Posted in Linguistics, Writing

Language, Gender, and the Classroom

N.B.: This is an adapted version of a paper I wrote for Applied Linguistics 623: Sociolinguistics Spring 2020 // I would love to hear your thoughts

Sociolinguistics seeks to explore the function of language in a society. As we use oral, written, and non-spoken language at every point of our lives, there are many spaces in which we can examine the linguistics choices we make and why. Language continually shapes how we live and our interpretations of what words and actions mean. Linguistic relativity also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that a language completely determines a person’s worldview and how a person thinks. Lucy stated that “each language embodies a particular interpretation of reality… which influences thought about that reality” (1997). As a result, with the linguistic diversity that is present in our schools and in the city of Boston, there are so many realities coming to play with every cross-linguistic and even intra-linguistic interaction. 

Personally, my worldview has changed radically from about 10 years ago. I have been forced to examine the ways that I and others use words to unknowingly maintain heteronormative standards. This examination has exposed many ways that we default to words and phrases that are not inclusive of all genders and sexualities. For example, there are many issues with telling students to talk to their “mom and dad” from the assumption that a student lives with both parents, that the student lives with either parent, that the student has a good relationship with said parents, etc. All of these underscore the expectation that the ideal or typical family unit consists of a mother and a father. This has been problematized from a class lens but less frequently from a gender lens.

The most specific way that my change in language use has impacted my habits of thought has to do with the way I refer to people I don’t know: while telling stories in the past, I would say “this girl” or “that guy” and use pronouns that align with their gender presentation and expression (which I now know is not always the same as their gender identity). These days, I make a conscious effort to avoid using gender exclusive language in my speech and, whenever possible, gently correct others who might accidentally do something similar. Even phrases like the New England “y’all” you guys can be unintentionally hurtful to people who are experiencing gender dysphoria even though for others it may not be a big deal. 

Gender inclusivity impacts me in the classroom especially considering I teach Arabic, an incredibly gendered language. There are very few opportunities for breaking out of the male-female dichotomy in Arabic. In English, the word “you” is gender neutral whereas in Arabic, you must gender whomever you speak to both in the pronoun and the verb conjugation. This becomes particularly tricky in that there are no collective, standardized ideas on how to work around this. 

On a larger scale, I work in an arts school and as a community, there is a high percentage of students who identify as trans and/or queer and who are free with regards to their gender expression and presentation. It is of utmost importance that we are conscious of the effects that our language use has in setting the culture of acceptance and inclusivity. Sexualities outside of the standard have already been so normalized within our community and even moreso with this generation of students. Our students are moving away from heteronormativity especially with more public figures and celebrities being more open about their sexualities and gender identities. 

 

If I were speaking to parents and educators in my school community to address gender and LGBTQ+ inclusivity, I would explain the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but also address that I, personally, accept a less rigid interpretation of it: language shapes our ideas as well as perpetuates ideas of language but we do have the ability to change and learn and internalize new ideologies. That’s what makes our work around gender even more important. While using the singular “they” may have been challenging for me at first, it becomes second nature almost instantaneously. It is almost standard practice now to include your pronouns in your email signature when just five years ago that would have raised many eyebrows outside of the queer feminist circles. 

Pauwels said, “taking linguistic action to improve the plight of women was seen as an integral part of women’s liberation” and while I don’t agree wholly agree with this belief, I do think that linguistic action does impact visibility and causes people to consider why they make the linguistic choices they do and where those ideas come from (2002). This could be incredibly important when it comes to changing our internal dialogues and ideologies around gender and sexuality. In learning more about the expansive terminology at our disposal and what words mean, we can make choices about how we want to move forward with our language use.

It is important to include actual queer representation as a starting point. This way, we can critically consider ways to decenter the normative social discourses. Moving forward, we can find ways to represent the even more marginalized LGBT identities (i.e. queer people of color, disabled queer people, “non-passing” trans people). But for now, it’s most important to raise our collective awareness, alter our daily speech to be more inclusive, and honor and value the pronouns of the people in our lives regardless about how we feel about the person. For example, misgendering someone when you’re upset with them or they have done something to hurt you is not acceptable, regardless of the circumstances. 

So much of education, or at least my experience as an educator of a language for which I’m not a native speaker, has been me situating myself as a non expert of the material or topic. For non-queer educators and parents, we should do this as well. 

This movement towards inclusive language should not be sensationalized or happen just during Pride Month: it should be a habitual practice! We should not be afraid to problematize the dominant discourses that are present in our textbooks and articles and academic resources. Our students are wise enough to challenge the materials and discuss how they marginalize and silence the real, lived experiences of people in their classrooms, in their lives, and in the world. Ultimately this shift is not about changing minds or hearts or opinions on queerness or sexuality, but rather an attempt to move the needle on our perception and acceptance of those ideas. We are trying to budge our cultural habits of thought by intentionally engaging in a slightly different habit and discovering why we do so. 

Pauwels discusses how feminist movements in the 1970s focused on the “male dominance in language regulation and planning” and their overwhelming attempts to subvert English’s inherent androcentrism (2002). 50 years has passed since then and while there are still issues in the way that our language use still points to a male-dominated society, we need to be expanding our focus beyond the gender binary. Using the impact that feminist linguistic activism has had on our use of language can be great inspiration for this new wave of linguistic activism and maybe, just maybe, in 2070 the next generation will have normalised a more gender-expansive English, a queer-accepting curriculum, and a trans-inclusive understanding of society. 

