Readers Respond: White Ignorance

In Fall 2020, the Graduate Student Council Steering Committee and newsletter team decided to create a new newsletter format allowing readers and authors to engage in constructive dialog and exchange of ideas about the articles published in AAALGrads. In this section of the newly introduced "Reader Response Form," Zakaria Fahmi (University of South Florida) and Di Liang (The Pennsylvania State University) respond to Nicholas Subtirelu's (Georgetown University) Fall 2020 piece on white ignorance. Below you will find the original article, followed by the two responses and a reply by Nicholas Subtirelu. 

Original Piece: White Ignorance and the Struggle for an Anti-Racist Applied Linguistics

Feature article by Nicholas Close Subtirelu, Georgetown University

George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for over eight minutes while Floyd struggled and called for relief and mercy. A teenager named Darnella Frazier recorded the incident, and her video has been viewed by millions of people. That video and others capturing incidents of anti-Black racism helped reignite protests against white supremacy and police brutality across the United States and elsewhere this year. Many in the field of applied linguistics have responded in kind asking what we can do to reshape our communities to be more racially equitable.

 

I believe we are right to ask ourselves what we can do, but I also believe that, for many of us, especially my fellow white folks, the answer must start with reflecting on ourselves, our ignorance, and our inaction. We should never forget what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many other men and women who have become the victims of police brutality directed disproportionately at Black people (e.g., Scott et al., 2017). However, I believe we should go a step further and ask ourselves why it took many of us until well into the twenty-first century to start noticing or caring about an injustice that, for Black folks, has been a central and horrifying part of their experience since people from Africa were enslaved and brought to the United States and other parts of the Americas several centuries ago. 

 

The philosopher Charles W. Mills (2007) has written about what he calls “white ignorance,” a concept that I believe is relevant for the ongoing discussion (e.g., Anya, 2020; Bhattcharya et al., 2019; Gerald, 2020; Motha, 2020) about how to challenge white supremacy in applied linguistics and build a field that can contribute to fostering racial justice in other spheres of life such as educational systems. Mills developed the concept of white ignorance as a way of pointing to socialization into whiteness and the privileges this grants white individuals as a mechanism for ensuring and maintaining ignorance about the realities of white supremacy. In part, he was motivated to offer an epistemological accounting of what many scholars of race accept as true, that most white people are profoundly ignorant about the realities of racism in the United States. Mills argued that 

 

white ignorance has been able to flourish all of these years because a white epistemology of ignorance has safeguarded it against the dangers of an illuminating blackness or redness, protecting those who for ‘racial’ reasons have needed not to know. Only by starting to break these rules and meta-rules can we begin the long process that will lead to the eventual overcoming of this white darkness and the achievement of an enlightenment that is genuinely multiracial. (p. 35) 

 

What does this concept have to offer graduate students who are pursuing their training in applied linguistics? I hope that by focusing specifically on whiteness and understanding how it both passively and actively maintains its own ignorance, we can begin to unpack how our own scholarly practices may reflect this very ignorance. I know that my own thinking has at times reflected white ignorance. In the story that follows, I play the role of the privileged white student who fails to see the full extent of white supremacy, in part, because I refuse to accept the forms of evidence that are presented to me and instead insist that my ways of knowing are better. I, as a young white man, act out of the toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance characteristic of people with unexamined and unacknowledged privilege. I present this story in the hopes that my missteps can serve as a fruitful source of learning for others.

 

In my first year of college, I enrolled in a course called “Introduction to Ethnic Studies” to fulfill my university’s requirement that all students take a class focused on diversity in the United States. It was my second semester of college. During my first semester, I had been empowered by a course called “Introduction to Critical Thinking” which had exposed me to ways of dissecting and analyzing arguments. Hence, I arrived in my ethnic studies class believing I was ready to critically scrutinize the ideas and arguments presented in the class. However, my prior education had not challenged me to think about my own positionality and how it affected the way I saw the world. In particular, it had not prepared me to scrutinize my own racial positionality and how it shaped my beliefs and thinking.

