By Madison Williams
On Wednesday, October 21st, UW–Milwaukee hosted a long awaited and much anticipated virtual talk with Dr. April Baker-Bell on her book, Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. During her talk, Baker-Bell discussed how Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and white linguistic supremacy are normalized through teacher attitudes, curriculum and instruction, and pedagogical approaches. Her talk was followed by a critical discussion with participants, facilitated by Baker-Bell, to engage in more intimate conversations about Anti-Black Linguistic Racism and how to implement Antiracist Language Pedagogies in the classroom.
With over 100 attendees from all over the country, Baker-Bell’s virtual talk was undoubtedly a huge hit—and it couldn’t have come at a more kairotic moment. The urgency of Baker-Bell’s call for an Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy is proven critical given everything that’s happening in the world right now: the recent protests against racial inequality and police brutality; exacerbation of inequalities as a result of the pandemic; toxic partisanship in the U.S. along racial, ethnic, and religious lines; and increased attention to systemic racism nationwide. Linguistic Justice is a call to action in pursuit of Black Language liberation through the critique, resistance, and reconstruction of the linguistic status quo.
A Call to Action
In her book, Baker-Bell presents Anti-Black Linguistic Racism as “a framework that explicitly names and richly captures the type of linguistic oppression that is uniquely experienced and endured by Black Language-speakers” (Baker-Bell 8) in schools and in everyday life. Using ethnographic examples to illustrate how Black students navigate and negotiate their linguistic and racial identities across multiple contexts, Baker-Bell demonstrates the negative impact traditional pedagogical approaches have on Black students’ language education and self-perception. As a response to this injustice, Baker-Bell makes space for a new way forward through Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy, a pedagogical approach that intentionally and unapologetically places Black language at the center to critically interrogate white linguistic hegemony and Anti-Black Linguistic Racism.
Dr. April Baker-Bell began her virtual talk by discussing the importance of raising critical consciousness and recognizing Black Language as a language in its own right. Baker-Bell emphasized the way Black Language represents lived experience, beginning with her positionality having grown up in Detroit with Black Language as her mother tongue. It wasn’t until she began teaching that she was faced with the “myth of standard English” and developed a full understanding of language politics at the intersection of language, race, and power. Baker-Bell argued that little has changed over the past 80 years in pedagogical approaches to Black Language education, as English teachers are still expected to teach (and privilege) White Mainstream English (WME).
According to Baker-Bell, previous Black Language Pedagogies (such as Eradicationist and Respectability approaches) share common features in that they center whiteness and perpetuate anti-blackness. The counterstories shared by Baker-Bell’s students in her book challenge existing pedagogies and common beliefs that code-switching functions as a strategy for survival, as Baker-Bell indicates, “These instances are clear reminders that code-switching into White Mainstream English will not save Black people and cannot solve racial or linguistic injustice, and we cannot pretend that it will” (31). Therefore, antiracist pedagogies cannot be centered on whiteness, which is why Baker-Bell’s Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy takes a transformative approach by centering Black Language instead.
In navigating pushback to this pedagogy, Baker-Bell explained the need to critically engage in conversation to show understanding and do the contextual work so that students (and parents) understand the historical, political, and cultural context surrounding Black Language and White Mainstream English. She demonstrated how “what we want to believe to be true” (like doing well in school will translate to equality and equity) hasn’t worked in past approaches to Black Language Pedagogy, and if the classroom doesn’t mirror the facts of existence in the real world, we’re doing pedagogy wrong. As Baker-Bell powerfully articulated during her talk, “Black lives in your classroom won’t matter if Black Language doesn’t.”
Doing the Work
Baker-Bell prefaced the critical discussion following her talk by stating that she would not be answering questions that recentered whiteness because we need to dismantle the system, not adjust to it. While fielding questions about how to implement an Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy in the classroom on an individual level, especially within institutions that may be resistant to the idea, Baker-Bell maintained that the work of Black Linguistic Justice is both micro and macro. She supports anything that goes against typical language standards because any move in the right direction is valuable, no matter how small--we need to take the opportunity wherever and whenever it presents itself.
Many of the participants were concerned with how to deal with pushback to this pedagogy, especially from parents. Baker-Bell pointed out that code-switching hasn’t helped or changed anything so far; we can’t make it work just because we want it to, so we need to do something different. Moreover, when dealing with people who are explicitly racist, Baker-Bell explained: “If you come up against racist nonsense, you have to put it in a box and avoid it.” Although participants taking part in this critical discussion were located all over the country, we all shared a common interest in learning how, as teachers, we might utilize our individual privileges to further social justice pursuits and push for Black Linguistic Justice within our various contexts with the resources we have available.
In both her book and virtual talk, Baker-Bell consistently emphasized the gravity of this call to action for linguistic justice within the current racial and political climate, advocating for “linguistic, racial, and educational justice for Black students” through her framework for an Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy (34). Baker-Bell contends, “the Anti-Black Linguistic Racism that is used to diminish Black Language and Black students in schools is not separate from the rampant and deliberate anti-Black racism and violence inflicted upon Black people in society” (3). Baker-Bell challenges us all to go beyond limited ideas about what writing is, where it happens, and what counts as “good” writing by responding to her call to action for Black Linguistic Justice. To learn more about Baker-Bell and her work, watch the book trailer for Linguistic Justice here.
