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MSU Event Highlights “The Black Tax” Language Barrier and “Linguistic Racism”

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Contributor: Grant Layle

An MSU event highlighted barriers to learning English and connected it to race and culture. This included “The Black Tax” and linguistic norms “we never carefully consider...called linguistic racism.”

The event presenter further claimed alternate forms of grammar are not necessarily right or wrong.

On February 5, 2020, Michigan State University welcomed Dr. Bryan A. Brown who presented, “The Meaning Beyond the Words: How Language, Race and Culture Impact Science Teaching and Learning.” The MSU College of Education described the event as "an exploration of how race, culture and language intersect to create the condition of contemporary learning."

Dr. Brown stated science educators should alter their methods of explaining new concepts to focus on explaining the ideas in relatable ways before teaching terminology.

Brown suggested this approach is most significant towards children with different "linguistic norms" from their educators. Linguistic norms were described as a dialectical language barrier, preventing people from different communities and cultures from fully understanding each other.

Furthermore, Brown stated alternative forms of English and grammar are not clearly defined as right or wrong. "What counts as intelligent? What counts as unintelligent? I'm arguing that we have linguistic norms connected to race and culture that we never carefully consider...called linguistic racism."

Specific to African American communities, Brown referred to this language conflict as "the Black Tax," a disadvantaged state black students experience when being taught by people using different vocabularies or expressions.

To further demonstrate linguistic racism, Brown pointed to a trending Twitter conversation about one of football quarterback Jameis Winston's postgame interviews. One user commented that it hardly sounded like English. Another said it was a great interview. "Two people hear the exact same thing, but because discourse norms are organic or undefined, they hear two different things."

"Here is the point I'm selling. In the classroom, we let organic norms frame how we hear our students."

Dr. Brown placed great emphasis on how the way we choose to speak sends a message or creates a rigid framework of communication. "I argue we have a language-identity dilemma… because all language is associated with identity, and I can send a message of who I am through how I choose to communicate."

Brown then pointed to several research studies which indicated how meeting students where they are and using their language means better learning. "If we let language be a hurdle, we are applying the Black Tax."

In one particular study, Dr. Brown's team created classrooms with cultural similarities between students and educators. "If you wore a hijab, the teacher in your book wore a hijab… what we found was no significant learning differences, but we found a shift in attitudes towards science.”

“Here's the message, we need to think more creatively about what we can do with race and culture in the way that we teach,” he said.

Dr. Brown closed out his presentation with an acknowledgment. Many policymakers do not give his ideas much attention, and will probably continue to ignore them. He said he remains convinced the science is sound, educators can get behind it, and more people need to start making these kinds of changes.

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