 

One of our first assignments in the course was to read sections of the widely acclaimed book A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki (1993) and write a reflection about it. In A Different Mirror, Takaki offers a narrative account of different ethnoracial groups’ experiences in what is now the United States. The book is mostly focused on the time period following European explorers’ and settlers’ arrival on the continent. While constructing his historical account, Takaki provides the reader snippets of primary historical texts such as song lyrics and newspaper articles to help illustrate the painful experiences of oppressed groups and the inhumane motivations of their oppressors. Takaki’s scholarly approach favors vivid, emotionally stirring, and richly contextualized description over the detached, supposedly ‘objective’ writing that many white scholars produce. Like many ethnic studies scholars, Takaki does not aim to ‘prove’ that white supremacy exists; rather, he aims to illustrate its historical workings for his readers—readers he anticipates will come to his book having been profoundly influenced by white supremacy and white ignorance.

 

After engaging superficially with the book, I dismissed it as not methodologically rigorous. In particular, I felt that Takaki had failed to ‘prove’ the existence of white supremacy due to the approach his scholarship took. I wish I had reflected on what it means to ‘prove’ that white supremacy exists and why I felt like I, a young white man, should be the arbiter of this question. Instead, I headed to the library and found some experimental psychological research on implicit racial bias that better conformed to the beliefs I held at the time about what constituted ‘proof’ of racism. For my assignment, rather than engaging with the ideas in A Different Mirror, I wrote an essay about how experimental methods provide a better basis for documenting the presence of racism in U.S. society. For example, I cited social psychological research demonstrating that people are more likely to ‘see’ ambiguous objects as weapons when they are held by Black people than when they are held by white people (e.g., Payne, 2001). In Payne’s study, participants were shown pictures of faces and objects, and Payne found that pictures of Black faces primed participants to ‘see’ the object as a weapon, suggesting that the participants were biased toward seeing Black people as violent. I argued that such experiments provided a superior way of ‘proving’ racism than that offered by Takaki in A Different Mirror. I failed to recognize that, despite its strengths and clear relevance to explaining the disproportionate violence enacted on Black people by the police, scholarship like Payne (2001) does not do the important work of placing individuals’ actions in a broader historical context in the way Takaki’s does. The instructor of the course, a woman of color, handled my arrogant refusal to engage seriously with the work she assigned magnanimously; she gave me a “B” and asked that, in future assignments, I engage more directly with the assigned reading material.

 

Several years passed before I came to realize that I deserved an “F” on this assignment. Even though I articulated what I felt was the ‘right’ position (i.e., affirming the presence of racism in U.S. society), I did so by rejecting the voices, experiences, and ways of knowing of people who are directly affected by white supremacy and who have developed a field of inquiry (ethnic studies) designed to develop and disseminate exactly these voices, experiences, and ways of knowing. I, a young white man, had not yet learned to listen, and, indeed, I had been taught to systematically ignore the ideas of racialized people when they did not conform to white ideas about what constitutes good scholarship. I judged the extensively documented narratives about the realities of racialized people’s experiences with white supremacy presented to me as inadequate in much the same way that Black people’s concerns about the police have historically been dismissed when not accompanied by a viral video. Indeed, even when it is confronted with video evidence of horrific crimes, white ignorance has found a way to prevail with disturbing regularity.

 

I am embarrassed and ashamed of the way I behaved in my ethnic studies class. I regret the harm that my dismissiveness caused the instructor as well as the students of color in the class. The incident is rendered all the more embarrassing when one considers that racism and white supremacy are central to my scholarship today. I raise this embarrassing experience because I believe it highlights an important point about the connection between epistemological beliefs and white privilege. I did not see my ways of seeing the world as connected to my whiteness, my maleness, or other aspects of who I was. I believed that I was simply applying the scientific method and logic to arrive at ‘truth.’ I thought that I could be of service to those advocating against racism by teaching them the ‘correct’ way of knowing, through, for example, rigorously designed experiments. I was stupendously and arrogantly wrong, and had I been willing to listen and to engage with the arguments of others on their own terms, I would have found this out much earlier and spared others harm.  

 

I hope that other applied linguists who hold white privilege will take this story and the lesson it offers to heart. I hope that students who find themselves confronted with readings that challenge their beliefs consider that those beliefs may reflect the white ignorance that they have been socialized into and approach opportunities to learn from Black, indigenous, and other people of color humbly and respectfully. Undoing our own white ignorance is not glamorous, but I believe it would go a long way toward helping us build an anti-racist scholarly community. 

