In my rites of passage group, my Babalawo said one day, “The greatest example of ego is white supremacy.” What more poignant moment to take this quote head-on than by addressing the recent influx of governors across the nation banning Critical Race Theory (CRT) from being taught in the k-12 classroom?
Now, let’s be clear: Critical Race Theory is NOT being taught in the k-12 classroom. But from a pedagogical perspective, limitations on CRT can significantly impact the type of content a teacher can offer in the classroom. I want to take a moment to provide examples from a specific place in the k-12 school, the foreign language classroom.
Crenshaw explains that CRT acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continues to permeate the social fabric of this nation.
LangCrit, or Critical Language and Race Theory, is a critical theory of language and race that challenges fixed assumptions related to language, identity, and race and argues that these categories are socially and locally constructed. Specifically, it is a theoretical and analytical framework that puts the intersection of the subject-as-heard and the subject-as-seen at the forefront of interpretation and analysis. It looks for ways in which race, racism, and racialization intersect with language, belonging, and identity issues.
The work I do in CRT is in the classroom. Specifically, my foreign language classroom uses an Afrocentric derivation of LangCrit. I want to take a moment to use Tennessee as my example. Looking at the Tennessee law, it “will restrict what public school teachers can discuss in Tennessee classrooms about racism, white privilege, and unconscious bias.” This limits authentic identity for the racialized child in the classroom.
What does that mean exactly? It means that the whole and complete child cannot be acknowledged. It means that the sociocultural history of various racial and ethnic groups represented in the classroom cannot be fully recognized in the books or lessons.
I say this boldly and without apology, because my research examines how black culture, history, and identity are critical for language retention in the foreign language classroom. In particular, I use raciolinguistics to analyze how language is used to construct race and how ideas of race influence language and language use.
Rosa and Flores purport raciolinguistics is “part of the broader structural project of contesting white supremacy.” From an Afrocentric perspective, studying raciolinguistics would examine the impact of race on foreign language learning and the influence of race on foreign language retention.
Raciolinguistics can be applied to the study of Blacks and foreign language learning because of the hegemonic presentation of language within the classroom and the hegemonic presentation of language outside of the classroom. It not only allows one to approximate race and culture in the classroom but also challenges examining how race plays a factor in language acquisition and retention. It is this intentional act that brings social and racial justice into the foreign language classroom.
By restricting CRT, teachers cannot complete this work. If you insist that race is no longer be a prominent factor, I am no longer allowed to question its absence in the foreign language classroom. As Brown and Edouard note, being able to see authentic representations of race and culture relatable for the student, particularly the Black student, is an “untapped intellectual resource.” By allowing students to identify similar racial and linguistic features in course content, students can witness the “perceived authenticity of language” This can’t be adequately tested without methods in CRT.
Language activism examines the structures of privilege and power exacerbated through the supremacy of language. It attaches language to contestations of power and critiques standard forms as codes of power. Specifically, in the foreign language classroom, it perpetuates supremacist elitism of foreign language learning among monolinguals seeking access to bilingual education.
In seeking to further Afrocentric language activism, I can focus and center the Black student in languages and focus on the Africanisms present in language and analyze how the appearance of Africanness affects our listening to language. For example, I can teach the West African connection between yam and ñame (they are the English and Spanish names for the same root vegetable), demonstrate and teach the history of how when in a Palenque neighborhood in Colombia you may hear “Lo no hagas pa’na” and it has the same connotation as “You bet’ not” in their communities. No, it is not grammatically accurate. It is culturally accurate, and that is just as important, especially in the foreign language classroom. This cannot effectively be taught without CRT methods and analysis.
Critical Race Theory is a threat because of the lack of acknowledgment of the research as it relates to Black children and education. To use a proverb as an analogy, we allowed the lion to share its side of the hunting story and then chose to rewrite the narrative back to favor the hunter because we were too uncomfortable talking about the hunter’s role in the lion’s pain.
There is an assumption that students of color in the classroom and carefully placed non-threatening images of well-known people of color as decoration in the classroom and the school are adequate in ensuring Black students see their identity represented. However, one can argue that this representation is shallow at best and exacerbates white supremacy issues within the education system. Shallow will not move our people. We are deeply profound, deeply critical, and deeply connected to an ancestral history with multilingualism. Limiting discussions around this can cripple our beloved community.
Kami Anderson is a Hooks Academic Research Fellow and founder of Bilingual Brown Babies, a specialized service for families of color who are serious about raising their children bilingual in English and Spanish. She was also one of the panelists for our event, “Critical Race Theory: What It Is and What It Isn’t.”