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Decent(e)ring Whiteness in ELT: Context and Terminology by JPB Gerald
01/08/2021


At the end of last spring, my article, Worth the Risk: Towards Decentring Whiteness in English Language Teaching, was published in the BC TEAL journal (which you can read here). As the title suggests, the article focuses on the ways in which whiteness is centered in our field, the harm that this causes, and how we can go about decentering it. In one of those accidents of history, the article was released to the public the same week as the beginning of the ongoing uprising against racial injustice, and has led to my presenting on the topic throughout the summer, fall, and winter, including at the NYS TESOL conference. As much as I would like to believe in the pure brilliance of my work, clearly the article became more relevant than I could have expected when I wrote it last January, and, I hope, it has begun, or furthered, a necessary conversation in our field. Rather than rehash the arguments made in the article proper, however, I write today to provide some context on terms that many of us use frequently, which should help clear up some of the questions people tend to have when they hear about my scholarship. Let‘s start by talking about a fun topic that makes everyone comfortable.

Racism is the combination of racial discrimination and societal oppression. Anyone can experience the former, but only certain people can experience the combination of the two. For example, as a Black person, I could tell you I don‘t want to have any white friends (not true, but for the sake of argument), and that would absolutely be discriminatory, but because I do not have the full power of society behind me, and because that would not materially impact the people I denied my friendship, it does not qualify. It‘s just kind of mean, and racism is a system of unequal power rather than interpersonal cruelty (although there is plenty of it). With all this said, I have little interest in the very academic discussion about who can be racist – the fact is, we can all choose to perpetuate the system or work against it. I fully do not care whether or not Black Trump voters are racist deep inside of their hearts, because I know they made the choice to support that administration (which lost anyway). An important point to add here is that race is, of course, not biological fact; nothing happens to people because of their race but because of the system of racism. Hate crimes and police brutality are caused by racism, not race. (So next time you see a news report on such an incident, note how poorly and inaccurately it will be described.)

Speaking of police brutality, one of the mistakes people often made this past summer was forgetting to center Blackness in their discussions of what was happening. It will take you under a minute to Google a manicured statement by a professional organization – perhaps a larger umbrella organization with which you may be familiar – that speaks vaguely of racism but is unable to include the word Black. Accordingly, it is important that when we speak of something happening to Black people specifically, we know that we are speaking of anti-Blackness. Anti-Blackness is oppression of Black people, Black bodies, Black languages (and the way Black people use language). It is a synonym for anti-Black racism, one of many forms of racism (e.g., anti-Asian racism or anti-Arab racism, but not anti-white racism or reverse racism). I point this out because people often ask what it‘s called when one person of color harms a Black person (see: Zimmerman, George), and that‘s where the utility of anti-Blackness as a term comes in. Not every country has the same conceptualizations of racism as the United States, a country founded on Indigenous genocide and chattel slavery, but almost every place has some version of anti-Blackness, which you can confirm by asking any Black person who has traveled widely (feel free to ask me). I will add here also that anti-Blackness is a tried and true way for a liminal group to achieve acceptance into whiteness; many types of European immigrants were once not considered white, but by enthusiastically supporting the country‘s anti-Blackness, they saw a gradual (though not complete) acceptance into the majoritized group.

That majoritized group, of course, is the essence of what we know of as white supremacy. There is little need to define this phrase – it is the system by which whiteness is constructed as superior to other racial groups – but I use it here to contrast it with another term, white nationalism. You can be a white supremacist in your home, but as far as domestic and foreign policy is concerned, building border walls and/or leaving the European Union for no good reason is more than believing in racial superiority; these are attempts to create a white ethnostate, a country for white people. What was shocking about the four years that are now ending in the United States was not the white supremacy – which has always been the country‘s ethos – but the white nationalism. The distinction is key to keep in mind.

Back to white supremacy. My article is about whiteness in English Language Teaching, and, through a brief analysis of racial history and the current practices in the field, I discuss how whiteness has always been centered. Yet the point I want to make here, before you read the article, is that there is no functional difference between whiteness and white supremacy. Indeed, whiteness, as a concept, was created to justify colonialism and chattel slavery (Painter, 2011); there had to be a group exempt from these horrors, and as such, whiteness was codified. Whiteness was created to be supreme, as a protection from the oppression that others deserve because of the groups into which they have been placed.

As I wrote in the article, The promise we ELT professionals make to the racialized is that individuals can save themselves from the oppression otherwise visited upon them and one of the ways a person is told that they can be saved from the precarity and pain endemic to powerlessness is to attain facility in the English languageIn other words, what we ELT professionals are truly promising to students, even without understanding that we are doing so, is the chance to get closer to whiteness. In order to take the necessary steps to counteract these issues, we need to understand that this is a central function of our field, and the article offers initial guidance for creating a new version of English Language Teaching.

I am working on a follow-up article with two colleagues in which we envision what the field might look like once whiteness is actually decentered. I am also beginning research for a longer project connecting Blackness, dis/ability, and language variety into an argument for solidarity and against the oppression inherent to a system that prizes whiteness. For now, though, I hope that you will read the original article, with a deeper understanding of this important terminology, and the willingness to challenge orthodoxy in whatever way you can.


References
Painter, N. (2011). The history of white people. Norton.

JPB Gerald is an EdD student at CUNY – Hunter College whose scholarship focuses on the intersection of whiteness and language teaching, as you can probably tell by now. He is the VP of Advocacy for NYS TESOL.