References

Anya, U. (2020). African Americans in world language study: The forged path and future directions. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 40, 97-112. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0267190520000070

 

Bhattacharya, U., Jiang, L., & Canagarajah, S. (2019). Race, representation, and diversity in the American Association for Applied Linguistics. Applied Linguistics, 41(6), 999-1004. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amz003

 

Gerald, J. (2020). Worth the risk: Towards decentring whiteness in English language teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5(1), 44-54. Retrieved from: https://ojs-o.library.ubc.ca/index.php/BCTJ/article/view/345

 

Mills, C. W. (2007). White ignorance. In S. Sullivan & N. Tuana (Eds.), Race and epistemologies of ignorance (pp. 13-38). State University of New York Press.

 

Motha, S. (2020). Is an antiracist and decolonizing applied linguistics possible? Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 40, 128-133. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0267190520000100

 

Payne, B. K. (2001). Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(2), 181-192. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.81.2.181

 

Scott, K., Ma, D. S., Sadler, M. S., & Correll, J. (2017). A social scientific approach toward understanding racial disparities in police shooting: Data from the Department of Justice (1980-2000). Journal of Social Issues, 73(4), 701-722. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12243

 

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Little, Brown, and Company.

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Response 1: Decentering and Unlearning: A Response to "White Ignorance and the Struggle for an Anti-Racist Applied Linguistics"

Article response by Di Liang, The Pennsylvania State University

I appreciate that Dr. Subtirelu shed light on such a timely topic. His critical epistemological examination of self reminds me of the importance of decentering and unlearning.

From a decolonial perspective, I understand decentering as the practice used to release oneself from the perspectives prescribed and accepted by one’s community of practice that one has been closely clinging to (see Byram, 1997; Walsh, 2015). As the White-centric matrix of power has permeated many aspects of our society, whether it be sociocultural, sociopolitical, or socioeconomic, it becomes rather difficult for us to detach ourselves from such a dominant ideology.

Dr. Subtirelu spoke to this reality and used Mills’ (2007) concept of White ignorance to accentuate the defensive mentality adopted by White people to preserve their privileged position by suppressing the thoughts or acts that might disrupt the established social order. This defensive mechanism could also manifest as the following:

  1. White emotionality (Matias, 2016), which refers to the emotions expressed by White people when discussing race and racism, such as guilt, shame, anger, defensiveness, denial, sadness, dissonance, and discomfort; and

  2. “happy talks” (Tuitt, 2016) and “good intention” (Gorski, 2008), which refer to the talks and actions that exhibit surface-level racio-cultural understanding while intentionally hiding any tensions or conflicts caused by racial or cultural differences behind seemingly positive interactions.

All of these convey empty verbalism. It is, thus, important that we as applied linguists be able to see through these performative behaviors, decenter ourselves from privileged positions, develop intercultural sensitivity and awareness, engage in critical self-reflection, and embrace decolonial, anti-racist pedagogy.

Reading Dr. Subtirelu’s account of his past experience gives me the idea that storying could be a useful tool for embarking on this journey of critical self-reflection. For example, McCausland (2020) used storying to reflect on his experience as a White man participating in a science lab where learning “real science” was the core mission. Through this reflective process, he realized the prevalence of Whiteness in the field of science education. As he was writing down his experience, McCausland was able to closely and critically reexamine the instances where he or his White peers exhibited White-privilege-informed language or behaviors to teach or learn science. While storying his experience in group projects, McCausland remembered his unease of working with students of Color, as he felt “threatened with isolation” in a space with “people who were not as ‘scientific’ as me” (p. 12). He had, however, a smooth experience working in an all-White group, as he and his White colleagues shared the same “scientific” understanding and training. He acknowledged that seeing students of Color as being less “scientific” was not because of their lack of scientific knowledge; rather, it was their different understanding of what it meant to do science and their communicative behavior in the English language.

Along the epistemological, emotional, and critical nexus, McCausland realized that the so-called “real science” were in fact the scientific principles accepted and acknowledged by the White, English-speaking scholarly community. As a result, students or scholars of Color entering this White space of science would always be held to unfair standards, be it regarding content or language, and consequently be marginalized. Upon arriving at such a realization, McCausland credited storying, which is derived from autoethnography (see Ellis & Bochner, 2006) and narrative inquiry (see Connelly & Clandinin, 1990), as a powerful tool because it provided him with “an avenue” (p. 2) to describe, theorize, and analyze his experiences and feelings, to question his thinking, and to confront his privileges.

