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Schools Should Do Away With English-Only Policies and Racist Dress Codes

Underserved, underrepresented and first-generation students are not liabilities to be managed or policed.

Underserved, underrepresented and first-generation students are not liabilities to be managed or policed.

Immigrants are under attack and racist acts of violence are on the rise. In this context, it is doubly unconscionable that many educational programs that purportedly aim to nurture students of color instead subject them to “English-only” policies and dress codes aimed at curtailing expressions of their racial, cultural and religious identities.

English-only policies persist in a number of different contexts, including schools and some workplaces. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, 28 states have passed English Only policies. However, only a few states require English Only instruction.

My own personal taste of this pernicious practice came in Summer 2019, when I accepted a position to teach Introduction to Africana Studies for a pre-college program, ASCEND (Achieving Success through Collaboration, Engagement and Determination), in Camden, New Jersey. ASCEND – a state-funded program under the auspices of Rowan University’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – offers summer classes to mostly Black and Brown students, and says its stated purpose is to “provide financial assistance and academic support services to low income, first generation, and academically promising New Jersey residents with limited academic preparation.”

I was excited about this goal, but on the Friday before classes began, I was dismayed to receive an electronic copy of the program’s brochure. It laid out a set of expectations for students under the heading “Student Code of Conduct,” which included policies covering attire and “speaking in the Native Language.” In other words, the program had a dress code and an English-only policy.

Dress Codes Often Contain Coded Racism and Sexism

Like many other similarly infuriating dress codes adopted by educational programs that work with Black and students of color, the ASCEND program’s strict dress code prohibits students from wearing

droopy pants/jeans, spaghetti straps, skirts, shorts, dresses, etc.., that are more than finger-tip length above the knees, bra-tops, spaghetti straps, midriff baring shirts, sunglasses, offensive t-shirts, hats, bandanas, headscarves, wave caps, or doo-rags; sleepwear, excessively long tee shirts, long gold/silver chains (with or without medallions) and oversized earrings.

This dress code is racist, sexist and anti-Muslim. It participates in rape culture because it implies that how women dress is the problem. It also reinforces gender stereotypes, engages in victim blaming, and ignores the fact that toxic masculinity and hetero-patriarchy are the reasons why men think it is OK to harass, assault and rape women. An anti-Muslim headscarf ban targets “Black women’s grooming practices.” The dress code is also deeply invested in respectability politics. (Respectability politics purport that by behaving in a certain way Black people will receive better treatment from white people.)

These policies are harmful, and may run afoul of the law, but they are not uncommon. Proponents of racist, sexist dress codes see them as necessary to student professional development in preparation for the tough job market, and claim that these policies have nothing to do with gender or race. This is both false and intellectually dishonest. These policies clearly use coded language, such as droopy pants and spaghetti straps, to sidestep accusations that they are racist and sexist. In spite of the fact that a great deal has been written about dress codes that shows how they are racist and sexist, we continue to see story after story about the wrong-headed actions of “well-meaning” school officials in the news. A study by the National Women’s Law Center found that dress codes are based on race and sex stereotypes and that their enforcement promotes rape culture.

English-Only Policies Do Not Promote Inclusivity

My time teaching at the ASCEND Program also opened my eyes to the ongoing persistence of English-only policies. In addition to its dress code, the ASCEND Program has a language policy that states that “all students are encouraged to speak English only in the classroom in efforts to promote inclusivity.”

English-only policies have deep roots in American history and are informed by nativist, colonialist, imperialist and white supremacist thinking. They serve as dog whistles for anti-immigrant views; and in the context of a program that claims to serve students from diverse backgrounds and cultures, a policy that suggests and promotes English only in the classroom not only denies the multilingual realities of its students, but it is also ahistorical, punitive, pedagogically flawed, and promotes English dominance and full assimilation as the best ways to attain academic success. Of course, such a policy does not promote inclusivity.

According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, English-only policies reflect what we think about immigrants, and “are used to influence and control social behavior.” We cannot treat these policies as some benign product created by “apolitical” school officials. It is not possible to disconnect current issues, such as the anti-immigrant movement, ICE raids, concentration camps, policing, the caging of millions of people in this country, the death of children in border prisons, anti-Muslim rhetoric, family separation policies, and the deportation of thousands of people, from educational language policies that target students from these groups.

Volumes have been written about English-only boarding schools where Native American children were prohibited from speaking their native languages. In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldua quotes Ray Gwin Smith, whose question remains deeply relevant today: “Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” Anzaldua goes on to share a memory from her schooldays:

I remember being caught speaking Spanish at recess–that was good for three licks on the knuckles with a sharp ruler. I remember being sent to the corner of the classroom for “talking back” to the Anglo teacher when all I was trying to do was tell her how to pronounce my name. “If you want to be American, speak ‘American.’ If you don’t like it, go back to Mexico where you belong.”

“Talking White” and the Violence of Assimilation

My own experience differs slightly from the one that Anzaldua describes but is rooted in the same racist and anti-immigrant views. The first ten years of my life were spent in Dominican Republic, where we primarily spoke Spanish at school and at home, though my mother would frequently speak to us in English. My mother is a white American woman and my father is a Black Dominican man. We often traveled between the U.S. and Dominican Republic (D.R.).

