The summer of 2020 was a time of global protests and uprisings that coincided with an ongoing pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, and other weather events whose impacts have been differentially experienced by groups differentially exposed to premature death, to borrow Ruth Gilmore-Wilson’s framing of the workings of racism. In the wake of the summer of 2020, we have seen myriad calls, both in and beyond the academy, to decolonize monuments, museums, curricula, narratives, and institutions. Within anthropology, global events have driven renewed calls to critically reimagine and reorient our discipline’s histories and pedagogies toward the political needs of the present, as Mariam Durrani has argued, and to let anthropology burn—at least the parts of it that are not actively working in the service of repatriation, repair, and abolition—as Ryan Jobson wrote in a recent review.
In linguistic anthropology, such calls have also been renewed amid the socially distanced conditions brought on by the pandemic. Two listserv threads in particular resulted in a wealth of crowdsourced recommendations: the first, a conversation begun June 17, 2020, on LINGANTH that coalesced around a post by Teruko Mitsuhara, “Language & Culture Course / Covid Syllabi and Race;” and the second, a June 30, 2020, conversation on the LSJ listserv initiated by Lynnette Arnold titled “Suggestions to Upset the Intro to Ling Anthro Canon.” These included works that responded directly to the exigencies of pandemic conditions, along with works that challenged longstanding settlements on the core texts, scholars, and concepts necessary for teaching linguistic anthropology.
From the energy surrounding these email conversations, a December 5, 2020, webinar was born, sponsored by the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Language and Social Justice (LSJ) Working Group, “Upsetting the Linguistic Anthropology Canon: Citations and Syllabi for Social Justice.” I write this piece in part as one of the event’s co-organizers, together with Dominika Baran, Edwin Everhart, and Kristina Jacobsen. This event also prompted me to reflect more broadly on the structuring effect of whiteness in pedagogies of language, work that goes beyond the immediate goals and outcomes of the webinar. This work of confronting our historical, institutional, and everyday investments in whiteness is a necessary step toward social justice—not just in our citations and syllabi, but also in what we understand “language” to be. Spoiler alert: language is never separate or separable from racialized speakers—and listeners.
These email exchanges and the LSJ event didn’t just issue a call for linguistic anthropologists. All anthropologists work through language in some way, even if interactional dynamics as such aren’t their ultimate concern. Constantine Nakassis argues that even linguistic anthropology isn’t just the study of language. Together, these insights mean that, both as scholars and teachers, we must learn to treat language as a permanently problematic object, one that’s embedded in the reflexive dialectics of social life. This requires that we refuse to stop at diversifying our syllabi and citations and learn to confront the structuring effects of whiteness—explicitly, persistently, and substantively.
The LSJ-sponsored webinar began with a discussion about intellectual history and canon: who is included in our canon, which topics and individual works get assigned (or not), and who is presented as a theory-maker (or not)? Attendees then discussed citation practices and shared teaching resources. Finally, participants workshopped their anonymized syllabi and reflected on how syllabi (especially in introductory courses) are structured and ordered. Participants contributed notes and shared resources in a Google doc that was later reworked into a report, now housed on the LSJ website. The report exists as a record of the conversations had and recommendations exchanged on December 5, not a comprehensive guide for how to cite or assign works—a proviso that’s noted throughout the report.
As a professionalizing scholar and educator currently learning from others as I hone my own pedagogies, this event was an opportunity for me to consider more closely how whiteness gets (re)produced using flexible, shifting strategies in our writing and classrooms. We need to explicitly and persistently confront the problem of whiteness if we are to refuse an unmarked status for concepts, theories, and methods grounded in whiteness—including the very idea of ‘language’ as a discrete category or object.
This is a crucial tenet of what Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores have called a “raciolinguistic perspective,” an approach that demands that we focus our attention on the historical, institutional, and interactional co-naturalization of language and race. This isn’t just about acknowledging what happened in the past—for instance, pointing out that Europeans working in the emergent arena of colonial linguistics from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries saw race and language as deeply interconnected, often in evolutionary terms. A raciolinguistic perspective also isn’t just about locating this history as a condition of possibility for the modern language sciences (Deumert, Storch, and Shepherd, eds. 2021)—although both of these are important. Rather, it’s about understanding how these pasts have structured our present institutions and sociality. The study of language is always a dialectical study of hierarchically racialized speech, speakers, and listeners. As Jonathan Rosa said in a February 2020 episode of AnthroPod, this understanding of language entails a recognition that as anthropologists, linguistic or otherwise, “we are very deeply a product of the very problems that we purport to be observing.”
