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 Decent(e)ring Whiteness in ELT: Context and Terminology

JPB Gerald

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.

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.


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

Helaine Marshall

Join Helaine Marshall on Saturday, November 14th, 2020 at 1:30 pm at the NYS TESOL Virtual Conference.

We asked NYS TESOL 2020 presenters to answer a few questions about the unique times we are living in. Here is what Helaine shared.

In what ways does your work support, celebrate, and validate multilingual learners‘ cultural, racial, and linguistic assets?
The Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm® or MALP® supports some of our most vulnerable students by blending the learning paradigms from their cultures with the learning paradigm most common in our classrooms here in the U.S. We accomplish this by creating fertile spaces for learning with the 4 E‘s: Equity, Enrichment, Engagement, and Empowerment. MALP builds equity because it is mutually adaptive and culturally sustaining. It encourages motivation because MALP is project-based to provide an enriching learning experience. MALP fosters active participation by students who often stay on the sidelines by engaging them in meaningful, targeted academic ways of thinking with culturally familiar content, full use of their multilingual repertoire, and culturally responsive learning activities. Finally, students feel empowered by the presence of the first three E‘s and ultimately take ownership of their learning.
What advice would you give to teachers of multilingual learners to face and advocate for their students and families during COVID-19 and systemic racism?
Most of our students come from collectivistic societies where people look after each other by forming a web of relationships and understanding that when any one part of the web is disrupted or experiences a shift, it affects the entire community. The U.S. can learn from this world view, and perhaps it is our immigrant and refugee families who have the key to ultimately defeating this virus that plagues us. By contributing their expertise in shared responsibility and how to cultivate it, they can demonstrate both their value to our society in our time of need and their true dedication to the safety and well-being of the community they now call their home. What‘s better than that?
What impact do you think COVID-19 and racial justice movements will have on TESOL Education?
Having been part of this field for nearly 50 years (YIKES!), I have seen the ebb and flow of immigrant, refugee, and international student populations, both in the U.S. and globally. I have never seen these migration patterns being targeted so transparently and used as a cudgel by our own governmental institutions as is our current experience. The combined dangers of fear and ignorance have unfortunately found breeding grounds where we never expected them to and, as a result, our students and their families, as well as our own livelihoods, are under attack. That said, taking the longer view over time, I do not think that this is the endpoint. TESOL, and all language teaching, will ultimately thrive because people want to communicate and form relationships across linguistic and cultural boundaries, and once they do, the differences between them are recognized as superficial and potentially divisive. Cliff notes version: Short-run – terrible impact; Long-run – little impact.

Helaine Marshall is a professor of education and director of language education programs at LIU Hudson, NY, USA. She teaches graduate-level courses in linguistics and multicultural education in face-to-face, blended, and synchronous online formats. Her research interests include: culturally responsive teaching, SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education), nontraditional teaching of grammar, and instructional technology, especially flipped learning.

Okhee Lee

We asked NYS TESOL 2020 presenters to answer a few questions about the unique times we are living in. Here is what Okhee Lee shared.

In what ways does your work support, celebrate, and validate multilingual learners’ cultural, racial, and linguistic assets?
The new science standards place equity at the center, thus all standards, all students. To achieve this vision, traditional approaches give way to contemporary views in teaching science. Traditionally, scientists and science teachers defined canonical knowledge of science disciplines as they were typically presented in science textbooks. Some students learned science, but science did not make sense to many students. The contemporary approach is tailored for all students to make sense of phenomena or design solutions to problems just as scientists and engineers do in their work. As multilingual learners use language to do science, they develop their science understanding and English language proficiency in tandem. Thus, science learning and language learning are mutually supportive of each other with all students, especially multilingual learners, by using their full range of meaning-making resources.
What advice would you give to teachers of multilingual learners to face and advocate for their students and families during COVID-19 and systemic racism?
Teachers have been handed a central role in overcoming the impact of COVID-19 and systemic racism that is disproportionately affecting multilingual learners. As professionals, teachers decide and carry out what is best for their students, especially students on the margins, including multilingual learners. Particularly relevant are the compassion and resilience expressed by teachers during these unprecedented times when our society is facing so many challenges and uncertainties.
What impact do you think COVID-19 and racial justice movements will have on TESOL Education?
In my work, I think about the role of STEM in addressing COVID-19 and systemic racism. It’s compelling to see how crucial STEM disciplines are in finding solutions to COVID-19. At the same time, they are complicit in the perpetuation of social injustices by failing to address problems of systemic racism for people of color, the poor, and other marginalized groups on the global stage. Now is the moment for STEM disciplines and STEM education to work in concert and address both COVID-19 and systemic racism. I believe we can achieve a new – better – normal for STEM education centered on social justice for all students, including multilingual learners.

Okhee Lee is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. She served as leader for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Diversity and Equity Team. Her current research involves integrating science, language, and computational thinking with a focus on English learners.

Come and learn with Okhee Lee on Friday, November 13th, 2020 at 9 am at the NYS TESOL Virtual Conference.

Justin (JPB) Gerald

We asked NYS TESOL 2020 presenters to answer a few questions about the unique times we are living in. Here is what Justin (JPB) shared.

In what ways does your work support, celebrate, and validate multilingual learners‘ cultural, racial, and linguistic assets?
By challenging the field‘s historical and present-day hegemony and oppression, I hope to clear space for our racialized learners to be more fully supported and not harmed by their participation in English Language education spaces. The field needs to understand that is can either choose to perpetuate whiteness, anti-Blackness, other forms of racism, and linguistic imperialism, or it can fight the harm it has caused. My work seems to shine a light on the damage that has been wrought and pressure the field into developing a greater sense of humanity instead of protecting the status quo.
What advice would you give to teachers of multilingual learners to face and advocate for their students and families during COVID-19 and systemic racism? Do a deep examination of one‘s own relationship to racism and whiteness, understand we are all capable of perpetuating these issues through the choices we make. Seek to provide a space where whiteness is no longer centered and normed. Take note of the discussions colleagues and administrators have and understand the coded, harmful language being used. Ensure that, through this chaos, your students are not forgotten because of the usual exclusion from the minds of those in power. And speak to your students specifically about what they need, and push these messages along to those who will thus be forced to listen.
What impact do you think COVID-19 and racial justice movements will have on TESOL Education? COVID is harming racialized learners, and marginalized learners, disproportionately. But in the long run, if our field is willing to actually listen, challenge itself, and banish our harmful practices, we have the chance to make TESOL supportive. As of now, it is not, but it could be if it wants to.
The current racial justice moment is not separate from our work. I urge everyone to study sociolinguistics and raciolinguistics to understand why this is the case. If we see the racial justice movement as our own fight – especially if you‘re a white teacher! – it stands a much greater chance of making genuine changes for our students and our field.
Ultimately, though, nothing will change without a new version of epistemology and leadership. We need to discard the canon, dispense with the idea that standards are objective and not oppressive, and even question what we consider to be English or a language altogether. We need to remove the shackles from our imagination because these boundaries only hold our students, our colleagues, and our whole field back. And, of course, don‘t let Big TESOL stay in whatever century it lives in.

Join JPB Gerald on Friday, November 13th, 2020 at 1:30 pm at the NYS TESOL Virtual Conference.

JPB Gerald is an adult educator and an EdD student at CUNY – Hunter College pursuing a degree in Instructional Leadership. His research and scholarship focuses on the intersection of language education, race, and whiteness.