This article about linguistic justice was originally published in Parents Magazine by Sierra Lyons
It’s no surprise that teachers are some of the most influential figures in an adolescent’s life since students spend more awake hours in a classroom setting than they do at home. That’s why fostering inclusive and accepting environments for learning is so crucial for students from all backgrounds.
Having the liberty to show up as your full self is a luxury not all students are afforded — particularly Black students. Linguistic justice strategies in the classroom work to combat intolerance of diversity and cultural differences.
New York University defines linguistic justice as “the belief that culture and language are not an addition but are critical components of education.” This can be modeled, for instance, by accepting the use of African American Vernacular English alongside “traditional” American English.
Dr. Giani Clarkson has been teaching in Washington D.C. public and charter schools for over 11 years. He models what it means to navigate professional spaces as a Black male without quieting parts of his identity. It’s his hope that as he respects each of his students, no matter their background, they graduate from his classroom feeling confident to represent their cultures and be themselves fully.
“I think about the same poem, I Too, Sing America,” Dr. Clarkson said. “Everyone that is an America does sing America. They sing it from their unique point of view and by alienating a certain type of language or vernaculars from the schoolhouse, what we start to do is exclude who can also too sing America.”
For Dr. Clarkson, Ph.D., it’s not about school boards or state governors mandating programs to force classroom inclusion. He believes teachers should innately desire to foster environments that celebrate diversity, and when access to proper education is denied simply because of how someone speaks or their background, it’s anti-Black.
“If we alienate voices, then we’re not getting a real full picture. I think what you’re actually doing is giving kids half of an education, and you’re telling kids that the only way that you can be accepted in this world is to deny part of you of your culture, which that’s not fair either,” he says.
Conformity and intolerance in school can have a direct pipeline to inclusivity in the workplace. Urban Alliance is a nonprofit organization that helps place high school students from minority backgrounds in workplaces to gain internship experience and prepare them for full-time careers.
CEO of Urban Alliance Elizabeth Lindsey knows firsthand the challenge of showing up as your full self in academic and professional spaces as a Black American.
“I think that we underrate how challenging it is to have to show up in a space and not only be in a classroom, the workforce, dealing with the day-to-day challenges, but then to layer on top of that, the difficulty of not being able to be yourself and the difficulty of having to also change the way you speak change or not talk about your background,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey says that even for her it’s mentally draining to have to constantly question if she is entering microaggressive spaces that won’t allow her to show up as her full self as a Black woman who is married to a woman.
The mental health implications of racism, even at a microaggressive level are often overlooked. Research published in the American Psychological Association PsycNet found that racism and racial discrimination can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and avoidance. Linguistic justice can mitigate racist experiences for Black and other students of color, helping them to feel more confident as they enter the workforce.
But Lindsey admits that even with an eager attitude, the workforce still has white supremacy roots which can covertly be expressed as professionalism. At Urban Alliance, they prepare high school students for the reality of navigating the sometimes not-so-inclusive sides of corporate America.
“I think that white supremacy is the foundation of every sector, including my own, the nonprofit sector. We really work with and support our students in approaching their careers with a bit of duality, because I think all people of color have to do that. So we support our students in understanding that these are kind the norms of a professional workspace,” she says.
Despite this, her overarching message for students is to use what makes them different to their advantage.
“At the same time, we encourage them to really understand and think about how their backgrounds make them even more incredible and that their backgrounds have given them a set of skills, exposure, and ways to communicate and networks that are really a benefit to whatever space they’re entering,” says Lindsey.
Since Neely J. was a baby she has tagged along to events with her mom in the Miami-Dade area where her mom advocates for equitable education, often partnering with the Miami-Dade School Board. As a recent biomedical engineering graduate at Spelman College, she chose to focus her electives on writing and language to stay well-rounded.
“Linguistic justice is very important to me specifically because at Spelman one of the first things that we learned about was Pedagogy of the Oppressed that teaches the banking system where you just deposit information to students and expect them to regurgitate whatever you teach them, which doesn’t allow for free thinking,” says J.
Now she has returned to Florida to work with her mom for their digital magazine, SITI Girl Magazine, where they often focus on supporting Black neurodivergent women and girls. Additionally, they will be rolling out a new program soon where she will implement the strategies she learned from Pedagogy of the Oppressed to help children learn to process their feelings in writing and other forms of language, rather than keeping them bottled up.
Although public education has been under attack this year with efforts to homogenize curriculum and classroom conversations further, the advocacy work of teachers and organizers dedicated to challenging conformity and intolerance stands firmly against it.