Antiracism in the world language classroom and the importance of having difficult conversations
Milton Alan Turner, OFLA Editor for Electronic Media
French Teacher, Saint Ignatius High School
The recent Disney film Encanto tells the story of the Madrigal family whose members often have magical gifts. But there is one member, Bruno, who has apparently deserted the family under secret and shameful circumstances. The popular song We Don’t Talk About Bruno is about the attempts of young Mirabel to get information about her uncle from the rest of the family. While we eventually learn that the stories Mirabel hears contain some facts and elements of truth, most of them are either exaggerated, taken out of context, or entirely wrong. But the reluctance or refusal of the family to discuss Bruno makes it frustrating for Mirabel to get any honest information at all, much less to be able to separate fact from fiction.
Recent pressures to limit or even forbid the discussion of “divisive” issues have led many teachers to avoid discussing the topics of race, racism, or social justice. Like Bruno, the very mention of them brings discomfort and many avoid talking about them at all costs. But as world language educators, we should and must talk about these issues, even if the conversations are difficult.
The Winter 2022 Issue of ACTFL’s The Language Educator has the topic focus of “Antiracism in the World Language Classroom.” In their article “Antiracism in the World Language Classroom: How Language Teachers Can Lead for Change,” Andrea Amado and Olivia Hussey explain why it is necessary for world language teachers to engage in these discussions.
“The content of language classes naturally teaches us about different cultures and how we can connect with and compare to others… This allows us to design purposeful learning experiences that invite our students to examine themselves in relation to the world around them… Antiracist pedagogy empowers students to continue their paths towards self-discovery and to challenge the status quo.” They further note that “with roughly 79% of educators being white, critical self-reflection is even more essential for teachers. Similarly, in the stereotypical white suburbs, often surrounded by diverse, working-class urban communities, racial homogeneity is still the norm and students in these spaces seldom engage with racial or ethnic diversity.”
Back in 2019 Uju Anya. and L. J. Randolph, Jr argued in their article “Diversifying Language Educators and Learners” for The Language Educator that “we must openly address race and racism in language education policies, instructional practices, and curriculum, regardless of the arguments that some make alleging that such discussions court controversy or are ‘political,’ and thus have no place in language education… Supposedly positive mindsets such as colorblindness—which is a choice to deliberately ignore those differences and how they operate on individual, systemic, and institutional levels—are neither neutral nor apolitical. They involve an ideological decision to not acknowledge the importance of a fundamental aspect of our students’ identities, and also, to maintain the status quo that presents interests, experiences, and representation of certain populations (e.g., White, middle class, heterosexual) as the norm. Ignoring the impact of race, equitable representation, and meaningful participation of minoritized populations in language education negates how profound that impact can be.”
Representation of people of color in our classroom is essential. Their lack of visibility in our classrooms reinforces a dangerous and hurtful message. In their article “Interrogating Racial Ideologies: Enabling Antiracist World Language Learning via the IPA” in the Winter 2020 issue of The Language Educator, Lauren Miranda and Francis John Troyan note “The urgency of addressing this Black invisibility within the Spanish classroom is critical when we consider the deeply rooted anti-Black ideologies that endure throughout the United States and Latin America. While you are certainly conscious of the permanence of anti-Black racism in the U.S., the pervasiveness of anti-Black sentiments throughout Latin America may be surprising to those familiar with the discourses of racial meritocracy often mobilized by Latin American writers and politicians.”
The invisibility of people of color is not only restricted to our textbooks and instructional materials. Cassandra Glynn, Krishauna Hines-Gaither, and Tamari Jenkins point out in their article “Increasing Black Representation in Languages: Lessons from the past and present” in the same issue of The Language Educator that “only 3.5% of foreign language education degrees were awarded to Black or African American graduates. These data indicate that the teacher gap persists between the growing diversity of K–16 student populations and the largely white teaching staff of U.S. institutions. In short, we are seeing little change in the diversity of either the students or the teachers in our WL classrooms in the U.S.”
In their article “Antiracism in the World Language Classroom,” Krishauna Hines-Gaither and Cécile Accilien emphasize that “educators can begin incorporating antiracism from Day One at all levels, including the novice level. For example, setting the stage at the very beginning of the class may mean revealing the large numbers of people of color who are L1 speakers of our target languages. Educators can be intentional in showing images of indigenous, African descendants and other identities of target communities.”
Hines-Gaither and Accilien list “Ten Principles of Antiracism” for world language classrooms and teachers. Four of the principles I will highlight are:
- Silence is the enemy of antiracism.
- Educators need to understand that an antiracist classroom undeniably changes the game for students of color, while also enabling white students to understand how privilege, power, and positionality play out in white dominant cultures.
- Educators should be aware that being social justice-minded does not automatically equate to being antiracist.
- Educators need to acknowledge that the majority of our textbooks and curricula have thrived on racist practices that silenced the voices and omitted the experiences of people of color and were not written by BIPOC scholars.
Not speaking up and remaining silent is the worst thing we can do. (Spoiler alert!) In Encanto, we discover that Bruno has been largely misunderstood and never left the family at all. He has endured a self-imposed invisibility and the rest of the family seems to be happy to NOT know that he is there. (Eagle-eyed viewers of the film and promotional posters have pointed out images where Bruno is in the background or shadows but nevertheless on the screen throughout the movie). Let’s stop forcing people of color to lurk unseen in the shadows. Let’s talk honestly and openly about race and antiracism so that everyone can have their proper seat at the family table.