The main problem with Gerald’s book is its lack of clarity: part autobiography, part political pamphlet, part college essay, part post-graduate academic assignment, it’s discussion of whiteness and language teaching lurches from one genre to another, and from one topic to another, rarely retaining its style or focus long enough to offer any clear descriptions or analyses of the motley matters it so unevenly and erratically tries to cover. There’s no clear history of colonialism or the slave trade offered here, no clear description or discussion of racism, or capitalism, or alienation, or ethics, or sociology, or linguistics, or education, or anything else that might clarify what, precisely, whiteness is, or what specifically is wrong with current language teaching. Despite his claim to see things from a fresh, new “angle”, just about everything in the text that deals with whiteness has already been dealt with more eruditely, insightfully, and, above all, more clearly, by previous writers. As for language teaching, Gerald’s discussion is flimsy, badly-informed and confused.
In what follows, I quote from my e-book verson of the book, so I apologise for not being able to give page numbers for the quotes.
Part of the book’s lack of clarity is due to the poor writing, and a particular feature of this is that many sentences and paragraphs of the text dissolve into incoherence, as if they’ve suddenly fallen off a cliff.
The Introduction begins with a discussion of what Tucker Carlson, a Fox News presenter, says about ‘antisocial thugs with no stake in society”. Following a summary of Carlson’s views, Gerald comments:
He [Carlson] and his writers are not espousing some fringe viewpoint but instead emphasizing a core tenet of his popular ideology, namely the fact that decentralized resistance and opposition to the hegemony of whiteness is anathema to what he refers to as ‘society’, and the common elision of Blackness and criminality as expressed via his use of the word ‘thug’ (Smiley & Fakunle, 2016). As odious as his ideas are to many who might be reading this work, Carlson is not speaking out of turn when compared to the epistemology and the ideology of the whiteness that retains a firm grip on the globe.
I’m guessing when I suggest that the first part can be paraphrased: Carlson believes that all resistance to white supremacy is an attempt to destroy American society, but I have no idea what the final sentence means. At best, the passage is badly-expressed and involves a confusing non-sequitur; at worst, it’s gibberish.
The Introduction eventually arrives at this clumsy attempt to explain what it’s about:
Simply put, this book exists to make the case for why it is a moral imperative that ELT severs its ties to whiteness once and for all, and for the bright future that could follow if we ever manage to demolish this structure inside of which we are all trapped.
Simply put, the book argues that ELT must sever all ties with whiteness. The rest of the sentence doesn’t follow and renders the whole thing incoherent.
One final example. Gerald says:
In short, the concept of ‘society’, against which antisocial and other ‘disordered’ behavior is measured, is merely a mask for whiteness, and considering that the epistemology responsible for these diagnostic criteria is itself an exemplar of whiteness, it is difficult to trust whiteness as an objective judge of what is and is not antisocial.
Again, I’m not sure what the assertion that the white supremacist concept of society is a mask for whiteness against which antisocial and disordered behaviour are measured amounts to, but I haven’t the slightest idea what epistemology he’s talking about. The word ‘epistemology’, occurs sixteen times in the text, and seems to be used to mean something like “system of beliefs” or “ideology”. In the two quotes above, Gerald talks about “the epistemology and the ideology” of whiteness, and “the epistemology” that is “an exemplar of whiteness”. Elsewhere he talks about the “epistemological analysis” of axes of oppression; a “fuzzy epistemology” reliant on “race scholarship”; and his own trips down different “epistemological corridors”, to take just three more examples. Epistemology is, of course, the branch of philosophy that deals with theories of knowledge, and nowadays the big debate is between realists, who assume that’s there’s a world out there independent of our experiences of it, which can be more or less accurately observed and described, and relativists who deny the realists’ claim. I suggest that Gerald’s use of the word ‘epistemology” has little to do with this normal use of the word, and, furthermore, that it’s just one example of his failure to clearly define a profusion of key terms and constructs, or to use them consistently. Gerald is a bit like Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty:
Let’s turn to the content. After the prologue (which gives good warning that the book’s about JPB Gerald, really), the Introduction gives its first sketch of “society” as seen by white supremacists, and ends with a section on “Key Concepts”. These include
… the combination of racial discrimination and societal oppression. Anyone can experience the former, but only certain people can experience the combination of the two. For example, as a Black person, I could tell you I don’t want to have any white friends, and that would absolutely be discriminatory, but because I do not have the full power of society behind me, and because that would not materially impact the people I denied my friendship, it does not qualify.
there is no functional difference between whiteness and white supremacy. Indeed, whiteness, as a concept, was created to justify colonialism and chattel slavery (Bonfiglio, 2002; Painter, 2011); there had to be a group exempt from these horrors, and as such, whiteness was codified. Whiteness was created to be supreme, as a protection from the oppression that others deserve because of the groups into which they have been placed.
