The Marginalization of African Americans in Educational Institutions Through Race and Language

by Aneika RobinsonPhoto of Aneika Robinson

Aneika is a sophomore and an undecided major who lives in Springfield, MA. She came to the United States from Jamaica when she was three years old. In this paper, Aneika wanted to address some of the subtle ways that “institutional racism is found within the foundations of schools in the United States.” She says that this essay “became something that was very special to me because it addressed a social issue that I am very passionate about. I care for equality of all people of color, as I believe that the color of a person’s skin should not determine how they should be taught or treated.”

African American students are often marginalized in educational institutions because of the color of their skin. The discrimination that they receive from institutional racism in the United States traces all the way back to during the enslavement of African Americans. During slavery, African Americans conducted secret schooling that taught reading and writing, despite it being forbidden by slaveholders. As a result of their experiences, “African Americans began to value freedom, resistance, self-determination, literacy and education” (Alridge, 478). After Emancipation, and by 1870, one-fourth of black school-aged children from southern states attended school, however, even with their faith and progress in education, many factors prevented many of them from receiving true schooling. Not until the year of 1930 was 80 percent of the black southern population literate (Alridge, 478). According to “On the Education of Black Folk: W.E.B. DuBois and the Paradox of Segregation” by Derrick Alridge, W.E.B. DuBois, amongst his many other influential achievements, was an advocate of a broad liberal arts education at the college level. He desired for African Americans to be taught in an environment where their history and culture would not be excluded. However, despite his dream and influence, “separate and unequal” became the pattern in the financing of African American public education, causing racism to continue to be institutionalized in the school system, even until today.

Does Code-Switching Discriminate Against Black English?
Whites have found a way, in the institutionalized teaching of the English language, to keep the marginalization of African Americans going in educational institutions through the linguistic term “code switching.” According to Vershawn Ashanti Young, the original definition of the term is accommodating two language varieties in one speech act, which in simpler terms is the practice of language blending. However, the more prevailing definition that is taught now in educational institutions today as the accepted and more suited practice for teaching composition and speech to marginalize African Americans, is language conversion. Now one might question, how can this altered definition of “code switching” be related to African Americans, or race in general? According to Patricia Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom, it is because, “If we teach standardized, handbook grammar as if it is the only ‘correct’ form of grammar, we are teaching in cooperation with a discriminatory power system” (Dunn and Lindblom, 43). This makes sense since many African Americans, including myself, do not always speak in what one may call your “Standard English” and often engage in “code switching.” Unfortunately, the usage of our own dialect is deemed improper or inappropriate, so were pressured in using our dialect in only “appropriate” settings.

The journal article “Nah, We Straight”: An Argument Against Code Switching” is written by Vershawn Ashanti Young, a professor at the University of Waterloo who works in the departments of Communication Arts and English Language and Literature. Young’s journal article is an argument against code switching that uses language substitution, which is the definition of code switching that instructors usually and improperly use. He argues that the original definition is language blending. He uses different sources that agree with his argument and others that counter it, however both prove that code switching is used to directly target African Americans. Referenced in his article, the book Code Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms by authors, linguist Rebecca S. Wheeler and elementary teacher Rachel Swords, believe that the purpose of language educators is to help students with the transitioning of the grammar that they use at home to school grammar in the classroom. They urge teachers to ignore race when teaching and discussing code switching, despite the fact that they write, that they “recommend teaching [black] students to recognize the grammatical differences between home speech and school speech so that they are then able to choose the language style most appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose” (Wheeler and Swords, 52-53). This inherent bias supports standard language ideology, also called “dominant language ideology,” which is the belief that there is a single set of dominant language rules that stem from one dominant dialogue (like Standard English) that all writers and speakers of English must conform to in order to communicate effectively. Wheeler and Swords urge teachers to ignore race but then use race as a way to point out to students that there is a “dominant language” for them to learn. They are not promoting the better alternative of “code meshing” that Young suggests (Young, 50). This language ideology also dictates that you can speak however you want – but only at home.

