Teaching standardized English isn't racism—it's education
At the 2022 Conference on College Composition and Communication, the flagship conference in the field of rhetoric and composition, prominent scholars participated in a panel on proper learning outcomes and anti-racist teaching practices. The panel involved a discussion on allowing students in First-Year Writing classes—which are mandatory in most institutions—to write in what is called “home dialects” or “code-meshed English.” The former refers to a non-mainstream dialect that is the preferred mode of communication in a student’s home environment, and the latter to a synthesis of a student’s home dialect and a more standardized dialect of English. According to the panelists and many others in the field of rhetoric, teaching standardized English to students of color, especially black students, is inherently racist and oppressive. In order to achieve “linguistic justice,” therefore, it is believed that students must be allowed to write in their home dialects.
Anti-racist scholars see code-meshing as the way people really talk, ignoring the fact that the efficacy of such talk is contextual. Whether discussing home dialect, code-meshed English, or standard English, what is most useful in one context may not be in another. Context is an important aspect of rhetorical theory and practice, and yet many panelists at the conference emphasized home dialects and code-meshing while neglecting context as well as audience and subject matter—making rhetoric less about effective communication and more about self-expression.
For those who may have difficulty believing that this is truly happening, the following question was posed during a Zoom Q&A session after a panel presentation by a professor concerned about the resistance he was experiencing from his “BIPOC” students:
What do we do with their resistance to code meshing, for example, in our writing classrooms [when it] comes from our BIPOC students? I ask because my attempts to encourage students to use their home dialects in writing, black students in particular often resist those practices [as] setting them up for failure, which only reflects how ingrained they are in a system that is inherently racist, that they become unable to trust efforts to resist standard American English as the only way of writing/composing.
This question suggests that the students’ “resistance” is rooted in ignorance—if only they knew better, they would embrace the idea of writing in their “home” or “code-meshed” dialect. The resistance seems unnatural to the questioner, leading him to assume students must be ashamed of their ethnically-inflected mode of speaking and, by extension, ashamed of themselves. The questioner does not seem to even consider the possibility that these students could have good reasons for wanting to learn new English dialects, or that they might still be proud of their home dialects while also recognizing that becoming proficient in standard English will help them advance their professional careers.
One of the professors, Asao Inoue, is a—if not the—leading anti-racist scholar in the field of rhetoric and composition. Inoue’s answer to the aforementioned question about what to do in the face of resistance to code-meshing or home dialects, excerpted here, was even more troubling:
I hear a real, savvy student thinking, “I came here just to get stuff to succeed.” I, as a teacher, don't want to take that from that student. I also feel like this is a really shitty choice. I have to create a classroom and a learning experience that demeans the long linguistic history of that student in order for that student to go into the world and go into unfair, racist, white supremacist systems and succeed?
Furthermore, I have to accept—and this is going to sound bad, but I'll explain why—the selfish motivations of that student to succeed, only because if that student says, “You're setting me up for failure,” what they're saying is “I want to succeed in that system. I want to game that system.” …That's okay. But I think it's an immature goal in some ways.
…There are so many bigger things in the world we should be striving for, and perhaps our students just aren't quite at that moment yet in their life. And that's okay. And maybe they just haven't been exposed, because what they've been exposed to is capitalist-inflicted bullshit about education being the way in which we get to become a nice little cog in the system and you get skills.
This gives us much to unpack. For Inoue, the primary importance is placed on a writer’s “authenticity,” and the dignifying of black identity through writing. In this view, the audience—and the recognition of the best means for communicating with them—matters much less than the writer’s proud and authentic self-expression. While there is nothing wrong with proud and authentic self-expression, it should not be the focus of a first-year course requirement designed to teach students how to convey their thoughts to a wide audience through writing. Other classes, such as creative nonfiction, are available for students who wish to center such self-expression.
Another concern is how this emphasis shapes the prevailing image of black students in rhetoric and composition, which manifests itself in Inoue's characterization of black students who want to learn using standard English. In his estimation, these students are nothing more than ignorant dupes of an exploitative system, and their desire to learn is nothing more than the internalization of their own racial oppression. They lack any agency to make this choice of their own volition. Instead they become, as Inoue puts it, “nice little cogs in the system.”
Inoue’s response reveals a number of other issues that are indicative of broader trends. Firstly, Inoue assumes that all black students have a visceral connection to the linguistic history of their racial categorization—an assumption that is itself racist. He fails to recognize that he is in fact participating in what anthropologist Matthew Engelke, in his book How to Think Like an Anthropologist, calls linguistic naturalism, or “the ideology of authenticity,” which is “based on essentialism and suggests that our language expresses something integral to who we are, both individually and corporately.” Inoue also fails to entertain the notion that language may be a nonessential part of one’s identity, or that it is only important insofar as it is a useful tool for communicating with other people in a given context.
Whether he realizes it or not, Inoue projects an identity onto his black students—because they are black—that views language as naturally and necessarily intertwined with identity. In so doing, Inoue assumes that viewing individual black students through the lens of what he believes is black people’s shared linguistic history, regardless of whether these students feel this connection themselves, is an obviously noble and necessary educational endeavor.
