Guest Blogger: Alejandro Granados Vargas
“Ain’t is not a word.” This is the mantra one of my teachers made us verbally repeat out loud in my early elementary years. Every repetition was supposed to burn it into our memories and turn it from a sentence into a law, akin to “water is wet” and “sugar is sweet”.
I remember her walking into the classroom. She was short with brown hair tied into a ponytail and she had a paper and pencil in her hand. She was wearing a green polo shirt and navy blue slacks, our school uniform. She was from another class and hadn’t done her homework. That’s why she was sent to our class. My school had a punitive system where students were sent to another class to write letters apologizing to their caregivers for not doing their homework. My teacher looked at her and gestured to the corner, pointing to the spot she needed to sit on to write her letter.
“Can I have a pencil? Mine ain’t workin’,” she said to my teacher.
My teacher looked at her as if she had just insulted her recently dead grandmother, took a bite into a lemon, or both. Without saying a word to the girl, she brusquely gestured the girl to come to the front of the class.
“‘Ain’t’ is not a word. It’s ‘Mine does not work’,” she said, crouching to look into the girl’s eyes.
The girl remained quiet, searching for a visual anchor besides my teacher’s stare, apparently unsure of what to say.
My teacher grabbed the girl’s shoulders to square them in our direction. Slowly and rhythmically accenting each syllable in the way teachers do, she said, “Say ‘Ain’t is not a word’.” The girl muttered it under her breath, all the while looking down at her shoes.
“Say it louder. ‘Ain’t…is…not…a…word’.”
Although, indeed, the girl spoke the words louder, it would hardly be called “loud”. She found a visual anchor in her shoes and maintained her eye gaze at them as if the shame hadn’t trickled down to her feet yet. The teacher then turned her attention to us, with her hands still on the girl’s shoulders, trapping her in her public humiliation.
“If you want to be good students and be successful one day, you have to speak correctly,” she said to us, scanning the room and making eye contact with each of us.
“We are all going to say it together. ‘Ain’t is not a word’.” She had us repeat it all together, nodding her head to the tempo of each cutting syllable, etching the message into our minds deeper and deeper. We repeated it again. And again. And again. Ain’t is not a word.
As educators, it is our duty to help build our students up instead of tearing them down. Even as a 6-year-old, that day I could see the disempowerment of the child and her language in an effort to teach her to “speak correctly”. Did my teacher know that ‘ain’t’ is indeed a word and has been for at least the past 300 years (etyomoline.com)?
I was lucky enough to attend UCI’s WRITE Center Event: “The Right to Write in Our Mother Tongue: Antiracist Writing Pedagogies that work toward Black Linguistic Justice” by Dr. April Baker-Bell. This event came at just the right time for me, as I had just learned about Dr. Baker-Bell’s book, “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literature, Identity, and Pedagogy” (henceforth referred to as “Linguistic Justice”), at a panel I had attended earlier that month with three speech-language pathologists of color offering their perspectives on linguistic racism in speech-language pathology. One of the panelists, Dr. Chelsea Privette, shared the book as a recommendation for those who wanted to explore anti-racist linguistic pedagogy. Intrigued by the recommendation, I got myself a copy and eagerly anticipated Dr. Baker-Bell’s talk. The following are my reflections after attending the event and reading Dr. Baker-Bell’s book.
My opening “ain’t” anecdote is an example of what Baker-Bell describes as the perpetuation of “White Linguistic Hegemony” (p. 4). My teacher held power as an authority figure in our educational institution of linguistic socialization. By publicly pointing out that the girl had used, in her opinion, a non-word, she created an environment for us to internalize that there is only one way to speak at school, and every other way was inherently inferior and invalid. What happens when educators tell their students repeatedly that their way of speaking is wrong, invalid, and inappropriate? In “Linguistic Justice”, Baker-Bell describes a study she conducted at a high school in Detroit where she investigated the linguistic attitudes of Black youth regarding Black English. When they were presented with two language examples and asked to describe the speakers of both languages, the students described speakers of Black English as “bad”, “ghetto”, “thugs”, and “trouble” while they described speakers of Standardized American English (SAE) as “good”, “proper”, and “respectful” (p. 24). These young speakers of Black English had internalized the linguistic racism that forced on them that their language was inferior. As educators, we must be aware of the linguistic messages we are enforcing/reinforcing to our students as they have harmful consequences that may span a person’s lifetime if the harm is uninterrupted by healing.