In contrast to what Wheeler and Swords claim, Young believes that this definition of code switching cannot be about anything else, if not about race. He states that someone cannot draw on what African Americans have experienced, then render them invisible, and therefore, take away their historical and contemporary racial experience from discussion (Young, 51). This code switching is the ongoing racism against the language habits of blacks. He believes that since most teachers mess up the meaning of code switching, he decided to create a new term called “code meshing,” which is the multi-dialectalism and plurilingualism in one speech act (Young, 50). Young promotes the blending of the simultaneous use of American English dialects in formal discursive products, such as political speeches, student papers, and media interviews. “Unlike code switching, code meshing does not require students to “hold back their Englishes” but permits them to bring them more forcefully and strategically forward” (Young, 62). Code meshing is something that won’t be hard to perform as African Americans consciously and subconsciously do it whenever we communicate, as nobody really subscribes to or follow standard modes of expression all of the time. Young also wrote a journal article in 2010 titled “Should Writers Use They Own English,” where he portrays code meshing through his own writing. He states “But don’t nobody’s language, dialect, or style make them “vulnerable to prejudice.” It’s ATTITUDES. It be the way folks with some power perceive other people’s language. Like the way some view, say, black English when used in school or at work. Black English don’t make it own-self oppressed” (Young, 110). Throughout Young’s article he purposefully uses his own dialect rather than Standard English. He does this intentionally to discredit the claims that Stanley Fish says about the need to use standard language. Young tackles each claim that Fish argues, in mostly black vernacular, in favor of the substitution definition of code switching and for the most part disagrees with them. Young shows that the term “code switching” is being used wrong by using “code meshing” in his own writing. He also argues that taking away people’s right to use their own dialect is denying their racial differences. Young also references Charles F. Coleman’s journal article, “Our Students Write with Accents. Oral Paradigms for ESD Students.” He argues, “Everybody mix the dialect they learn at home with whateva other dialect or language they learn afterwards. That’s how we understand accents” (Young, 64 ). Instead of presenting the mixing of languages with the dominant standard language as something forbidden, these scholars instead present it as something that is natural, and something that helps us understand one another and our backgrounds.

However, not everyone is going to share this same outlook as Young. Stanley Fish, a legal scholar, literary theorist, author and public intellectual, makes his argument in favor of language substitution in his three-piece New York Times essays titled “What Should Colleges Teach.” He first states that college students do not know how to write a clean English paper, and stresses how important it is for all students to be grammatically correct when they are writing. Fish argues that instructors are not properly teaching students how to write clean papers. He states that courses that are about writing should be exclusively on writing and how to properly write, read, and speak through standard language, and that if they have any other focus, then they cannot be considered a legitimate course on composition (Fish). Fish also states that just because these students’ previous teachers failed to teach this to them does not mean that college professors should devalue its significance and abandon their responsibility of teaching their students standard language. He shares:

First, you must clear your mind of the orthodoxies that have taken hold in the composition world. The main orthodoxy is nicely encapsulated in this resolution adopted in 1974 by the Conference on College Composition and Communication: “We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style (Fish).

Fish is suggesting that even though the CCCC has affirmed that students have the right to their own dialect in composition, this is false, that the two should remain separate and their instructors should refrain from thinking that their students do have this right. He also states that students are too infected with the simplistic egalitarianism of soft multiculturalism to declare that they have a right to their own language (Fish). The instructor then should “fake it” when assuring the student has rights by saying, they do have a right, and no one is taking their language from them, and that they’re only trying to teach them a new one. Fish then adds that no one will oppose learning another language, so they will be able to teach students this new (standard) language without opposition. I personally have never experienced an instructor telling me they are teaching me a “new language.” However, ever since I moved to this country from Jamaica, I have been told how to “properly” speak even after I stopped using my Jamaican dialect. I believe after you start changing how you speak, you lose part of yourself, even if you just limit your dialect in only certain settings. I made the decision when I was younger to change how I spoke so that I could be more acceptable to this new environment. This became consequential because I have not been able to use my Jamaican dialect the same ever since; so I cannot say that I agree with Fish’s argument that no one is taking a student’s language away from them.

Young also rejects Fish’s claims about a student’s right to their own language in his article “Should Writers Use They Own English”, as Young sees things through a different scope. What Young believes Fish really is implying when he asked his rhetorical question about languages is, “that the “multiculturals” should be thrilled to leave they own dialect and learn another one, the one he promote” (Young, 63). Young is suggesting that Fish is arguing that he sees Standard English as a superior to Black English, and that African Americans should be content with abandoning their previous dialect so that they can learn a new and improved one. Young argues back to the claim of code meshing, where he questions that, if we should be happy to learn another dialect, then shouldn’t everyone learn each other’s dialects equally? He states that everyone should learn as many dialects as they can, so that all will have an open-mind to mixing these different languages in oral and written communication (Young 63).

Does Code-Switching Actually Protect African- Americans From Prejudice?
Stanley Fish argues that people make the mistake of creating statements implicating a sociological or political analysis in the teaching of substitution in code switching (Fish). But after saying he agrees that standard language is a form of power and a device that protects the status quo, he then cites the sociological or political statement, which is that:

Students who are being prepared for entry into the world as it now is rather than the world as it might be in some utopian imagination — all dialects equal, all habit of speech and writing equally rewarded. You’re not going to be able to change the world if you are not equipped with the tools that speak to its present condition. You don’t strike a blow against a power structure by making yourself vulnerable to its prejudices. (V.F. Kinloch, “Revisiting the Promise of Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” CCC 57:1, September 2005).