Secondly, Inoue calls the black students’ desire to learn standard English “selfish” and “immature.” That is, he believes that striving to learn standard English, rather than rejecting it in favor of home dialect or code-meshing, reveals a lack of ability to empathize with the many black people who are not willing or able to succeed within America’s white supremacist system. He assumes that a mature goal involves not only seeing the world as he does—a mental and emotional obstacle course held up by racist systems and institutions—but also following him in working to transform society into a place where individual goals are always subordinate to group outcomes. Based on Inoue’s academic work, it is hardly surprising that he would believe this. In fact, he views selfishness, or “hyperindividualism,” as a constitutive aspect of what he calls “Habits of White Language.”
Inoue writes that hyperindividualism:
…is a stance or judgment that primarily values self-determination and autonomy as most important or most valued. It often centers or assumes values of the self as an individual, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-control... Thus the best outcome of a class or an assignment or activity is something personal, a personal grade, a personal insight or learning, a better draft, but not a benefit to the community, group, or class as a whole.
Reminiscent of the now-infamous “Aspects of Whiteness” flier from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Inoue sees several vices in what many—I dare say most—would call virtues. In Above the Well: An Antiracist Literacy Argument from a Boy of Color, a half memoir/half argument for “linguistic justice,” Inoue writes that individuality, rationality, self-control, clarity, and order are aspects of white spaces and are therefore confining to people of color who find themselves in them.
In a textbook example of defeatism and fatalism, Inoue also insisted later in his response that minority students, and minorities in general, are doomed in American society. Regarding minority students’ use of education as a large step in pursuing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Inoue said:
It's never going to be enough, man. You're going to go out and you're always still gonna be black, or you're always still gonna be Latinx, or you're always still going to be something else. That's just not quite it. You can…mouth the words that are white, but they're never gonna—they're coming from a [black] body.
What immediately stands out as problematic in this statement is its appeal to the negative emotionality (NE) that constitutes a victim narrative. Scott Lilienfeld, in his essay “Microaggressions: Strong Claims; Inadequate Evidence,” argued that this sort of outlook can lead people to see danger wherever they look and resign themselves to a hopelessness about life. Lilienfeld states that “[i]ndividuals with elevated levels of NE tend to be critical and judgmental of both themselves and others, vulnerable to distress and emotional maladjustment, and inclined to focus on the negative aspects of life... They also tend to be vigilant and overreactive to potential stressors,” and are “prone to interpreting ambiguous stimuli in a negative light.”
But what is perhaps most troublesome about Inoue’s statement is that he is projecting negative emotionality onto students because of something—their desire to learn standard English—that would otherwise suggest a positive and confident self-image. By framing this desire to succeed as hopeless, he is encouraging healthy young people to adopt attitudes that will hinder their development.
Implicit in Inoue’s statement is the notion that the only way “students of color”—particularly black and Latino students—can successfully navigate American society is to be phony and put on an act for white people’s approval. The thought of a black person seeing the pragmatic benefit of standardized English, or of a black person coming to college already proficient in it, are by this standard of black or Latino authenticity either impossible or reprehensible.
Inoue rejects the notion that education should foster the development of individual identity in favor of promoting a social and political agenda. Later in his response, he admits that his goal as an educator is to change the system, but by failing to accept that “everybody” consists of individuals—who often disagree with one another—Inoue subordinates his students’ desires to acquire a helpful communicative skill to his own radical conception of what will promote the well-being of everyone.
This false dichotomy needs to be called out. Wanting personal success and caring about one’s fellow citizens are not mutually exclusive. What’s more, the course in question is called “First-Year Writing,” not “First-Year Communal Consciousness.” This is a clear example of projection of an educator’s politics onto his students—even when many of them voice, in so many words, that they already have a preferred viewpoint that led them to the class in the first place: to learn to communicate effectively using a standardized dialect of English.
Inoue clarifies throughout his response that his real purpose in teaching is counter-hegemonic activism, not giving young people the writing skills they need to be successful in the professional world. Both Inoue and the professor who asked the initial question are impeding the healthy development of each student’s individual identity. Demanding that students of color see themselves first and foremost as members of their racial group and not as individuals is, in a very real sense, a racist endeavor. This exchange perfectly reflects the devolution of my field of rhetoric, which I have witnessed first hand over the last decade, as well as the increasing infantilization and victimization of black students that has become so common within academia.
I would rather not conclude that Inoue and those scholars who think like him are evil cynics only out for themselves. Inoue may be sincere about the efficacy of his pedagogical aspirations. I suppose the good news in all of this is that Inoue, as a leader in the field of rhetoric and composition, is now on the record that he is not interested in teaching the actual subject matter of rhetoric and composition, except as it pertains to his radical political goals. This gives the rest of us the opportunity to respond.
You know my thoughts. What are yours?
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In addition to the problems you've identified, calling the teaching and use of standard English racist has always struck me as an extremely narrow and unequal definition of racism. For English learners, most of whom are not white, standard English is much easier to understand than dialects that deviate from it in significant ways. The world that people like Inuoe are ultimately trying to build, where no one dialect is privileged by being considered the standard, would be a nightmare for learners.
Thank you so much for this article (written, incidentally, in a tone and style appropriate to the topic and audience). The type of thinking described here is yet another manifestation of the condescension rampant in the ideology: "here, let me hold your hand and guide you through this big, scary world because you're not equipped to make your own decisions."