A linguistic injustice: Baker-Bell highlights the relationship between Black English and systematic racism

Destinee Sims, Freelance

  April Baker-Bell, an author and academic from Michigan State, challenged the anti-Black culture created by traditional white-focused linguistic curriculum during an informational Zoom session on Mar. 16. Viewers across California and a few other U.S. states logged on to hear Baker-Bell speak about her new book, “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy.” 

  CSU Monterey Bay hosted the presentation as a part of the Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum (ERWC) webinar series “Teaching for Change.” The event was open to the public although advanced registration was required. 

  Jennifer Fletcher, a CSUMB faculty member, kicked off the presentation by providing attendees with background information on Baker-Bell’s academic career before turning the event over to Baker-Bell herself. 

  Baker-Bell began her presentation by reminding attendees that she was not there to coddle the white educators and their “traditional” beliefs; her presentation intended to highlight the systematic injustices Black students routinely face in the classroom. 

  “I am a defender of Black language not a protector of white comfort,” Baker-Bell said. 

  Baker-Bell went on to explain how enslaved Africans created a language “remnant of their mother tongue” that allowed them to use the required English language without their oppressor understanding them. 

  “To understand Black language is to understand history,” Baker-Bell said. 

  Baker-Bell showed viewers educational videos that reinforced her message. One of the videos explained that many of the “soulful” songs, such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” were used by Black individuals during slavery to express themselves while trying to avoid dangerous repercussions. 

  Baker-Bell stated that she became aware of differences between Black English and “standard” English at a young age. She described how her parents spoke Black English, and they did not try to force their children to conform to the rules of “standard” English or to practice code-switching.  

  Code-switching refers to the way individuals change the way they speak and/or write in different cultural contexts. While code-switching is used frequently by people of color in the United States, Baker-Bell notes that white individuals are very rarely asked to code-switch. 

  “’Standard English’ is a myth,” Baker-Bell said. “I am challenging us to see how racial hierarchies and language hierarchies are connected.” 

  Baker-Bell demonstrated ways that Black English is treated unfairly. This unjust treatment can be seen in academic curriculum and work environments. Baker-Bell stated that it is inappropriate while commercial stores can appropriate Black English to sell “trendy” merchandise. 

  Examples of commercial appropriation of Black English include pillows stating, “Every day I’m hustling,” and mugs with similar sentiments.  

  Baker-Bell voiced concerns over the commercial value of Black English when it is “treated as a linguistic inferiority” in the classroom. Baker-Bell explained that Black English is almost never acknowledged in academic curriculum planning, and schools where Black students make up a large portion of the student population are no exception. 

  By ignoring the complexities learned by native speakers of Black English during curriculum planning, Baker-Bell explains that educators also essentially ignore those students needs. This can then further perpetuate the idea that speakers of Black English are less linguistically capable or that they are poor students.  

  “My work centers the counter-stories of Black students,” Baker-Bell said. “Their voices and stories matter.” 

  Baker-Bell explained that another result of educators pushing “standard” English when creating academic curriculum is that there has been minimal change over the years to address the injustices faced by Black students. This has repeatedly hurt Black students in the classroom. As a result, many Black students will face similarly difficulties as adults in a workforce built on systematic racism. 

  “Anti-Black linguistic racism gets normalized through our curriculum choices,” Baker-Bell said. “[Academic curriculum] surrenders to whiteness.” 

  According to Baker-Bell, this “surrender” ultimately leads to students of color routinely facing injustices that continue to go unnoticed by white students and educators. She reminds educators that the expectation for all native speakers of Black English to code-switch typically leads to them being labeled academically ill-equip or inferior. 

  Baker-Bell drives her point home by asking attendees to consider why white students aren’t expected to code-switch. She notes that former President Donald Trump’s grammar was reportedly evaluated and scored at a “fifth grade level,” indicating that Black students are held to a higher standard than even U.S. presidents. 

  “How dare us gaslight Black students this way,” Baker-Bell said to express her frustration with the hypocritical standards. 

  Baker-Bell concludes that parents and educators, especially white ones, need to try harder to understand Black individuals better. She expresses that without white educators making a deliberate effort to change how they judge Black students the unjust treatment of Black individuals cannot change. 

  “If Black language does not matter in the classroom than black lives cannot matter,” Baker-Bell concluded. 

  Click here to check out the trailer for “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy.” 



Trailer link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmbzPzip4Fs 



ERWC Presentation. Jennifer Fletcher noted that they will distribute the recording of the workshop to attendees in approximately a week.