Similar to McCausland’s approach, Johnson (2017) employed “racial storytelling” (p. 478) to examine how his past racial encounters have shaped his current identity as a Black male professor. In a similar vein, Lensmire (2008) analyzed how he made “better sense of becoming white with black materials” (p. 313) through a performance he did in high school where he insensitively used stereotypes about Black people to entertain the White audience. By way of storytelling, Lensmire was able to investigate why he had decided to do the performance at the time and how he became aware of his White racial self. In another example, Tanner (2019) discussed ways of confronting White supremacy in English education through storying his experience as a White male scholar in English education.

I hope to show from these scholarly works that through critical self-reflection, we can examine our positionalities, identities, and beliefs as applied linguists. As we are taking a close look at our ways of talking, reading, writing, teaching, and researching, it is possible that we may come to question or critique the things that we have registered as true, as untouchable, and therefore we would have to unlearn those knowledges. Unlearning, hence, could be seen as indicative of “questioning, opening and self-critiquing” (Walsh, 2015, p. 13). As suggested by Johnson (2017), such a critical stance would enable us to “work against our own miseducation while moving toward liberation and self-actualization” (p. 479). Simply put, it is through unlearning that we would have the space for relearning. We need not be terrified, discombobulated, or embarrassed by this. As teachers, researchers, and learners in the field of applied linguistics, we are committed to lifelong learning, to the ongoing process of becoming (see Zembylas, 2003). That is, we signed up for a journey where we may jettison, develop, or change our understandings about what we know and what we do. Dr. Subtirelu’s article brought to the fore the need of building an anti-racist scholarly community, of becoming equity-minded. To achieve this goal, we may have to experience a wealth of unlearning and relearning. To end my response, I would like to say that I hope Dr. Subtirelu’s advocacy for an anti-racist scholarly community will not be a soliloquy but be taken up by many members of our community.

References

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Multilingual Matters.

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5), 2-14. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X019005002

Ellis, C. S., & Bochner, A. P. (2006). Analyzing analytic autoethnography: An autopsy. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 429-449. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891241606286979

Gorski, P. C. (2008). Good intentions are not enough: A decolonizing intercultural education. Intercultural Education19(6), 515-525. https://doi.org/10.1080/14675980802568319 

Johnson, L. L. (2017). The racial hauntings of one black male professor and the disturbance of the self(ves): Self-actualization and racial storytelling as pedagogical practices. Journal of Literacy Research, 49(4), 476-502. https://doi.org/10.1177/1086296X17733779

Lensmire, T. J. (2008). How I became white while punching de tar baby. Curriculum Inquiry, 38(3), 299-322. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-873X.2008.00410.x

Matias, C. E. (2016). Feeling white: Whiteness, emotionality, and education. Brill Sense.

McCausland, J. D. (2020). Learning “real” science: Storying whiteness in university science labs. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy. https://doi.org/10.1080/15505170.2020.1845883

Mills, C. W. (2007). White ignorance. In S. Sullivan & N. Tuana (Eds.), Race and epistemologies of ignorance (pp. 13-38). State University of New York Press.

Tanner, S. J. (2019). Whiteness is a white problem: Whiteness in English education. English Education, 51(2), 182-199.

Tuitt, F. (2016). Making excellence inclusive in challenging times. Liberal Education102(2), 64-68. 

Walsh, C. E. (2015). Decolonial pedagogies walking and asking. Notes to Paulo Freire from AbyaYala. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 34(1), 9-21. https://doi.org/10.1080/02601370.2014.991522

Zembylas, M. (2003). Emotions and teacher identity: A poststructural perspective. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 9(3), 213-238. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540600309378

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Response 2: Revisiting Subtirelu’s Article "White Ignorance and the Struggle for an Anti-Racist Applied Linguistics"

Article response by Zakaria Fahmi, University of South Florida

Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless

means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” (Freire, 1985)

Human experience is more than just the cumulative knowledge exclusively available to those in positions of power. By its very nature, human experience entails the eternal uniqueness of voice and the vivid omnipresence of the self. For instance, every war mirrors a communal turmoil, yet every survivor bears the burden alone. Every refugee carries a profound, untold story, internalized via personal lenses and intimate meanings. In fact, human experience remains the very familiar product of the self, and thus the irrefutable marker of its own legitimacy. We cannot silence or delegitimize the others’ experience simply because they do not conform to our expectations. It would be wildly senseless to expect the oppressor to feel the agony of the oppressed, let alone underestimating the damage of such ignorance. 

