Reflecting on Racism and Its Effects on English Language Teaching and Learning

Over the past few weeks, there have been massive protests across the United States in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many, many other Black Americans.

Across all 50 states, people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds have come together to clearly assert that Black Lives Matter.

I too believe that Black Lives Matter and stand with the Black community.

For centuries, the Black community has suffered violence and systemic racism from white people in the United States, as well as many other countries throughout the world.

Racism and discrimination against Black, indigenous, people of color (POC), and immigrant communities continue to be pervasive problems in the United States.

While most people condemn extreme acts of violence and murder, systemic racism is a much deeper problem that requires our attention, reflection, and action.

Change is essential and long overdue.

At this time, we must ask ourselves hard questions about how racism and discrimination have influenced our own beliefs, choices, and actions.

Standing with the BIPOC communities is a long-term commitment that requires us to listen, learn, and reflect, in addition to taking action.


Racism and Discrimination in English Language Teaching and Learning

Because racism is systemic, it influences all levels of society, including how we teach and learn the English language.

Within the English teaching industry, it is necessary to challenge the preferences for native English speakers versus non-native English speakers as educators and teachers.

As the language evolves, we need to understand global English as well as the many varieties of English spoken as a primary or official language across the world, including dialects from African and Caribbean countries.

Even when learning English and teaching a specific variety, such as American English, it’s important to acknowledge the many, many dialects that are spoken here, including Black English, each with their own unique characteristics.

One of the beautiful things about learning another language is that it helps you open your mind and explore the culture and heritage of the people who speak it.

However, language is also one of the ways that racism is transmitted within our culture.

For some examples, look at these excerpts from Racism in the English Language [PDF format].

This is why it’s important to reflect on and question the beliefs we have about both learning and teaching English.


Reflecting On and Questioning Your Beliefs About English Learning and Teaching

I invite you to join me in reflecting on the beliefs, opinions, and assumptions that we have about learning English.

(If you would like to add your own reflection questions to this list, please leave a comment below.)

Think about the teachers you have learned from in the past, whether in person or online. Have you thought about the viewpoints and backgrounds that they represent?

For example, consider their country of origin, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, education level, generation, gender, and religion. Are you able to identify how these various identities influence the language they speak and teach?

How do the educators you learn from use the English language? Is it different from than the language you hear in real life, in your community, on TV, in podcasts, or other media?

If you are learning online, do you listen to a variety of different voices? Are you able to find content and resources from educators who are Black, indigenous, or people of color, or from countries where English is not the primary language?

Could you seek out and learn from people whose life experiences are different from yours?

(At the end of this article, I’ve included a list of Black English educators for you to support and follow.)

If you are learning English in your local area, do you have the option to learn from non-native and native English speakers? Do they represent a wide variety of backgrounds? Why or why not? Have you had a Black English teacher? Can you ask the administrators about their criteria for hiring English teachers?

How do you feel about the varieties of English that you hear? Do you prefer certain speaking styles over others? Why is that? Is one way of speaking really better than another? Where do you think that message comes from?

Have you heard anyone express negative opinions about other varieties of English, such as Black English, Chicano English, regional dialects, or global English? Were these opinions expressed in an educational context or elsewhere? Have you heard other people mention preferences for one dialect over another, whether personally, in the media, or through online education resources? Why do you think this is? Where do these preferences come from?

Language is often used as a way to assert control over other people and may also include racist or discriminatory messages. For example, it is common to criticize how someone speaks in order to make them feel smaller or less important or to dismiss their ideas or perspective.

Have you questioned the language you are hearing, learning, and using? Have you heard people criticize how someone else talks to say their ideas don’t matter?

Consider the criticisms you have heard about your own use of English as a non-native English speaker or a speaker of another English dialect. How did it make you feel? Did it affect your willingness to share your opinion or use your voice? Has it affected how comfortable you feel speaking up now? Can you question the deeper motives behind why the other person criticized you? Or why you may feel critical of how you personally speak English?

Have you thought about your perception of other non-native English accents? Why do you think some accents are considered attractive or appealing, while others are viewed more harshly? Do you hold any of these opinions yourself? Why do think you feel this way?

Have you noticed microaggressions? Microaggressions are small comments, dismissals, or nonverbal exchanges that put down someone because of their race or background. This is one of the most pervasive, subtle types of racism and discrimination. Have you heard other people make comments about the way a BIPOC or immigrant talks, their style of dress, their skin tone, or their hair? What are other microaggressions that you have noticed against people from non-white backgrounds?

