In May 2019, the Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America approved of a ‘Statement on Race’ (https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/lsa-statement-race), which puts on record the society’s opposition to racialization in the study of language, and in the discipline of linguistics itself. As examples of racialization, the Statement cites such phenomena as ‘English Only’ initiatives, which limit support in public schools for immigrant children’s mother tongues; the imposition on research participants of mono-racial self-identification categories; treatment of white upper middle class language as normative; and devaluation of varieties of speech associated with stigmatized groups as inherently deficient. The LSA’s Statement aims to ‘encourage linguists to critically reflect on the changing nature of academic, social, cultural, and linguistic understandings of race’, reminding readers that ‘all linguistic research has the potential to reproduce or challenge racial notions’ (‘Preamble’). The Statement goes on to decry a lack of racial diversity within the discipline in the United States.
Three linguists involved in composition of the Statement (Anne H. Charity Hudley of the University of California at Santa Barbara; Christine Mallinson of the University of Maryland-Baltimore; and Mary Bucholtz, of UC Santa Barbara) went on to co-author a commentary on it, which argues that the modern discipline ‘urgently needs an interdisciplinarily-informed theoretical engagement with race and racism’ (Charity Hudley et al. in press). Charity Hudley, Mallinson, and Bucholtz (CHM&B) make a case for the common failure of linguists to take seriously how integral race is to the study of language, and for linguists’ failure to confront insidious racialization in their own work. They also document the failure of modern American linguistics to effectively welcome and incorporate the insights of racially minoritized language scholars. In the words of CHM&B, ‘acknowledging and addressing rather than denying our discipline’s role in the reproduction of racism is central to ensuring equity and inclusion in the theory, practice, and teaching of linguistics’.
CHM&B acknowledge the value of probing into the history of the field as a tool for understanding the present, a stance developed in Charity Hudley (2017). But they do not look back beyond a shoutout to Haitian scholar Anténor Firmin (1850–1911), whose largely ignored refutation of early ‘scientific racism’ (Firmin 1885) predated by more than 25 years Franz Boas’s (1858–1942) campaign against racism in anthropology and public life (Boas 1911, 1940). Adding a historical dimension to discussion of race and racialization in linguistics is important, I believe, for at least two reasons. First, because greater time-depth sometimes paradoxically opens up greater clarity about the ways in which racism is embedded in cultural practices and conventions, including those of the study of language. Second, because it helps reduce the temptation to view racism as simply the damage done by individuals, which might be removed by playing what Hodges (2016) calls the ‘hunting for “racists” language game’, that is, by naming and exposing specific individuals responsible for racist acts. To do so distracts us from the harder work of confronting racism as a complex, intractable, structural and institutional affliction within which individuals choose to do what they do—or, within which individuals have varying extents of agency over what they do.
This essay may seem to ‘hunt for “racists”’, in that I focus on the record of a particular scholar whose work now appears very problematic. But my hope is that working through this case study may demonstrate not so much where one person went wrong, as what it means to belong to an intellectual community where racialization is taken for granted in ways that now seem painfully obvious. Historians of eighteenth- through early twentieth-century racism like Barkan (1992) and Gossett (1997) narrate how saturated a culture can become with the notion that groups of people belong, by ‘nature’, to a hierarchy across which privileges and rights are differentially distributed. A culture can, in fact, become so saturated that scholars bend the collection and interpretation of scientific data to serve their racialized preconceptions. When language scholarship which echoes racist ideas falls short of meeting scientific standards, it needs to be criticized both for its content and for its epistemological faults. I conclude with a brief reflection on the challenge of disentangling one’s ideological commitments from the kind of prejudice that can distort the scientific basis of one’s work and—much worse—can damage, exclude, or disparage fellow humans. That this challenge is difficult to meet in no way exculpates racism in the study of language. Rather, recognizing it as a challenge, and fortifying oneself to meet that challenge, may help linguists redress the structural and personal failures that CHM&B articulate. Read more ›