Subtirelu’s spirited, personal account shines an interesting light on the connections between white privilege and epistemological belief. His early college experience and transition from critical thinking to ethnic studies, admittedly, did not grant him ample critical tools to grasp the realities foreign to him due to race or ethnicity. His eloquently and bravely expressed failure to recognize the hardships and susceptibilities of minoritized voices stemmed in part from his monolithic conceptualization of ‘objectivity’ as a lifeless view of otherness. Subtirelu not only, at least briefly, isolates the distinctions between Takaki’s (1993) and Payne’s (2001) different ways of ‘proving’ racism, but also clearly offers a personally contextualized deconstruction of white ignorance within his conscious responsibilities as “a privileged white student." Importantly, his account reminds us of the significance to interrogate the systemic institutional structures that govern our societies. More constructively, his account should offer an exemplary incentive for other white scholars to retreat to their personal narrative and experience as a reflexive, transformative means to combat issues related to racism and bigotry.

Aligning my view with Subtirelu’s thesis of ‘proving’ racism, I take my responsibility, not as a privileged ‘white’ voice, but as someone on the opposite side of the spectrum. I arrived in this country on an F-1 visa, questioning my potential as an international student for such an opportunity. Prior to my arrival, I had never been able to understand the deeply hidden realities of ethnic and racial inequalities. Naïve and insentiently consumed by the power of pop-culture, I later came to realize that such an indulging distraction was important in disguising parts of this unpleasant truth. 

It did not take long to see that I, too, can be subject to workings of racism and attempted silencing in ordinary ordeals, simply based on my name, my look, and/or my assumed religious beliefs. As an international student, there were times when my voice was debased and rejected to creatively criticize the divisiveness of a political climate, solely because of my race or ethnicity. There were times when I was called racial slurs, unashamedly in broad daylight, by those with whom I always thought I had shared fruitful conversations. It was a deception, rather the backfire of their defense mechanism that could not hold any longer. There were occasions when I did not know the exact social or cultural meanings of those derogatory names. I had to resort to other friends for their meaning or horridly find them out myself. These incidents slightly distressed my social interactions in the sense that I downscaled my interlocutions to meet the demands of a foreign culture.

The interactional dynamics I had with white ignorance were predetermined by a quest for power. Essentially, the racial slurs stroke in their attempt to censor my different, nonconformist voice that was deemed menacing to the comfort and normalcy of white ignorance. Such normalcy lies in part in the persistent monopolization of formal and informal devices of power (Fairclough, 1989), often attested when repeatedly exercised by the same interlocutors, namely white interlocutors. In essence, white ignorance thrives collectively on a mythic manifesto fixated in a monochrome reality that disqualifies the complex experience of the racialized and their legitimate ways of knowing. Racism exists. Sadly, it exists in various forms, but if we continue to zealously assert we are not racist, the social discourse of denial (see van Dijk, 1992) becomes the most damaging force of white ignorance.

 

I share parts of my personal experience in this response not to spark sympathy or generate apology, but to call out the blatant workings of bigotry and upset the white imagining, reaffirming that minoritized experiences matter, too. I have never doubted the generous virtue of human nature, but I have also always believed in the power of collaboration over isolation. It takes more than just one camp to dismantle these unjust workings, regardless of their sources or actors.  

Mitigation efforts to battle forms of racism and discrimination in applied linguistics mandate ceaseless, conscious diversification of perspective and practice. Such efforts should expose the colorblindness ideologies, which preach pro-diversity intentions on the surface but in practice only accelerate sameness. Our disciplinary culture should steer away from the prevalent racism-evasive rhetoric that fails to address the realities and the real costs of racism. Subtirelu’s account, for instance, exemplifies the significance of the malicious workings of white ignorance and its systematic silencing. Failing to prove racial privilege would only embolden discriminatory practices and empower racialized structures. Together, we can structurally and unapologetically honor the pledge of instilling egalitarian and democratic principle within our disciplinary culture, sustained by the very diversity of its countless voices, interests, and scopes.