The raciolinguistic perspective builds on arguments by myriad scholars of racialization and racial ideologies, who insist that whiteness is not about white people—people who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has put it, believe themselves and are believed by others to be white due to sustained, distributed projects of colonial, imperial, and modern violence and dispossession. Rather, as the linguistic anthropologist Krystal Smalls has written—joining a constellation of others theorizing anti-Blackness alongside scholars from Sylvia Wynter and Saidiya Hartman to Fred Moten and Franz Fanon (and beyond)—whiteness is an effect of malleable global hierarchies that “position whiteness (and its correlates) at [their] apex and blackness (and its correlates) at [their] base” (2018, 376).
Confronting whiteness in pedagogies of “language” means we have to change our starting points, cast of characters, and focus of attention in teaching and citation, but we also have to unlearn how we read, and re-learn to read beyond denotation. Contributors to a recent special issue of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology place white supremacy and anti-Blackness at the front and center of their analyses and activism.
Earlier works like Monica Heller and Bonnie McElhinny’s Language, Capitalism, and Colonialism: Toward a Critical History also help to put these insights into practice, and to situate the study of language in the context of global imperialism, gendered racial capitalism, and violent state effects. Monographs like Margaret Bruchac’s Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists and articles like Michael Ashkenazi’s “Informant Networks and their Anthropologists” also offer important correctives to the erasure of the necessary, yet nonreciprocal, relationships between Native informants and the anthropologists and archaeologists whose work they enabled. Works of intellectual history by the late Margaret Wade-Lewis have powerfully revealed the erasure of Black scholars of language by documenting the history of Black linguistics. Lorenzo Dow-Turner: Father of Gullah Studies and “Mark Hanna Watkins: African American Linguistic Anthropologist” introduce two figures who had an immense impact on the still-emerging fields of American anthropology, linguistics, and their intersection, and who provided models both for later research and writing, and for professional identities that refuse a dichotomy between scholarship and activism.
The alternative is not to find more non-white scholars to occupy already existing conceptual, theoretical, methodological, or historical slots on the syllabi. Arthur Spears, in a commentary given at the conclusion to a 2016 panel at the American Anthropological Association’s Annual Meeting, “Talkin and Testifyin to Black Humanity,” points to the enforced limits on Black scholars’ ability to “go forth boldly and theorize grandly,” an enforced subordination also experienced by Indigenous, Latinx, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, queer, women, and other marginalized scholars. Spears’ call—to theorize grandly regardless—is still as necessary as ever. But this applies to how we read and assign works, too. What if we began our introductions to the study of language by “reconsidering the fundamental relationship between language and racism as a strategy for understanding and contributing to efforts toward combating White supremacy” (Smalls, Spears, and Rosa 2021, 155)? What if we use works like Lanita Jacobs-Huey’s From the Kitchen to the Parlor not as topics in Black women’s language or embodiment and language, but instead as a text to introduce concepts like indexicality and ideology broadly? What if we teach works like the sociolinguist Sharese King’s “Rethinking Race and Place” as an introduction to variation in general—one that doesn’t reinscribe white speakers as a norm from which Black speakers “deviate”? Again, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list of recommendations, but only a provocation.
Confronting whiteness in pedagogies of language—and teaching and citing in ways that invite others to do the same—doesn’t mean exorcising white authors from our work or wishing away our intellectual predecessors’ sometimes troubling legacies. That would be too simple, as Catherine Rhodes has argued about the power relations inherent in citational practice. Instead, in figuring out how to move forward context matters: what kinds of organizations do we work in, and what are the specific erasures, dispossessions, and violences we seek to repair? The important thing is to be honest with ourselves about our own willingness to persistently confront whiteness, especially those of us who can access white privilege. In a recent op-ed about the growth of university abolitionist curricula, the sociologist Michelle Phelps draws attention to the ongoing work of un-education, re-education, and accountability that radical pedagogies require: “I don’t know that we want people who haven’t thought deeply about racism and social justice to talk about it in their class, either dismissively or without any kind of nuance, depth, and appreciation.” This is a critical reminder that this work is work. It’s also a reminder that the goal is not to get outside, but rather to commit to this for the long haul, knowing that the work is never done.