s no longer any need for teachers to “strive for some micro- or meso-level changes in their contexts to combat Whiteness”, or to fight against job adverts that discriminate against NNSs. Apart from this incongruity, the only content in this section is the lame, undeveloped suggestion that teachers and students engage in “some sort of action research”, where the goal is to challenge employers’ prejudice against “foreign-accented” applicants.  

The “Un-Canon of Lived Experience” section proposes that the English language belongs to nobody: it’s a community resource. Apart from the bizarre example of promoting the use of the word “prepone”, this is little more than a motherhood statement until it’s properly developed. The authors assert that before we get to the hallowed post-Whiteness society, we must sweep away “Whiteness ideologies” which adopt a “White supremacist, capitalist notion of language”, and yet nowhere in their three-part series do they make any attempt to unpack the constructs of “ideology” or “capitalism” so as to explain what they mean when they say that language is a capitalist notion. Even less do they show any understanding of Marxism, or any other radical literature which makes coherent proposals for how capitalism can be overthrown and how that might lead to radical changes in education.

The “Teaching the Perceiving Subjects” section proposes that ELT should replace the teaching of standardized English with teaching English where “minoritized varieties” are used as “the ideal”. I’ve already suggested above that this is an empty proposal. Until the vague idea of making “minoritized varieties” form “the ideal” for English is properly outlined and incorporated into some minimum suggestions for new syllabuses, materials, pedagogic procedures and assessment tools, it’s no more than hand-waving rhetoric, typical of the lazy, faux academic posturing which pervades the “Against Whiteness” articles.

The re-education programme for “White perceiving subjects” doesn’t explain who the “subjects” are, and it doesn’t explain how they are to be re-educated; it sounds a bit scary to me, a bit too close to the views of Stalin, Mao and others determined to stamp out “wrong thinking”. Still, as usual, we’re not told what’s involved, except for the perfectly reasonable suggestion that teachers should be more aware of, and sympathetic to, different Englishes.

The 3-part series of articles Against Whiteness fails to present a coherent, evidence-supported argument. Students of instructed SLA will find absolutely nothing of interest here, unless they want to deconstruct the text so as to reveal the awful extent of its empty noise. Likewise, radical teachers looking for ways to challenge the commodification of education, fight racial discrimination, and move beyond the reactionary views of English and the offensive stereotyping which permeate ELT materials and practices, will find nothing of practical use here. They should look, instead, to the increasing number of radical ELT groups and blogs that offer much better-informed political analyses and far more helpful practical support. In stark contrast to Gerald, Ramjattan & Stillar, such groups and individuals not only produce clear, coherent and cohesive texts, they also DO things – practical things that make a difference and push change in the ELT industry. The SLB Cooperative; ELT Advocacy, Ireland; the Gorillas Workers Collective; the Hands Up Project; the Part & Parcel project; the Teachers as Workers group; the on-line blogs, social media engagement and published work of Steve Brown, Neil McMillan, Rose Bard, Jessica MacKay, Ljiljana Havran, Paul Walsh, Scott Thornbury, Cathy Doughty, David Block, Pau Bori, are just a few counter examples which highlight the feebleness of the dire, unedifying dross dished up in the After Whiteness articles.       

5 thoughts on “A Review of Part 3 of “After Whiteness”

  1. One has the feeling that “ELT” could be replaced by, well, anything else — hockey training, quantity surveying, polo — so completely irrelevant are any ideas brought forth about language. This is nothing more than another compilation of the latest buzzwords, much sound and fury signifying little or nothing to an instructor wanting to improve classroom practice.

  2. Thanks Geoff, some always interesting graphics as well as text : )

    I think John O’Regan has a nice analysis of “ownership” in Global English and Political Economy e.g. he characterises what are mainly World Englishes and ELF views on ownership as confusing the notion as property/trait of persons with it as legal ownership – the second one is the one often discussed in World Englishes & ELF.
    ta
    mura

  3. One thing I was struck by, as he repeated it in a British Council talk the other day too, is the vagueness of the actions he wants people to take.

    The main one I’m thinking about here is the suggestion that one could undertake some action research with students into why employers discriminating against people with foreign accents. It seems like a back of a fag packet suggestion that hasn’t be subjected to the slightest bit of scrutiny. It’s a hypothetical, rather than something that someone has already done. I’d be far more inclined to give it a try if he came to the presentation and said “Look at what this teacher did. You can do it too,” or “here is a course I have created that you can use” rather than coming with the results of a 5 minute brainstorming session and expecting people to create an entire course based on the suggestion.

    On that particular suggestion:
    1. What sort of activities would it include?
    2. What level would it be suitable for?
    3. How would you identify employers with discriminatory hiring policies?
    4. Would it involve the cooperation of those employers, and how would you get them to agree to this?

    And most importantly…
    5. What would be the language goal of this series of work? That’s what they are paying for after all.

    All valid questions that he doesn’t attempt to answer.

    I genuinely expected a lot more, my logic being that the first two sections are trying to build the case, and the final section would include all of the practical tips of things that teachers can do to change their practice. Instead, as you say, you get the impression that he’s not really that interested in classroom practice and language acquisition, he’s just attaching himself to that field because that’s what he trained in before he discovered his true calling.

    I also found it very interesting in the British Council talk when someone asked him about ELF, and he basically dismissed it because “If the same people are doing it, … they haven’t changed their ideologies.” Effectively people pushing for a lot of the same thing that he wants, but because they’re not coming from his raciolinguistic ideology, it doesn’t count.

  4. Thanks for this, Joe. I agree about Gerald’s seeming lack of interest in actually teaching English. He says on his web page that he’s “A language teacher by trade, and at heart”, but he hardly ever mentions classroom practice. If we get rid of standardized English, what do we put in its place? He has very little to offer those pushing for radical change in ELT. A one-trick pony!

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