References

Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. Longman

Freire, P. (1985). The politics of education: Culture, power, and liberation. Bergin & Garvey.

Payne, B. K. (2001). Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology81(2), 181-192. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.81.2.181 

    

Subtirelu, N. C. (2020). White ignorance and the struggle for an anti-racist applied linguistics. AAALGrads, 5(1). https://www.aaal-gsc.org/white-ignorance-subtirelu 

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Little, Brown, and Company.

van Dijk, T. A. (1992). Discourse and the denial of racism. Discourse & Society3(1), 87-118. https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926592003001005

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Follow Up: On Becoming Antiracist Racists: Author’s Response 

Nicholas Close Subtirelu, Georgetown University

I wish to first thank Zakaria Fahmi and Di Liang for their thoughtful responses, as well as the editors, for opening up space for us to continue this important conversation about white ignorance and the ways in which it acts as a barrier to an antiracist applied linguistics.

Fahmi and Liang’s responses both stress the potential usefulness of reflective work on the part of applied linguists who hold white privilege. Fahmi implores white applied linguists to attend to our “personal narrative and experience as a reflexive, transformative means to combat issues related to racism and bigotry,” while Liang ends his piece artfully expressing his hope that my reflection “will not be a soliloquy” but will inspire others to wrestle with their own white ignorance. Echoing their recommendations, I offer here four pieces of advice for white applied linguists struggling with their own complicity in white supremacy.

First, as both Fahmi and Liang emphasize, white ignorance is not simply a matter of absence of knowledge but is also characterized by an emotionally driven resistance to the realities of white supremacy (Leonardo & Zembylas, 2013; Mills, 2008). Hence, in thinking about how to combat white supremacy in our field, I believe white applied linguists should start by looking inward and considering how our understanding of the world, and especially racial disparities within it, may reflect a commitment to white ignorance. I invite white readers to consider, for example, how they responded to Fahmi’s account of his experience as an international graduate student. When you read that his colleagues used racial slurs against him, whose side did you find yourself leaning toward? Did you find yourself doubting Fahmi’s reporting of the events? Did you rush to defend his interlocutors? Did you wonder whether it might have all been a very unfortunate misunderstanding? Were you worried about how his account might sow discord in the field or harm the reputations of ‘innocent’ white people? If so, then you may be engaging in the same kinds of knee-jerk responses that I did when, as I reported in the original piece, I skimmed and dismissed Ronald Takaki’s book A Different Mirror many years ago. I invite white readers to read the accounts of scholars of color in our field (e.g., Khan, 2020; Kubota, 2020) and to learn to hear their concerns about our profession for what they are: the informed perspectives of reasonable, competent, and honest people who are doing their best to tell you what they have lived through.

Second, and related to my first piece of advice, I recommend that white readers shift from an understanding of racial prejudice as individual moral failing to a view of white supremacy as structural domination. White applied linguists would do well to accept that our whiteness makes us inherently complicit in white supremacy and to view this complicity as the inescapable starting point from which we can choose to engage in antiracism. Leonardo and Zembylas (2013) write about what they call “white intellectual alibis.” In criminal investigations, an “alibi” is a fact about a person that demonstrates that they cannot be the perpetrator (e.g., they were out of town when the crime was committed). Leonardo and Zembylas use “white intellectual alibis” to discuss the many ways in which white people attempt to construct identities for ourselves that position us as unconnected to white supremacy, as ‘good white people’ or ‘nonracist white people’ (e.g., that we have friends or family that are not white, or that we write about antiracism). As the authors point out, this pursuit of an alibi is problematic precisely because

it does not consider the possibility that one could be racist and anti-racist in one place at the same time. Being an anti-racist racist is not a contradiction in terms and is likely to be a more realistic appraisal of Whites who struggle with the push and pull effects of white privilege (Leonardo & Zembylas, 2013, p. 156).

Thus, if we are committed to an antiracist applied linguistics, we white folks will have to abandon our intellectual alibis, accept our complicity in white supremacy, and begin the real antiracist work of dismantling and undoing all of the ways in which our field privileges white people and white thought.

