Professor explores effects of language discrimination

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March 20, 2009

3:21 AM

Professor Anne Charity Hudley spoke to students about language discrimination Wednesday evening at a discussion sponsored Conversations on Reconciliation and Equality.

CORE consists of the Student Assembly, NAACP, Mosaic House and the Admissions Office’s Multicultural
Ambassador Council (MAC). The group has hosted a series of dinner discussions on diversity-related topics.
Language discrimination is one of the last widely acceptable forms of discrimination in the United States,
Hudley said. Her presentation included handouts for students with four examples of language discrimination in the country. Students were split up into four groups to discuss each of these topics.

“Dividing students into groups encouraged them to actively think about issues of language and diversity,” MAC President Irène Mathieu said. “CORE is supposed to be a discussion series, not a lecture series, so we try to stay away from having our guest speakers talk the whole time. Having small group discussion was a great way to facilitate peer-led conversation.”

Some discussion questions included: “What are the similarities and differences between ‘English Only’ and ‘Whites Only?’” and “What accommodations should be made for speakers of non-standardized English and English as an additional language in the admissions process (and freshman writing seminars)?”
Mathieu said that part of CORE’s mission is to bring to the floor topics that are not typically addressed.

“In a multicultural community such as the College of William and Mary, language frequently becomes connected to issues of socioeconomic, ethnic and other types of diversity,” Mathieu said. “But it isn’t frequently discussed. Linguistic discrimination or prejudices are quite commonplace, but not typically acknowledged.”

Hudley said that her first exposure to language discrimination was in the public school system, when her brother was condemned for speaking “black.”

“A teacher at the local, predominately white, public school tried to place my brother in slower reading
classes due to language problems. It would be years before I realized that these language problems were tantamount to using features of African-American English in the wrong place coupled with the fact that my brother was what he was, an African-American boy,” Hudley said. “My brother went on to graduate from Princeton and get an MBA from Stanford. I can’t imagine what would have happened if his second grade teacher had her way.”

Hudley said some of the most prevalent issues regarding language discrimination include a lack of access to educational and economic opportunities.

“Schools and employers are not permitted by law to discriminate based on gender, race or ethnicity but they often reject people based on their verbal ability,” Hudly said. “As a society, we have to be more thorough on just what ‘verbal ability’ means.”

She insists that education is an area where speech differences have harsher consequences for blacks than whites.

“Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board determined the responsibility of teachers to accommodate the speech of African-Americans and other non-mainstream English-speaking children,” Hudley said. “The children were disproportionately placed in special education classes and speech [and] language pathology services.”

Hudley noted that, according to a recently released study, Spanish-speaking residents in Washington, D.C. often have trouble accessing Medicaid benefits even though they are eligible. The survey attributes language discrimination and a lack of resources for Spanish speakers as the source of their difficulties.

Hudley emphasized that many challenges in the assessment of black children are the result of linguistic and cultural ignorance.

“Conventional testing situations have been shown to cause African-American and other children to become hesitant and taciturn,” Hudley said.

According to her, researchers should help teachers expose students to more diverse images and knowledge in order to help them on standardized tests.

“Unfortunately, many of the images that appear on standardized assessments are not culturally relevant to particular student populations, but they are necessary for test success,” she said.

Mathieu said linguistic discrimination and prevention of linguistic diversity is a day-to-day occurrence about which CORE seeks to inform students.

“Multiculturalism is about more than numbers or statistics; it’s about actively promoting the embrace of others and silencing our preconceived notions as much as possible,” she said. “Sometimes our most persistent judgments of others come from the way people express themselves linguistically. By addressing the issue of language and diversity, we are starting a conversation that will help us move to more open minds and more inclusive notions of diversity and multiculturalism.”

Hudley said she will be holding an informational session for the proposed Community Studies minor on March 26 from 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. in Tucker 208.

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