Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Race Journal #3: Language Education and Anxious Authority

smalina's picture

For some context: I went to elementary school at a K-8, "alternative" public school. This meant that some classes (1/2, 3/4) were combined grades, and some had two head teachers in the classroom (my 6th grade class was taught by a married couple). As 7th and 8th graders, we had "Humanities" class in place of History & English, and our curricula alternated between "Justice and Dissent" and something related to questioning "American identity" and race in the United States. There's a lot to say about the way race functioned in my elementary school education, some of which I've already mentioned in class (discipline and the beginning of tracking, as well as the masking of systematic and institutionalized racism behind socially conscious curricula, for example). Reading the piece by Flores and Rosa gave light to something I didn't often think about during elementary school, but that in retrospect I can now see manifesting in so many ways: the racialized "appropriate" and "inappropriate" uses of language. 

We learned French during 7th and 8th grade. I think this was the language chosen mainly because the Science teacher (of French descent) could teach it, since all the other elementary schools in the district taught Spanish. A few years before my time in the junior high, the school had been running a Haitian Creole bilingual program, which drew many students from Haitian families in the area. By the time I attended, Haitian students had been incorporated into the "ESL" program, which operated out of a single classroom on the junior high hallway. 

Although Haitian Creole has many similarities with French, the Science/French teacher couldn't understand much of it. During Science classes, I watched the teacher berate Haitian students often for speaking to one another in Haitian Creole, and I remember feeling uncomfortable every time she did (although at the time I couldn't articulate why). I later realized that though she punished students for speaking Haitian Creole during class, she often praised other students (all white, in my memory) for speaking French, even if it was during a lecture or science activity. She was a strict and pretty high-strung woman, and I remember how flustered she seemed every time she confronted a student about their using Haitian Creole, which she described specifically as "not appropriate for school." 

It seemed like what made this language "not appropriate," in addition to the analyses Flores and Rosa offer, was that it was not in the teacher's repertoire--and because she could not understand it, it took some authority away from her. The teacher, who could understand white students speaking French but could not understand Haitian students speaking Haitian Creole, seemed to feel less "in control." If part of what determines "appropriate"-ness of language is not only the more obvious racial dynamic between student (black) and teacher (white), but also the teacher's understanding, then teachers of European descent who speak and teach European languages perpetuate the privileging of those languages. Furthermore, because the teacher was adamant about teaching and speaking in a language that none of us knew, she was able to excuse her choice to use only transmission style teaching, silencing even the students whose native language had much in common with her own. There are so many other angles with this story, including the fact that students who continued to speak Haitian Creole were sometimes disciplined (and discipline in school in the U.S. is so very racialized).