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Five Steps to Address Anti-Blackness: Black Immigrant Literacies

By Patriann Smith
 | Mar 17, 2021
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I recently wrote the piece "Beyond Anti-Blackness in Bilingual Education" for the American Educational Research Association's Bilingual Education Research Special Interest Group. In this piece, I invited everyone to think about how anti-Blackness has inadvertently persisted in bilingual education throughout the United States via the lens of Black immigrant literacies. In this blog post, I want to continue that conversation and present five steps educators can take to address anti-Blackness.

We know Blackness has been excluded from bilingual programs and that limited emphasis is placed on the bilingualism of Black “English learners” at large. We know also that Black students who use multiple Englishes and speak other “dialects” in the U.S. have not been a major part of bilingual programming because of how we continue to define bilingualism. Black immigrants, who are a part of the Black student population and who use their own languages and dialects, further complicate this situation because they tend to be viewed as a model minority, creating an invisible and lingering disconnect between Black American and Black immigrant youth. In turn, many teachers and educators often find themselves struggling to address anti-Blackness in language for all Black students. But things do not have to be this way.

Consider that in 2019, for the first time, the U.S. reflected a majority non-White population under 16. Note also, that by 2030, the U.S. will face a demographic turning point:

  • Racial and ethnic groups will continue to function as the primary drivers of overall growth because of the unanticipated decline in the country’s White population.
  • Immigration will continue to overtake natural births as the main source of population growth for the country.

By 2060, the nation’s foreign-born population is projected to rise from 44 million people in 2016 to 69 million. Amid these projections, Black residents in the U.S.—both native and foreign born—are expected to continue to function as one of the major non-White groups accounting for the growth of the nation.

A perpetuating cycle

The past five years with increasingly anti-Black languaging geared toward Black residents in the U.S. were a powerful reminder that history repeats itself. Last year, particularly with the death of George Floyd, illustrated what can happen when racial dissent festers, erupts, and destroys—again, because of anti-Black languaging.

And in January 2021, we saw how the pervasive subtlety of linguistic destruction that has, for decades, wrecked invisible havoc on the hearts and minds of Black youth, came to a climax as anti-Black language and anti-Black literacies functioned as fuel, fanning the flames of violence against Black residents in the U.S.

If we do not take urgent steps to address anti-Blackness in the languages and literacies of Black students to bridge gaps and build solidarity among Black youth, invisible divisions within the Black population are likely to be further exacerbated by the anti-Black discourses that have managed to create them in the first place. Failing to leverage language and literacy to address anti-Blackness can threaten Black humanity for generations and places everyone at risk.

I envision, through Black immigrant literacies, a United States where bilingual education is reenvisioned to center the languages, including dialects, of Black children (i.e., African American Vernacular English, Jamaican Creole English, West African Pidgin English). How can we do this together? The Black immigrant literacies framework suggests multiple ways. I present the first in this multipart blog series.

Through Black immigrant literacies, teachers can create opportunities for youth who identify as Black American and Black immigrant to share what I call “local–global” connections.

Five steps for creating local–global connections

Step 1: Have Black immigrant youth share their experiences with language as well as being Black in their home countries and the U.S. through their written and verbal Englishes as well as multimodal literacies. In these creations, encourage youth to reflect on the variations and how they and others perceive their ethnic, racial, and linguistic backgrounds.

Step 2: Now have Black U.S.-born youth share their experiences with language and being Black in the United States through their written and verbal Englishes as well as multimodal literacies. In these creations, encourage youth to reflect on the variations and how they and others perceive their ethnic, racial, and linguistic backgrounds.

Step 3: Use these literate creations as a basis for individual reflection about Blackness on the part of each student by having Black American youth exchange their created products with Black immigrant youth and vice versa. What similarities and differences do they see between their creation and that of their peers? What elements do they not understand? Allow all students to write these down.

Step 4: Engage Black immigrant and Black American youth in discussions about their reflections. How did Blackness seem present or absent in creations when the peers were born in the U.S.? How did Blackness seem present or absent in creations when U.S.-born peers had immigrant parents or when they were foreign born? What new insights can Black immigrant peers learn about Black American students’ experiences and how to respond to negative responses about their languages and literacies?

Step 5: Have youth revise their creations to reflect insights from their Black immigrant or U.S.-born peers. Have all students share the creations with other Black peers in their classrooms, schools, and via social media as well as with their parents, friends, families, and caregivers. Create opportunities across classrooms and schools for broad discussion about these insights, inviting non-Black peers to be part of the learning and conversation.

Learn more about how to address anti-Blackness through literacy

Already there are numerous Black scholars spearheading efforts to address anti-Blackness in language and literacy across organizations such as the International Literacy Association, Literacy Research Association, National Council of Teachers of English, TESOL, and American Association for Applied Linguistics. These scholars invite us to use new tools, theories, and pedagogies to center Blackness in the language and literacy practices that we use as teachers and educators in schools.

You, too, can address anti-Blackness in language and literacy with and for Black children and youth. Start now by attending my upcoming presentations, "Challenging Anti-Blackness in Language Education" on March 25, 2021, at TESOL 2021 and "A (Trans)Raciolinguistic Approach for Literacy Classrooms" on March 26, 2021, at the Shifting Linguistic Landscapes conference.

Dr. Patriann Smith is an assistant professor of literacy at the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on cross-cultural and cross-linguistic considerations for Black immigrant literacy and language instruction and assessment. She has proposed a transraciolinguistic approach for clarifying Black immigrant literacies and Englishes. Her research has appeared in journals such as the American Educational Research Journal, ILA’s Reading Research Quarterly, and Teachers College Record. Her current book project is Black Immigrant Literacies: Translanguaging for Success (forthcoming 2022 from Cambridge University Press).

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