Gerald proceeds to give an overview of the book. Part One deals with Disorder.
In short, whiteness requires people to be categorized as either ordered or disordered so that it can function effectively and to support its aims of colonialist dominance and capitalism . Accordingly, whiteness uses language ideologies and language teaching to classify Blackness, dis / ability and unstandardized English as representations of pathology and disorder, and is thus able to justify its exploitation and oppression of members of these groups.
In Part 2 , Gerald “demonstrates” how “the field of ELT and its adherence to whiteness” has led to “pervasive oppression”. To do so, he maps its “harmful habits” onto the official criteria for antisocial personality disorder, “not to stigmatize the disorder but to counterpathologize whiteness and the destruction it causes”.
Finally, Part 3 discusses how language teachers can “play a central role in the demolition of whiteness in our field and in our society”.
Part One begins with an attempt to define whiteness. In essence, Gerald sees it as “The Great Pyramid Scheme”.
When I thought of the best way to describe whiteness and the way it had been sold to me, despite rarely being named as such , I consulted the numerous metaphors that have been used in the literature, many of which remain accurate and resonant, many of which I will cite below. But, in my opinion, when searching for the best way to evoke the sheer confidence game at play, one that empowers a few while convincing the masses that their own power is waiting just around the corner so long as they convince everyone they know to also buy in, I could think only of the sad stories I’ve encountered of friends and acquaintances who were convinced to buy thousands of dollars of terrible products that they could never offload to others.
If I understand him, Gerald sees whiteness as the ultimate Ponzi scheme. He goes on:
Simply put, whiteness is perhaps the world’s greatest example of multilevel marketing, a massive pyramid scheme, but unlike the companies stealing from put – upon individuals and families, there is no single chief executive officer ( CEO ) laughing all the way to the bank. At this point, whiteness feeds upon all of us, including the people who bow before it, and it creates no victors, only a desperate battle to avoid losing.
For the next few pages, Gerald relies on Painter’s (2011) work, starting with his description of pre-industrial societies. Gerald comments:
There are the beginnings of a constructed hierarchy visible in this description, of course, but oppression based on group membership did not originate with the construction of whiteness – it simply had a different manifestation. Much later on, even after slavery was common in Europe, ‘Geography, not race, ruled, and potential white slaves, like vulnerable aliens everywhere, were nearby for the taking’ (Painter, 2011: 38). People with power have always exploited those without it, and it would be inaccurate to blame whiteness for what is clearly an upsettingly human tendency.
Is this clear? Not to me it isn’t, but before it gets clarified, Gerald is off on a history of the slave trade, colonialism, eugenics and accounts of assorted atrocities. For example:
In what became the United States, Europeans brought disease alongside their ships, but smallpox didn’t succeed in eliminating everyone, so they were forced to remove them directly in order to control their land (Wolfe, 2006).
Rather than be given any clear, concise definition, we’re left to slowly glean for ourselves what whiteness means, until right at the end of Part 1, when Gerald presents a summary under several headings. Whiteness is “a Pyramid Scheme”; it “Justifies Settler Colonialism and Racial Capitalism”; it “Created Blackness out of its Own Darkest Impulses”; it “Dis/abled Blackness to Ensure its Subjugation”; it “Uses Perceived Deficits in Ability, Intelligence and Language to Retain Power”; and it “Devalues Unstandardized English because it Devalues the Racialized”.
Gerald explains on his publisher’s webpage dedicated to the book that in Part 2,
As a rhetorical device, I use the diagnostic criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to make the point that the way our field was built and is currently maintained could be classified as deeply disordered and only isn’t because of who currently benefits from the system as is; more specifically, I map the seven criteria of antisocial personality disorder onto the connection between whiteness, colonialism, capitalism, and ableism and how these and other -isms harm the vast majority of the students – and educators – in the field of language teaching.
There are thus seven chapters in Part 2. They deal with
- Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviour
- Deceitfulness, repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for pleasure or personal profit
- Impulsivity or failure to plan
- Irritability and aggressiveness, often with physical fights or assaults
- Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
- Consistent irresponsibility, failure to sustain consistent work behavior, or honor monetary obligations
- Lack of remorse, being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt,mistreated or stolen from another person
As indicated above, Gerald tries to map these 7 criteria onto whiteness, etc., so as to highlight the harm done to nearly everybody in the field of language teaching. Personally, I don’t think this is a very successful rhetorical device; the only reason I can see for using these seven criteria to organize a discussion of how whiteness affects ELT is that, since Gerald himself has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, it gives him a more authoritative “voice”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the text clarity. Among the pages, there are interesting ideas trying to get out. Gerald has justified concerns about native speakerism, persistent language deficit views in education, ongoing linguistic imperialism, hopelessly unfit-for-purpose assessment procedures, and on and on. He also indicates where he stands on debates about multilingualism, additive bilingualism, translanguaging, and other issues. But his concerns and his viewpoint are expressed in a text which too often lacks both coherence and cohesion. Ideas trip over themselves, there’s too much verbose hyperbole and too little attention to developing an argument through the use of clearly-defined constructs and well-chosen cohesive devices.