Have you observed or experienced racism or discrimination in your own country or region of the world? Do you feel racism is a problem where you live? If you think that your country doesn’t have racism or that people from your country don’t discriminate, I encourage you to ask yourself if that is really true.

Think about underrepresented segments of the population, including indigenous groups, immigrants, people from different socioeconomic classes, different racial and ethnic backgrounds, with different gender identities, with different education levels, or who practice different religions. Would they agree that there is no discrimination in your home country?


Having Tough Conversations About Racism, Prejudice, and Discrimination

As we continue to work together to understand and eliminate racism at a deeper level, you are likely to have challenging conversations with friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, even strangers.

While these conversations may seem small, they play a big role in helping people recognize and understand the unconscious beliefs they hold and the change we urgently need in society.

I encourage you to stay open to having these tough conversations with yourself, with people you love, and with people you admire.

Remember to ask questions and be willing to listen and learn.

Notice when your reaction includes defensiveness or a need to explain yourself.

Observe when you are tempted to dismiss or minimize what the other person is feeling or expressing about their own experience.

At times, you will need to voice a strong opinion against racist beliefs and behavior.

But you may also need to ask simple, curious questions to encourage the other person to reflect on their own beliefs.

Here are some possible questions:

  • Why do you think that?
  • Why do you believe that?
  • Where do you think that comes from?
  • Why do you think [the Black community] feels this way?
  • Why do you think this is happening?
  • Have you considered how [the Black community] feels about this?
  • How would you feel in [the Black community’s] shoes?

Depending on the context, you may be talking about the experiences of another community, such as the indigenous, people of color, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities.


Check In with Friends (Especially BIPOC) in the United States

Your friends, especially if they’re from BIPOC communities, may be having a really hard time right now.

Consider reaching out and checking in to see how they’re doing.

You may worry that your questions will bring up an upsetting topic and make them feel worse.

However, most people appreciate your efforts to connect because they want to be reassured that you care about them and what they’re going through.

Here are some thoughtful questions you can ask to check in with someone who is experiencing a crisis or challenging moment in their life.


More Resources to Learn About Racism in the United States

Here are some resources that can help you understand racism in the United States, antiracism, white privilege, being an ally, Black Lives Matter, Black English, and experiences of people of color in education.


Learn from Black Educators Teaching English Online

As you reflect on the educators you are learning English from online, you may notice that many, if not most, are white.

I encourage you to continue to diversify who you choose to learn English from.

Here are some Black educators teaching English online, who are from the United States, Canada, and other countries around the world:

If you would like to add any others Black educators teaching English to the list, please share links to their website, YouTube channel, or social media accounts in the comments.


Next Steps

I have been and will continue to be open to discussing and taking action to dismantle racism and discrimination both through my work and in my personal life.

As an English educator, I am not just teaching the mechanics of the language, but also sharing American culture and its embedded viewpoints and beliefs.

I regularly question and reevaluate the way I talk about and teach accent and communication.

Because I primarily work with non-native English speakers living the United States and Canada, I understand that you have likely experienced racism or discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, immigration status, or accent.

Please remember that your voice matters, and you belong here.

Here are some resources that can help you explore related topics:

Are there any questions you’ve been reflecting on that you’d like to share? Do you have any resources that have been helpful for you that you’d like to recommend? Please share in the comments.

I am committed to continuing this conversation. I will continue to update this article with more resources and reflections as I learn. I will be including a video or audio version soon.

6 thoughts on “Reflecting on Racism and Its Effects on English Language Teaching and Learning”

  1. Hi Kim. This is one of the best, most thorough reflections I’ve read on this important topic from a fellow English teacher. I’m just catching up with some blogs through Feedly to see what people in the English community are saying because clearly, given our role, we can’t ignore it.

    I’m addressing it in my newsletter on Friday and I’ll also be sharing an interview and the work of our colleague Leandra from Barbados – we recorded the interview in February but various issues have led to us only sharing it now. Thank for your list of black educators. I’ve compiled and will be sharing my own but I was looking for more. Let’s keeping adding and sharing.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading and sharing your own perspective, Cara. Consistently reflecting on these questions can help us understand the deeper beliefs that we’re teaching and learning. We definitely need to hear from and elevate a more diverse range of voices in the language learning industry.

      Reply
  2. Kim, just read your post through Cara’s newsletter and I loved your observations and list of resources. It’s so true, it’s incredible how things like language help spread and perpetuate racism. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Thanks for your feedback, Elfin! It is definitely important to reflect on why we feel the way we do about the language we speak and teach. I’m glad you found the resources helpful – there is always more to learn.

      Reply

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