Yesterday, a video came through my Facebook feed. It had a still image of a blonde girl, with the header, “We’re doing something very wrong.” It got my attention, and I clicked to watch. It contained compiled video footage of children being shown dolls or cartoon children with various skin colors. As the children, also of various skin colors, were asked, “Which doll is the nice doll? Which is the good doll? Which is the bad doll? Which is the ugly doll?” and so on, it became clear that there is a deep and disturbing association in the Western hemisphere between goodness and fair complexion. While parenting does not exclude bigots, racists, or otherwise openly discriminatory adults, I doubt that most parents tell their children, “You’re nice because you’re white,” or, “You’re ugly because you’re black.” And yet, children internalize this kind of messaging from a young age. Where does it come from?
It comes from deficit discourse. We tried to turn deficit discourse on its head in this post, and Kristen Lindahl got me thinking more about it in her post, Power of Words: Deficit Discourse and ELLs. Despite the fact that most ELD educators are true champions of their students, the arena in which we talk about our students is peppered with terms that call attention to what they lack. And if you’ve ever been told, “Say it out loud and then it will be true,” you’ll recognize how powerfully words impact how we relate to the world. While it is still hard for me to see how I use language in a way that assigns social privilege, at least I can pay closer attention to how I talk about linguistically and culturally diverse students.
Take the terms, limited English, low proficiency, and achievement gap. What if we started saying, developing English, early proficiency, or test score difference, instead? The naysayers might jump on these nuanced changes, saying I’m too sensitive or hung up on political correctness. But the fact is, discriminatory and deficit language is not loud and in your face most of the time–it’s found in subtleties like this. I’m encouraged by the field’s transition from “limited English proficient” to “English learner,” as a way to neutralize, rather than stigmatize this group, and I hope other changes can follow suit.
I remember reading a case study in which a new teacher had recorded herself in one-on-one interviews with her students, then was shocked to realize that she told all of the white students t hat she looked forward to seeing them again, but withheld such a closing with the ethnic students. In this case, it was a positive message that went unsaid that contributed to her students’ deficit. Language is so powerful and key to human experience, why wouldn’t we use it for good?
Have you grappled with issues of linguistic equality? Have you had any moments like the teacher in the paragraph above?