This month, I have invited a member of the NJTESOL/NJBE Executive Board, Tasha Austin, to be a guest columnist on my TESOL blog. This year, the TESOL International Association Board of Directors decided to study how the association can counter anti-Black racism and help our members examine their own practices and provide support to their Black multilingual learners. Tasha helped spearhead this movement in our organization.
Tasha is a PhD candidate and lecturer in language education at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and the representative for the NJTESOL-NJBE Teacher Education Special Interest Group.
Summer Maintenance: Countering Anti-Blackness in Multilingual Classrooms
2020 was marked by global uprisings that highlighted violence against Black people and more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and Latinx (and in some cases Asian) U.S.-based populations. Additionally, anti-Asian violence and interrupted teaching and learning across the nation pushed our profession as language educators to the brink. Out of pure exhaustion, we may be tempted to join calls for return to a “prepandemic normal” state of affairs.
Still, for Black multilingual populations, normal in schools can be characterized as isolating—and even violent. While the recent spike in media coverage portrays physical violence against the Afro-descended as novel, it is as normalized as the steady beat of Black multilingual erasure in language classrooms. Neither began in 2020, but both will continue into the future without a conscious interruption starting with our commitment to diagnose ourselves as a part of the current condition in which Black multilingual students find themselves.
Teachers of multilingual learners, like all instruments of change, need to be in top shape to perform in meaningful ways. As you tend to your mental, physical, and emotional well-being this summer, also ensure it is a time of deep reflection and learning in order to increase effectiveness with Black multilingual students.
It’s Not About You, But It Is…
Since the majority of K–12 teachers are white women, turning the lens of racial inquiry toward teachers instead of students can feel aimless when “race” is typically applied to those who are not white. Nationally, performative acknowledgements, like naming Juneteenth a federal holiday or the airing of In the Heights, can make it feel like the push for racial equity is progressing just fine without additional help. Still, as Afro-Latinx backlash against the comments of icon Rita Moreno demonstrates, the right to be recognized as fully human and worthy of acknowledgement both in and out of classrooms is often an invisible struggle for those unaffected, which feeds apathy toward the ongoing violence against Black people. Reflecting upon how this impacts Black multilingual students is urgent—the consequences for those who have always been encouraged to wait longer for justice are dire.
To begin the journey toward racial literacy, consider engaging in the archaeology of the self, which rightfully locates all people as recipients of systemic benefits and/or discrimination while moving through a society that still benefits from the free labor of enslaved Africans. Coming to terms with systems that you may not run, but indeed benefit from, can be a catalyst for awakening to how those positions permeate the teaching of Black multilingual populations whose numbers continue to increase in the United States.
Do Your Work
“Cancel culture” is an often cited reason for avoiding difficult conversations in which one may use the wrong term or express a belief that reflects racist undertones. Still, investigating how we language our realities through words deemed as cancel-worthy may reveal entry points for unpacking beliefs that need to be disrupted. Furthermore, language practices that have been deemed un-American are rooted in anti-Blackness that precedes even the establishment of our public schools and were similarly cited for rationalizing violent boarding school practices for Indigenous populations.
Although joining a system rooted in white supremacy can make one complicit, it doesn’t have to, considering that complicity is more about actions than words. Try reflecting on your actions first, then adding discussion in the form of a reflection with critical conversations in groups of interested language teachers or loved ones who invite growth (in addition to calling in and out where necessary). The risk of interpersonal discomfort in challenging the status quo pales by comparison to Black and particularly Black multilingual students, who have little power in the school context and who face institutional consequences for their words and actions, including higher suspension, expulsion, and dropout rates.
Teachers’ Call to Action
The barrage of expectations upon language educators, particularly those who work with multilingual and immigrant populations, seems to mount higher every year. Still, the root of anti-Blackness remains firmly intact as strategies only rearrange surface-level challenges rather than dislodging the racial ideologies we may not consciously acknowledge. Let this summer be one of deep and lasting change that begins with the self and emanates through thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
We teachers, as the most impactful variable affecting student achievement, can only drive change if we are maintained through
- inspection of our beliefs,
- replacement of our misunderstandings, and
- regularly checking our racial filters to ensure we stop the spread of anti-Blackness in our multilingual classrooms.