Talking about race without using the r-word (but wishing we were): Part I

This week’s post is brought to you by BILD member Dr. Alison Crump and two guest bloggers Dr. Kristine Sudbeck and Korrine Byrnes.


Over the past year, I (Alison) have had the rather surprising and humbling experience of being contacted by people I have never met, who have in common that they read my LangCrit article and have found it useful for their own work on language, race, and identity. This has started many interesting conversations with scholars, both emerging and more seasoned, about how a LangCrit (Critical Language and Race Theory) lens is informing their research. It is so exciting to welcome some of this conversation to the BILD blog. First, some background on this co-blogging team.

Dr. Kristine Sudbeck recently completed her PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Last fall, we had a few Skype conversations and talked about potentially collaborating on something at some point. In February, she contributed a beautiful piece to the BILD blog. More recently, I heard from Korrine Byrnes, a PhD student at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, who is presently working on her confirmation (like comprehensive exams in North America). It occurred to me that the three of us have a lot in common and that it would be really neat to connect. So, we found a time that worked in all three time zones for a Skype call.

The three of us thought it would be helpful to write out some of what we discussed in our Skype call. Who knows where this will lead next.

Our conversation started with all of us sharing a common challenge of explaining to others what our research is about, and how to talk about race in a way that doesn’t get people’s backs up. This is what we’d like to share in Part I of our blogging conversation.

Alison: When people ask me what my research was about, I generally say something like “I was interested in young children’s multilingual language development and identities”. This is the easier conversation to have, but it’s not necessarily the one I want to/ should be having. Sometimes, if the context feels right, I will add something about intersections of racial and linguistic identities. Even so, I find it easier to talk about audible and visible identities and avoid the r-word altogether. This still feels like I’m couching my work in more accessible/ acceptable terms.

Korrine: My research was initially driven by my perceived lack of a satisfactory answer to my question of why languages education has failed in Australia for over 40 years. When I was initially asked about my research I would respond vaguely and in broad terms, “I’m researching Languages education in Australian primary schools.” This was often met with, “what specifically about Languages education?”. I struggled to answer but I found this sparked a lengthy conversation. On a mission to develop a response not full of cliches and overused excuses, I dug deeper into research on race and language which was initiated by the work of Michael Clyne (2005, 2008) on the monolingual mindset, and this is where I found LangCrit. Excited about having a critical response that I was truly interested in and in an area of little/no research in Australia, I began openly talking about the intersections of race and language and how this may impact children’s willingness to learn languages in a monolingual country. Interestingly, people were more interested in my initial vague conversation with them then they were in my well researched and focused response on race, language and identity. I walked away from these awkward conversations wondering what I had said wrong.

I took the opportunity to ask Alison and Kristine for advice on how to talk about race after I felt like I had offended or upset most of the students in the Higher Degree by Research room (an exclusive, on campus study space for PhD candidates), some faculty members and my older sister. For me, it made perfect sense to include race as part of the conversation on languages education but other people did not share the same sentiment. Alison told me she has found it easier to use ‘audible’ and ‘visible’ and not use race altogether. From this conversation, I restructured my response to the question of “what are you researching?” to include audible and visible removing the provocative r-word. I now feel like I am almost back at where I started, providing a vague response. While I am no longer upsetting people, I find I am also not having critical conversations about race. I am left wondering if I should be avoiding these conversations or if I should be initiating them?

Kristine: I have had a similar experience avoiding the r-word when initiating conversations about my research. In the beginning of my “elevator speech”, I may share how I began studying two Indigenous languages (i.e., Omaha/Umonhon and Ho-Chunk/Hocąk) with elders at two tribal colleges geographically located central to what is now the United States. As I continue, I explain how I took a critical lens to my own language learner identity (i.e., the intersection of my visible and audible identities) within those learning spaces as someone who has no known Indigenous ancestry. Hence, I also remove the provocative the r-word.

It seems as though the words race and racism spark a lot of emotion for people. Some may have first-hand experience on the receiving end of racism, regardless of others’ acknowledgement of this lived experience of oppression. Others may feel like they are under attack- being called a racist- even though the conversation may not directly imply that. As a teacher educator in the United States, many of the students in my class have come from a white, middle-class, monolingual English-speaking background. And since I have the luxury of seeing these students in class for a full semester, we have the opportunity to learn from the discomfort of the taboo topic of the r-word through continuous dialogue. Something I share with my students is an action continuum, derived from the work of Adams, Bell and Griffin (2007).

Action Continuum

When applied to systems of oppression, such as racism and linguicism, this continuum offers a lens from which to understand far beyond the binary of whether someone is a racist or not. From there, I found Alison’s piece on LangCrit as a venue to extend that conversation farther with my pre-service teachers, generating a deeper understanding of the variety of lived experiences people have based on the intersections of their audible and visible identities.

No matter how these conversations begin (i.e. avoiding the “r-word”), the important thing to remember is that they are, in fact, beginning.

~ ~ ~

Not surprisingly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how to talk about race to people who don’t want to talk or hear about race. As you can see, we are all finding our own ways of being race, language, and identity scholars.

We would love to hear your experiences too.

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