 

References

Deborah Cameron Styling the worker: Gender and the commodification of language in the globalized service economy Journal of Sociolinguistics 4/3, 2000: Institute of Education, London 323-347

Pauwels, Anne (2002) Linguistic Sexism and Feminist Linguistic Activism

 

Posted in Research, The Here and Now

#MainstreamMediaSoWhite

We’ve all seen the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, a commentary on the extreme lack of diversity present in this years Oscars Award Ceremony nominations. Unfortunately this exact same phenomenon occurred with the Brits Awards across the pond. With the majority of its non-white nominees being from the International Artist/Group pool, it only makes sense that the hashtag #BritsSoWhite was birthed.

But this post isn’t about the underrepresentation and underappreciation of musicians of color. This isn’t about the inevitable discrimination against groups that have such an impressive effect on modern/pop culture today. It’s about my (ex) gurl Lianne La Havas.

She’s an amazing artist with songwriting talent seldom paralleled. No songs get to me as much as “Gone” or “Lost & Found.” This post isn’t about her music.

It’s about how she didn’t agree with the #BritsSoWhite hashtag simply because if artists want to be nominated they should “just make good music and [they’ll] be fine.” She called the “horrible horrible” hashtag “racist” which is laughable because its entire purpose is to challenge a discriminatory structure. She completely ignored the fact that power structures keep POC at at disadvantage. It’s silly to look at the Brit Nomination lineup, see the minimal POC present and attribute it to the fact that they’re just not as good as their white counterparts.

This post is probably coming out very angry and “blamey” but I’m allowed to be angry when even people who have huge followings, money, and influence are being swept under the rug because of their race, regardless of their talent. If literal actual celebrities are having trouble making it, what’s gonna become of me and all my not-famous, not-rich POC brothers and sisters?

Lianne is entitled to her opinion but it’s heartbreaking to find out someone you admire doesn’t seem to understand someone as prevalent and important as basic representation.

Posted in Research, The Here and Now

#BlackAfterBLS

On Monday night, precisely on Martin Luther King, Jr Day, the hashtag #BlackAtBLS started trending on Twitter. It was filled with tweets written by students of color at Boston Latin School expressing their frustrations with the racial climate that exists.

As an African-American who attended BLS, the tweets resonated with me a lot. I found that the students today have similar experiences as I did. There were multiple instances of microaggressions throughout my six years in attendance. For the most part, it was initiated by people who did not even understand why or how they were being racist or offensive. High school is a difficult time socially: these 13-18 year olds are doing whatever they can to fit in and feel accepted even if that means degrading others in the process or being entirely unaware of social issues.

Unfortunately as well, the hashtag contained the tweets of students who felt that POC having a supposedly safe space to talk about their feelings was infringing on their ability to peruse the internet. A lot of students, both members of BLS and otherwise lashed out against the #BlackAtBLS hashtag and the people behind it. It was heartbreaking to witness the amount of hatred exhibited, especially behind the mask of fake accounts.

What I learned most from reading #BlackAtBLS was the statistical racial disparity between the BLS population and the BPS population. Half of the white students who attend Boston Public high schools go to Latin. There are over 20 high school in Boston and while BLS one of the biggests, it does not make up for these statistics.

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Once in a health class, the teacher had for some reason asked a question like, “if you had not gotten into BLS, how many of you would be in private school?” and nearly everyone in my majority-white (typical) class had raised their hand. I remember feeling extremely isolated at the time that it had happened and after recent events, I realise the gravity of that question and subsequent answer. I realise that it meant the students who were coming to BLS, specifically the white students who were so egregiously outnumbered in elementary and middle school, were essentially being pipelined into the top school in the city. After attending private or charter schools and having the highest quality education that money could buy, achieving acceptable scores on the entrance exam is simply expected.

Boston Latin School, along with the other Boston exams schools, provide students with a lot of opportunity both academic and extracurricular. Just having matriculated at any of these schools enhances your networking power exponentially. Our BPS students are being elbowed out of the BPS schools with the greatest selling power. It only proves to further embed the cycle of oppression that people of color and people with a low economic background face.

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Beginning in the mid-70s, after the Boston Bussing Riots had broken out, there were very few students of color enrolled at Boston Latin School. To remedy this, they used Affirmative Action as part of their admissions vowing to admit at least 35% black and hispanic students. Ever since this practise was taken away in 1995 the racial profile of BLS has continued to become more and more unbalanced.

I now attend a school with a nearly identical racial profile and feel even more uncomfortable. This is not an accurate representation of the real world, or at least not a world that I want to be a member of. We need diversity in order to learn and grow. The world is not homogeneous so why should our schools be. As I transition from undergrad to post-grad/grad-school life, I have a great deal of choices to make. I am essentially decided the type of community that I want to be a member of for the next phase of my life.

As an alumna of Boston Latin School, it fills me with immense hope that individuals are finding the courage to call injustice to attention. It shows me the beauty of the world that we are living in and who are are evolving into. #BlackAtBLS, just like #BlackLivesMatter is just a small slice of the civil rights movement that is taking place in this day and age. It is a continuation of the work started in the 60s that I hope will never stop until true equality and justice is attained. As unfortunate as it is that we still need to be having these conversations, it’s inspiring to watch it unfold. If I could go back in time and say one thing to my doe-eyed, sixie-year self, it would be, “take action.” I think the shift between young people today and young people even a few years ago is that we were not empowered enough to unify, fight, and make our voices heard for change. BLS B.L.A.C.K.’s success comes from great leadership and the realisation that there is no time like the present.