This month, the research team that Rachel, Madison, and Chloe are on (along with graduate students Claire Edwards, Gitte Frandsen, and Anis Rhaman as well as Dr. Maria Novotny) received a grant from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for our project entitled “Antiracist Teaching Practices for Writing Across Disciplines at UWM.” Our project proposal was selected as part of the Antiracist Action Grant Program—an initiative to promote antiracist action across campus—funded by the Office of Research and the Division of Global Inclusion and Engagement at UWM.
Through this project, we hope to motivate UWM instructors to critically examine their language ideologies when responding to student writing, foster cross-campus dialogues about the ways that racism impacts teaching practices, and provide resources for taking anti-racist approaches to writing instruction and assessment. Ultimately, our goal is to foster spaces of honesty, collaboration, and social justice so that this project can encourage instructors to support, sustain, and learn from our students’ diverse literacy practices.
To pursue these objectives, our plan is to develop and facilitate an Antiracist Pedagogy Seminar during Summer 2021. Instructors from all departments will be invited to attend this Antiracist Pedagogy Seminar, which will include a series of discussion groups and workshops, to discuss readings, examine their implicit biases, and develop anti-racist writing pedagogies. The desired outcome of this seminar is threefold:
Next semester, we will be sending out a survey for students to provide input on their experiences with writing feedback and instruction at UWM. The responses to this survey will inform our summer seminar and future public presentations about anti-racist writing pedagogy. After the seminar, we will create a set of webpages with resources for any teacher interested in combating racism in their teaching practices and uplifting the diverse literacies of our students and their communities.
As the grant program’s FAQ page states, “this program arose from a conversation around what we can do to dismantle racism here on campus. How can faculty, researchers, teaching and administrative staff and others have a voice in resolving some of the issues that people are talking about and people are experiencing on our campus?” We couldn’t be more excited to work with our campus community in an attempt to create lasting, tangible, and socially just change in the lives of students and instructors alike. We’ll keep you updated as the project moves along!
As we’re approaching the end of October, we also approach Election Day (November 3rd). We’re sure you’ve been seeing it everywhere, but please remember to vote. If you haven’t already, make your voting plan now! For those of you in Milwaukee, this website gives you everything you need to know about absentee ballots, early in-person voting, voting schedules and locations, and more.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar, Danielle Koepke, Chloe Smith, and Madison Williams
Last month, we made a commitment to amplify, support, and engage with antiracist writing, rhetoric, and organizations across Milwaukee. We made a promise to highlight the ways that everyday writing and rhetoric are being used to advance social justice, challenge oppression, and empower communities. In order to hold ourselves accountable to these commitments, we pledged to publish an Antiracist Action update reflecting on our actions each month, and this is the first of those updates.
Our goals for our Antiracist Action updates, beyond holding ourselves accountable, are to give our readers options for taking tangible actions to support the antiracist missions of local and national organizations as well as celebrate and uplift the ways in which various organizations and activists improve, empower, and fight for our local communities.
Communities across Southeastern Wisconsin continue to be in the national spotlight around issues of racial injustice and police brutality. To the right are just a few of the major events over the past month that have highlighted the need for increased anti-racist action and community organizing.
What We’ve Been Doing
Here are some actions we’ve taken in response to recent events. We encourage you to do the same.
Check your voter registration status and make a voting plan now. Decide whether or not you will be voting absentee or in person, then make the necessary arrangements—request your absentee ballot, figure out where you will go to vote in person, what time you will go, how you will get there, etc.
Call the Kenosha Police and Fire Commission and Governor Tony Evers to demand the resignation of Kenosha Police officials. Follow the link for contact information and a sample call script from the Wisconsin ACLU.
Sign Color of Change’s petition calling for Mayor John Antaramian and Kenosha City Council to fire Kenosha police chief Daniel Miskins.
Sign Color of Change’s petition demanding that the officer who shot Jacob “Jake” Blake is held accountable.
Sign Color of Change’s petition demanding that the NBA league office and team owners lift the strike ban in players’ union contract.
Discuss antiracism, protests for racial justice, and how to make sense of current events with your children. Here is a list of resources for talking to children about Race, Racism, and Racialized Violence. One of us recently bought the book Antiracist Baby and has added it to storytime with her child.
Talk to family members about current events, racism, and privilege. We’ve been working through some difficult conversations with family members who don’t understand the gravity of racial injustice and the necessity of swift antiracist action. Here’s a resource where Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, offers advice on conducting these conversations.
We Want to Hear From You!
Is there an antiracist cause, organization, or event that we should be featuring? We invite you to write a post on it. Here are our guidelines for submissions:
Send submissions and questions to writingandrhetoricmke at gmail dot com. For posts on upcoming events, please submit drafts at least 3-4 weeks prior to the event. We look forward to reading your posts!