Dispatches from the Language and Social Justice Committee

When everything is a disaster, what can linguistic anthropologists do to help?

The Language and Social Justice (LSJ) Committee is committed to asking how linguistic anthropologists, with our particular skill sets, positionalities, and areas of expertise, can contribute to, shape, and create work that addresses major problems facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Echoing the American Anthropological Association (AAA) 2019 Annual Meeting theme “Changing Climate/Changer d’Air,” the original 2020 Annual Meeting theme “Truth and Responsibility,” and looking forward to the fall event in 2020, we take up the charge of social justice by attending to our responsibility in speaking truths to injustices and in fostering change—sometimes addressing the injustices of a changing climate and at other times actively working to change climates. Language plays a central role in all aspects of these changes.

LSJ members write editorials, direct YouTube videos, create radio spots, and sit on museum boards. We invite you to join us.

The LSJ is a committee of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, a member section of the AAA. LSJ is a loosely structured organization that encourages members to develop projects and collaborate with one another, taking advantage of the power of shared skills and resources. We have developed pedagogical strategies and resources to approach social justice issues within the classroom such as a database of teaching resources, and beyond. Here we describe how LSJ is taking up responsibility vis-à-vis changing climates.

Our physical, geological climate is changing. Language plays a crucial role in climate (in)justice. The hegemony of certain languages and varieties often disempowers those who are most immediately affected by the changing climate, and this makes it difficult for many in power to hear them as authoritative voices on the topic and key witnesses to the truths of environmental inequality. We might also consider the ways discourses of climate change attribute agency and responsibility to different actors, positioning particular courses of future action as morally indispensable. Some LSJ members are engaged in collaborative efforts addressing climate change and others contributed to a Presidential Panel at the 2019 Annual Meeting on language and climate change.

Our institutional climates are changing in the university and beyond. Neoliberal understandings of language in workplaces contribute to discrimination, and neoliberalism is enacted in part through linguistic practices that obscure the very structures of injustice. In institutional settings, language inequality is frequently racialized and can have serious implications for individuals’ access to and success within educational and professional activities. For instance, LSJ members have shown how language inequalities in educational institutions can take the form of requiring faculty, staff, or student workers to speak English, of marketing “white English” as “ideal English” in language-learning settings, and of discriminating against non-US citizen students based on their country of origin. LSJ members also take direct action in the face of injustice, such as when Dominika Baran led a workshop to counter misinformation and discrimination in response to a Duke University professor’s insistence that students should speak English at all times

Our political climate is changing. The circulation of public discourses about issues of language and social justice is increasing. LSJ members work to bring scholarly expertise into these public conversations. For example, LSJ co-chair Suzanne García-Mateus is working to help parents and communities learn about California Proposition 58, which guarantees the right to bilingual education. In 2016, she and other LSJ members co-authored an editorial urging Californians to vote to pass the proposition, and recently she talked about Proposition 58 on Radio Bilingüe. Addressing federal policies, LSJ member Ana Celia Zentella also reminds us to support the longstanding demand to reinstate Spanish-language content on WhiteHouse.gov.

Finally, our ideological climates are changing. Public conversations about gender diversity are a notable example. Communities across the world are developing innovative norms and practices for gender-inclusive reference, often defying official standardizing bodies to do so. What could gender-inclusive Spanishes look like? How can we push back against supposedly grammar-based objections to singular they in English?

LSJ members write editorials, direct YouTube videos, create radio spots, and sit on museum boards. We invite you to join us. LSJ provides an institutional platform through which scholars committed to issues of language and social justice can come together, find support for their work, and receive training they may seek. In a time when many of us feel deeply isolated and powerless in the face of social upheaval and injustice, we find that working together and taking collective responsibility provides a path forward.

Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein is a linguistic anthropologist and researcher at Knology. In prior research, she studied media circulation and socialization into the global community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Currently, her work focuses on how media circulates and particularly how people communicate uncertainty in scientific and journalistic spheres.

Dominika Baran is associate professor in linguistics at Duke University. Her research focuses on language, identity, and migration. In her book, Language in Immigrant America, she argues that “immigrant” and “American” categories have always been mutually constitutive and formed in the context of multilingualism.

Jennifer Delfino is an assistant professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She researches how African American students negotiate dominant discourses of race, schooling, and academic achievement; and language and identity among Filipino Americans living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Edwin Everhart is a cultural and linguistic anthropologist who studies language ideologies, linguistic discrimination, localness, and nationalism. His research asks how people experience and respond to stigma and what social effects come about because of our ideas about language correctness.

Paja Faudree is associate professor of anthropology at Brown University. Paja’s research interests include language and politics; indigenous literary and social movements; the interface between music and language; the ethnohistory of New World colonization; and the global marketing of indigenous rights discourses, indigenous knowledge, and plants.

Suzanne García-Mateus is assistant professor of education and leadership at California State University, Monterey Bay, and director of the Monterey Institute for English Learners (MIEL). She researches identity construction through social interactions in bilingual schools and teaches about social justice, particularly through developing students’ understandings of children’s diverse language practices.

Catherine R. Rhodes is contributing editor for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s section news column of Anthropology News.

Cite as: Barachas-Lichtenstein, Jena, Dominika Baran, Jennifer Delfino, Edwin Everhart, Paja Faudree, and Suzanne García-Mateus. 2020. “Dispatches from the Language and Social Justice Committee.” Anthropology News website, June 30, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1450

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