I was introduced to anti-immigrant hate on one of those trips. I must have been seven or eight years old when I was out with my father in Center City, Philadelphia, and he asked a stranger for directions. The man obliged, but as he walked away, he said, “he should learn to speak English.” I remember being so angry and vowing in that moment to learn to speak English without an accent so that I would not be treated the way that that man treated my father. I now speak English without an accent, but I learned a long time ago that my childhood thoughts were misguided, and that this is a form of internalized oppression.

For as long as I can remember people have said that I “talk proper” or that I “talk white.” How I talk is a reflection of history, and my experience with racism early on. I can’t change the way that I talk, but when it does come up and depending on who brings it up, I make it clear that my job is not to make people feel comfortable in their racism and bigotry by acquiescing to their notions of who or what they believe I should be. I have always thought of being bilingual as an important part of my identity, and being able to speak two languages with ease has led to some interesting encounters with people who incorrectly assume that I am monolingual.

Presidential candidate Julián Castro recently talked about his own cultural heritage as a Mexican American and why he doesn’t speak Spanish. He said, “People, I think, internalized this oppression about it, and basically wanted their kids to first be able to speak English.” Assimilation, taking on the characteristics of the dominant group, has long been a survival strategy employed by immigrants. To move ahead – that is, to “succeed,” by American standards – is to look, dress and sound like white people. Assimilation is partly about minimizing how different you are by becoming more “American.” But assimilation is also intertwined with capitalist notions of economic success and social mobility. Immigrants are expected to be industrious and to apply themselves in school as ways of proving they’ve embraced American values and have become “Americanized.” This is always an unstable state of affairs because racism and discrimination are never too far away, and hints of an accent tend to trigger some of the worst responses from people that see immigrants as unwilling to assimilate.

The process of assimilating includes leaving behind parts of your cultural identity that are looked down upon by white Americans. But there’s also an intergenerational component to assimilation, where first generation immigrants learn English as a way to ease the path for the next generation. The second generation is encouraged to speak English in order to prosper and to more easily join the mainstream. With each subsequent generation the distance between their language and culture increases and the process of integration becomes a foregone conclusion. Becoming American requires losing parts of your identity, heritage, culture and language in order to “fit in.” Assimilation can be a type of violence.

Western Europeans have also been the targets of English-only policies, and during World War I, when the United States was at war with Germany, a number of states banned the teaching of German in schools. These policies have their roots in 18th century anti-German views that imagined German people as lazy, illiterate and unwilling to become Americanized. Ben Franklin wrote, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them” and, “who will never adopt our language and our customs any more than they can acquire our complexion?”

Pedagogically, English-only policies discourage class participation and silence students, and according to the Center for Applied Linguistics: “Educational access through English not only ignores the linguistic resources in many immigrant or indigenous communities, but also negatively affects educational equity, achievement, and a sense of identity.” If our pedagogy is going to be liberatory, it can’t valorize assimilation or focus on creating classrooms that are structured on this type of violence. English-only policies ignore a wide body of research that suggests that a learner’s first language is important to learning a second, but they also deny the reality that many students are bilingual or multilingual and that punishing them for speaking a language other than English reinforces alienation.

Let’s Fight Oppressive Policies in Schools

Today, we have a president who relishes stoking the fears of his right-wing base by relying on age-old racist tropes of immigrants as lazy, unwilling to work and a threat to national security. One of his first acts in office was to institute the Muslim ban, and he has followed that up by cancelling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which is currently being litigated; ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for people from targeted countries; increased immigration enforcement and border security; ordered the construction of detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border; limited asylum; and signed an Executive Order that penalizes sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The president describes immigrants as “an invasion,” and he regularly uses racist slurs while talking about immigration policy. This is more than a rhetorical move. His words have material consequences for people that are fleeing horrific violence in countries that have been destabilized by U.S. foreign policy. When the president says that “immigrants are taking over” or that “they want to take American jobs” he is doing so knowing that his supporters understand that his words are more than just speech acts. The man that killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, targeted Mexicans, and blamed what he called “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” for his actions. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Anti-immigrant hate groups are the most extreme of the hundreds of nativist and vigilante groups that have proliferated since the late 1990s, when anti-immigrant fervor began to rise to levels not seen in the United States since the 1920s.”

School administrators and faculty like me cannot pretend that the campus and classroom and the “real world” do not intersect in significant ways. For students from underrepresented groups, which have their attire and language policed whenever they walk out of their homes, dress codes and English-only policies are reminders that they are not safe anywhere.

We cannot expect students to read and think critically about history or current issues, and then proceed as if dehumanizing policies and the conditions of learning don’t matter. This, too, is a type of violent erasure.

In my course we read and talked about the Black Student Movement of the sixties and how universities were sites of struggle. We also talked about self-determination, what it means to receive a culturally relevant education, and other social struggles that were happening around the same time that Black Studies was emerging as a discipline. We read and talked about the Civil Rights Movement, Third World Liberation Movements, the Vietnam Movement and the Black Power Movement. I also pointed out that Africana Studies, as Maulana Karenga argues, is an inherently activist discipline that is intellectually rigorous and concerned with social justice. On the first day, I emphasized that the discipline, the course and my philosophical, political and pedagogical commitments are rooted in collective Black liberation, and that I would not in any way support or traffic in the pathologization of Black or Brown people. Yet, of course, the program itself — like so many around the country — was doing just that.

We owe it to Black and Brown students to have the moral courage to speak out against oppressive policies like dress codes and English-only policies. Underserved, underrepresented and first-generation students are not liabilities to be managed or policed.

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