I’m aware that my criticisms of Gerald’s writing might be interpreted as those of a white man defending “standardized linguistic practices”, which, far from being an objective set of linguistic forms appropriate for an academic setting, are actually demonstrations of raciolinguistic ideologies which expect language-minoritized students to model their linguistic practices after the white speaking subject. I should make it clear that I don’t defend the petty rules of English for academic purposes which are foisted on students; my only concern about the writing in this text is its readability, and that depends on its coherence and cohesion. Many – probably most – of those who read Gerald’s book will disagree with my criticisms. In my defense, I’d challenge them to read any of the pages I’ve referred to in this review and then give a brief precis of what they’ve just read.
Part 3 has two chapters: the first discusses a teacher education course, and the second makes seven nebulous recommendations on how to improve ELT. Dealing with the second chapter first, it suggests that we call ourselves teachers of standardized English (TSE) instead of English language teachers, that teacher education includes a “deep engagement” with all the issues raised, that we use better materials (improved by a similar deep engagement with the book’s message), and a few more anodyne bits of fluff.
Chapter 1, the Ezel Project, describes a teacher training course, and it is, in my opinion, by far the best chapter in the book. (I should say at once that I don’t like the style, but that doesn’t matter, because the text is quite readable.) Gerald gives a detailed account of the design and implementation of his course, which aims to raise teacher awareness of the damage caused by continued racism and white supremacy, and follows it with interesting accounts of how some of the participants reacted.
It seems clear to me that all English language teachers should accept the following tenets:
- English acts as a lingua franca and as a powerful tool to protect and promote the interests of a capitalist class.
- In the global ELT industry, teaching is informed by the monolingual fallacy, the native speaker fallacy and the subtractive fallacy (Phillipson, 2018).
- The ways in which English is privileged in education systems needs critical scrutiny, and policies that strengthen linguistic diversity are needed to counteract linguistic imperialism.
- Racism permeates ELT. It results in expecting language-minoritized students to model their linguistic practices on inapproriate white speaker norms.
- ELT practice must acknowledge bilingual’s fluent languaging practices and legitimise hybrid language uses.
- ELT must encourage practices which explore the full range of users’ repertoires in creative and transformative ways.
- Subtractive approaches to language education and deficit language policies must be resisted.
From what I’ve read, I’d say that there are many articles – Ian Cushing’s work, for example, always has a good references section – that deal with white supremacy and raciolinguistic issues better than Gerald’s book does.
As for Gerald’s assorted assertions about the global ELT industry, they demonstrate a poor grasp of the literature on language learning, syllabus design, pedagogic procedures, assessment, and language policy. The one reference Gerald makes to SLA research is tellling. He says
the related field of second language acquisition expends considerable effort on boiling its namesake process down to formulas that hardly take the individuals and their identities involved into account, rendering any supposed struggles a more personal failing than they truly are.
Of course (the name’s a clue), psycholinguistic studies of the SLA process include studies of the individual psychology of learners – their motivation, their perceptions of their L2 selves, and their anxieties. But to suggest that SLA research makes a special effort to boil the process of L2 learning down to formulas is to do no more than glibly misrepresent the views of certain sociolinguistic relativists who, while happy to disparage “positivist paradigms”, are unlikely to go along with Gerald’s remark.
Radical action is needed to combat racism and white supremacy in ELT, but that action needs to be part of an attack on ELT which includes a clear, comprehensive, practical alternative, based on robust findings of research into how people learn additional languages. Gerald aligns himself with teacher educators like Vaz Bauler and academics like García who adopt a relativist epistemology (sic) and embrace an “anything goes” approach to teaching, where error correction and assessment are seen as “harmful”, and where the construct of “language” itself is illegitimate. For these sociolinguistic vanguardistas, bilingual students’ language practices must not be separated into home language and school language (there are no such thing as “distinct language systems”), the construct of transfer must be abandoned, and in its place we must put “a conceptualization of integration of language practices in the person of the learner” (García & Wei, 2014, p. 80). I question the value of these arguments when they’re propounded by their authors, and I certainly don’t trust Gerald’s garbled version of them.
Garcia, O. & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism, and Education. Palgrave MacMillan.
Gerald, JPG. (2022). Antisocial Language Learning: English and the Pervasive Pathology of Whiteness. Multilingual Maters.
Phillipson, R. (2018). Linguistic Imperialism. Routledge.