Part of the healing from the damage linguistic racism inflicts comes from learning about one’s linguistic history. In “Linguistic Justice”, Baker-Bell describes how language has been an integral tool to the oppression of Black people and their ancestors as far back as the abduction of African people for slavery. She describes this as Language Planning, which is the systematic linguistic fragmentation of enslaved Africans to minimize the risk of them communicating, organizing, and revolting (Baker-Bell, p. 64). She later goes on to quote Smitherman (2006):
Many of the secondary teachers reading this (or anyone who has been a high school student in the United States since 1949) may know George Orwell’s 1984. These lines reminded me of the well-known line from the book “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell, 1961). What if Black and other linguistically minoritized youth had control of their linguistic history through their learning of it? How empowering would it be to allow your language to flow through you with pride rather than be clogged with shame? Who controls the past, controls the future. Who understands where they came from, can have a vision for where they’re going. By withholding the history of Black Language, it is easier to minimize it to “broken English”, “bad English”, or “improper” and obscure its richness, complexity, and value.
One of my main takeaways from “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literature, Identity, and Pedagogy” is that it is as crucial or more for me and other non-Black individuals to understand what an Anti-Racist Black Language Pedagogy entails. Yes, Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy Baker-Bell describes is crucial for Black speakers of African American English. In addition to this, Baker-Bell states:
Anti-Racist Linguistic Pedagogy is crucial for educators, as only 7% of public school teachers are Black" (National Center for Educational Statistics). Non-Black people need to educate themselves by reading books by Black authors on Anti-Black Racism (like Baker-Bell’s “Linguistic Justice”), and/or other media (I recommend the “Seeing White” podcast). However, it is not enough to educate ourselves. As Baker-Bell states about raising her students’ linguistic consciousness, “...awareness is not enough to bring about social change” (p. 86). While awareness is a good place to start, we must use this awareness to engage in action to educate, create, and advocate in our communities and institutions for Anti-Racist Black Linguistic Pedagogy.
To return to my previous anecdote, I ask myself what could my teacher have done to add and not subtract from our linguistic identity development. There are some, including myself at an early point in the development of my understanding of linguistic justice, that believe we merely need to teach youth to codeswitch to SAE. At first glance, everybody apparently wins. It makes sense, right? The individual’s language is affirmed while also teaching them linguistic skills needed to aid them in their education and future careers. However, as Baker-Bell argues in her book, it is not that simple. Baker-Bell describes many fallacies in this argument. One that I will highlight is that to suggest that SAE is the only variety of English for formal settings is inherently racist because it suggests that African American English is limited to informal settings. This limit is not placed on SAE, as it is simultaneously purported to be the “Academic” language and home language for white middle- and upper-class Americans. This does not give credit to African American English for its linguistic versatility to be used as a first language and also in an academic context like Baker-Bell writes in this book. Furthermore, “Academic Language” is a farce, a “linguistic token policed only for low-income people of color” (Flores, 2021). We, as educators, need to both abandon the notion that SAE is the sole variety in formal settings AND advocate for diversity in Academic linguistic style and voice. To close, I will invoke Baker-Bell once more:
Ain't. Etymology. (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2021, from
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Anzaldúa, G. (1999). Borderlands =: La frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and
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Flores, N. (2021) From academic language to language architecture: Challenging
raciolinguistic ideologies in research and practice [Webinar]. George Mason University. ------ https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00405841.2019.1665411
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Smitherman, G. (2006). Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans.
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