Third, we need to recognize that our journey to becoming antiracist racists (Leonardo & Zembylas, 2013) should ideally not be one that creates additional pain or uncompensated labor for our racialized colleagues. We should aim to listen to their voices and perspectives without demanding more labor from them or putting them in uncomfortable or difficult situations. Hence, we should read their words carefully and closely when they choose to offer their thoughts on white supremacy in our field. What we should not do is ask them to serve as our unpaid white supremacy tutors or ask them to ‘debate’ anyone who downplays or denies white supremacy. I recommend that white applied linguists come together to help support each other in undoing our own white ignorance, as suggested for example by Michael and Conger (2009), especially as a way for preparing us for necessary but potentially fraught interracial dialogue. 

Fourth and finally, I believe it is important that anyone wishing to learn about and pursue antiracism do so with a clear understanding of how we are positioning ourselves. As I mentioned above, I consider white people’s positioning of ourselves as ‘not racist’ to be incompatible with a genuine commitment to ending white supremacy. If we take seriously the antiracist task of undoing white supremacy in our field, however, we will quickly find that we are positioning ourselves in opposition to many of our white colleagues who are committed to defending themselves, their work, and their institutions as ‘not racist.’ While there exists a superficial consensus in public discourse that racism is bad, we should not be fooled into expecting that genuine antiracism will be welcomed in academia, particularly by white scholars, the academic organizations we dominate (including AAAL), or the institutions we control (Melaku & Beeman, 2020). Indeed, if we seek to undo white supremacy in our field, then we should recognize that we are taking stances against ideas and practices that have long histories and many supporters. If we are to become antiracist racists, then we must learn to choose strategically between calling out and calling in these colleagues, and to take calculated risks to undo and undermine the ways in which our field harms racialized peoples. Thus, white applied linguists need to understand the risks antiracist action might pose to us, but we must also understand that, ultimately, these risks are preferable to continuing the reproduction of white supremacy in our field.

The task of becoming an antiracist racist is time consuming and emotionally arduous. It requires careful reflection, learning, and unlearning. For white people, the task ultimately requires us to develop an understanding of ourselves as complicit in white supremacy while actively resisting it. While this perspective can be difficult to accept and contend with emotionally, it opens up the space for us to think and act differently, for us to challenge a system that both privileges and constrains us. Hence, it is important that we keep in mind that in working toward becoming antiracist racists, we aim not only to be and act in solidarity with people of color but also to bring about our own liberation from whiteness and its demands that we conform. 

References

Khan, K. (2020). Preparing the milk and honey: Between ethnography and academia as a racially minoritised academic. Applied Linguistics Review, 11(2), 207-231.

Kubota, R. (2020). Confronting epistemological racism, decolonizing scholarly knowledge: Race and gender in applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics, 41(5), 712-732.

Leonardo, Z., & Zembylas, M. (2013). Whiteness as technology of affect: Implications for educational praxis. Equity & Excellence in Education, 46(1), 150-165.

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Nicholas Subtirelu.jpg

Nicholas Close Subtirelu is assistant professor of Applied Linguistics at Georgetown University. His work focuses on the sociopolitical dimensions of language education. He is especially interested in the ways that ideologies related to language and race (e.g., raciolinguistic ideologies) impact educational practice and research. He is section editor of the Forum for the journal TESOL Quarterly, and he is also co-editor of the forthcoming book Bilingualism for all? Raciolinguistic perspectives on dual language education in the United States along with Nelson Flores (University of Pennsylvania) and Amelia Tseng (American University).

Di Liang.jpg

Di Liang is a Ph.D. candidate in Second Language Education at the Pennsylvania State University. He holds an M.Ed. in Foreign Language Education from the University of Pittsburgh. He currently teaches a language teaching method course and supervises World Languages student teachers. Prior to Penn State, he taught undergraduate-level Chinese language classes at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests include second language acquisition and instruction and language teacher education.

Zakaria Fahmi.jpg

Zakaria Fahmi is a 2nd-year doctoral student in the Linguistic and Applied Language Studies (LALS) program at the University of South Florida. His research interests focus on the discourses and ideologies of language and culture in education, social approaches to bi-multilingualism, and language contact.