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February 9, 2024
ASCD Blog

4 Shifts to Celebrate Language Diversity 

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Anti-Black linguistic racism lingers in our schools. Here’s what educators can do to affirm all forms of English.
Equity
4 Shifts to Celebrate Language Diversity 
Credit: Alphavector / Shutterstock
Recently, a piece of paper went viral on social media.  
This paper, allegedly written by a teacher, outlined words students would be penalized for if caught using them. The list of words included “bruh”, “bet”, and “standing on business,” among others. All the words are both culture- and age-specific, revealing a clear bias against young people who use African American Vernacular English (AAVE); in other words, this list is anti-Black linguistic racism. It reveals a bias against and disdain for both the people and the language, because language and people are not separate from each other.  
Understandably, everyone was talking about it. Teachers all over social media and offline were commenting on how problematic this stance was. Others were agreeing with the teacher’s sentiment, wondering what is and isn’t appropriate school language. It immediately made me think of so many other similar instances that I’ve experienced in person and that I’ve heard about.
This action by this teacher merits our pause and attention. Now, it’s possible this is a fake post designed to generate controversy and “troll” online. If that is the case, then great. I’m grateful no students are actually facing the ramifications of this specific letter.
However, the spirit behind this letter, whether or not this particular list is real, lives all around our country and is embedded in our schools. Anti-Black linguistic racism happens across all learning environments (Baker-Bell, 2020). 
The spirit of this letter shows up in “English-only” policies, for example. It shows up in demerits placed on students for “informal” or “inappropriate” language when using what is considered slang. It shows up in points lost on essays when a student uses AAVE or Ebonics. It shows up when students are offered detention or reprimanded for using some of the very words on that viral list. The history behind this problem is vast and painfully complex. It leads us back to enslavement on this land. When you spend time researching linguistic science, you’ll come to understand that Black English is “systematic, rule-governed, and functional”—yet disrespected nonetheless (Baker-Bell, 2020).  

The spirit behind this letter lives all around our country and is embedded in our schools. Anti-Black linguistic racism happens across all learning environments.

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How can we, in 2024, do better? To avoid anti-Black linguistic racism, I suggest four simple mind shifts for classroom teachers and educators in a position to develop policies:  

1. We must sustain Black English and the language of young people.  

Create space for it to be used. Celebrate it, and if you share the language, embrace it.  Allowing students to speak their languages in class, regardless of our own feelings about those languages, is how we can sustain them. I recently saw teacher Matt Kay on X share a method he uses, which is to invite students to use footnotes next to words they believe need further clarification. This way, they can use their language and continue to build skills in the process. Outside of harmful or offensive language, all language can be welcomed into schools. All languages are cultural and a sign of human diversity.  

2. We must ensure that all languages and Englishes are respected.  

The minute we place cultural languages into hierarchies, we sustain the project of racism. All Englishes are worthy of academic respect. All Englishes are valid. One is not more formal, practical, safe, or useful than others.  
As mentioned before, English-only practices cause students to feel unwelcome and culturally disrespected. We don't do that to, say, French or German—view those languages as “lesser,” demand they be forgotten and put aside to prioritize English—but somehow it's okay to do so with Spanish. Similarly, Black English shouldn't be penalized, as the viral image shows us. We must interrogate why our belief system pushes us to place languages in some hierarchical order. It is not a coincidence that they often correlate to skin color hierarchies as well.  

3. We must not police language.  

U.S. schools have a painful and racist history policing the language of all people who are not Eurocentric, or white. When we police the languages of students through marking students down in assignments for using their cultural languages, penalizing students with detention when they use these languages, or creating an unspoken understanding that there are such things as “sub” languages not appropriate for school, we keep in that linguistically violent tradition. 

4. We must educate ourselves.  

Take a deep dive into the work of scholars who have been doing research and writing about this issue for decades on decades. This might be a new issue to you, but it ain’t new in this country. Begin with Dr. April Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice (Routledge, 2020) and also watch “3 Ways to Speak English” by Jamila Lyiscott.  

Educators must move toward a loving stance in schools. Our approach should be one that is flexible and deeply concerned about justice.

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The Power of Language

The irony of all this is that while this language is often seen as “inappropriate” for Black students to use, it is quickly turned into profitable lines and/or quotes used on goods sold in stores. Black students can’t use their language, but business owners can make money off it. “Black language is one of those features of Black culture that white America loves to hate, yet loves to take” (Baker-Bell, 2020, p. 14). It seems to me, then, that this language isn’t bad. The problem is who has the power to use it.  
In the end, educators must move toward a loving stance in schools. That viral image does not show love, cultural competency, respect, or antiracism. Instead, it reminds us of the ancestors that started the work of hating us. It is a window into how our painful past is still shading the present. Our approach in schools, therefore, should be one that is flexible and deeply concerned about justice (Germán, 2021). Our job isn’t to churn out adults who will sustain the status quo. We are, hopefully, dedicated to inspiring young people to be better humans through the content we teach.
References 
Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge. 
German, L.E. (2021). Textured teaching: A framework for culturally sustaining practices. Heinemann. 
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