I personally find this quote quite offensive, as Fish is arguing that those that believe that all dialects, speech habits, and writing are equal, are thinking of an idealistic world where everything is perfect. He is therefore straightforwardly implying that the Standard English is superior. I know that society does not look at the two dialects equally, however, this view should not be stated as idealistic, as it cannot be attainable. Fish is implying that there is only one way to speak “right” to get ahead in the real world and that black students do not have the right to their own language if that language is making them “vulnerable to prejudice.” Young also disagrees with this argument, as he believes that Fish is trying to “take the nation back in time”, to where society was less tolerant of linguistic and racial differences (Young, 61). Also, although Fish talks explicitly about language differences and not racial differences, the two are still intertwined. So if one is being implied, the other will most likely be implied as well. It also should be addressed that someone’s dialect, language, or style does not make them “vulnerable” to prejudice,” it is instead the attitudes of people with power and how they perceive other people’s language that creates prejudice. Black English does not make itself become self- oppressed, it is instead, the negative views that people have about other people using their own language, like the views that Fish expressed throughout his New York Times writing.

Consequently, when African Americans do follow what Fish suggests, they are still vulnerable to prejudice, as the discrimination that African American students receive goes deeper than just language, as found in Peter W. Cookson and Caroline Hodges Persell’s journal article, “Race and Class in America’s Preparatory Boarding Schools: African Americans as the “Outsiders Within.”” Cookson and Persell talk about how life is for minorities, specifically African American students, attending elite preparatory boarding schools. They also talk about how they are being faced with double marginalization and double stratification, and that no matter what they do, or how they speak, they will be seen as outsiders, even after all their efforts of trying to be accepted in the inner group. Cookson and Peresell also argue that when African American students do this they often have to give up a part of themselves to fit into this white upper class world, which is damaging to their mental state because they can only act the part, they will never be accepted in.

For example, preparatory schools are closed institutions that are white majority, and usually for the children of the upper class; very few African American students are usually accepted on a scholarship basis. However, since they are black, the chance of them being fully accepted by upper- class culture is highly unlikely, making them “outsiders within” despite their instrumental achievements (Cookson and Persell, 225). While attending an elite school, or a majority white school, African American students have to carry the burden of acting “White” and upper class, and therefore they often use the Standard English that Fish implies they should use to not become “vulnerable to prejudice.” Yet, the problem is not only with language. Attending an elite school as a minority often distances African- American students from their parents and friends, therefore, they are not able to fully participate in either lifestyles. Although they won’t be accepted into the group of the upper class, African Americans are still pressured to give up a significant part of themselves in order to keep the interest of the group, which would be including their dialect. Even for African Americans students that later become occupationally successful, lingering prejudice still remains very present. It is stated in the article, “it is possible to be instrumentally and culturally empowered through the possession of a prep school diploma and still be economically and socially disempowered because of one’s class or racial position” (Cookson and Persell, 223). This quote therefore proves that African Americans will be “vulnerable to prejudice” no matter what language they may use. Thus, doing what Fish suggests will only increase the sense of isolation, and show more fully their need to exercise firm control over themselves, their lives, and their language.

Not all educators or institutions that support the conversion definition of code switching are conscious supporters of racism. Nevertheless, the fundamental racism of code switching cannot be denied; it sees Black English as inappropriate and informal. It discriminates against black dialect, and further marginalized African Americans students in educational institutions by saying that “your dialect does not belong here.” Instead of instructing students how they should speak or write, we should instead teach how language functions within and from various cultural perspectives, especially given that we live in a country that is so diverse. We should teach what it takes to understand, listen, and write in multiple dialects simultaneously, and recognize how to blend dialects like the blending of Standard English and black vernacular that most African Americans speak. We need to enlarge our perspective on what is “good writing”. We should accept Black English as a language, reject linguistic shame, push African American students to be proficient in both language sets in all environments, and not reject people just because of how they speak.

Works Cited
Alridge, Derrick P. “On the Education of Black Folk: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Paradox of Segregation.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 100, no. 3, 2015, pp. 473–493.
Cookson, Peter W., and Caroline Hodges Persell. “Race and Class in America’s Elite Preparatory Boarding Schools: African Americans as the ‘Outsiders Within.’” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 60, no. 2, 1991, pp. 219–228.
Dunn, Patricia A., and Kenneth Lindblom. “Why Revitalize Grammar?” The English Journal, vol. 92, no. 3, 2003, pp. 43–50.
Fish, Stanley. “What Should Colleges Teach? – The New York Times.” The New York Times Opinionator, 24 Aug. 2009.
Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “‘Nah, We Straight’: An Argument Against Code Switching.” JAC, vol. 29, no. 1/2, 2009, pp. 49–76.
Young, Vershawn A. “Should Writers Use They Own English?.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (2010): 110-117.