Language and Power

The brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25th May this year has sparked an outpouring of grief and anger which has reverberated around the world. Racism and the power structures which dictate our lives have always been there, but lockdown means that there is nowhere to hide – people cannot ignore what they are seeing on the news, in their communities and in their social circles, because there is nothing to distract them now. Lockdown is forcing us to sit, be quiet, reflect and feel things which were easy to put aside before now. I am seeing far more educators in my network beginning to ask questions, to talk more openly about race and to say things which, even a few months ago, would have been far more difficult to articulate. They are beginning to see the stark realities for the students they teach and they want to know how they can help when we are back in the classroom.

This post is an extract from my latest book. It is about the ingrained power struggles which exist in language and literature and how we, as English teachers, might make changes to address them.

‘I wrote my way out of hell
I wrote my way to revolution
I was louder than the crack in the bell

And when my prayers to God were met with indifference
I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance’

– ‘Hurricane’ from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

The story of Hamilton appeals to me because it demonstrates the huge potential of the written word, whilst simultaneously highlighting the way in which the established language structures of this world create a power divide. Alexander Hamilton was born into extremely challenging circumstances on the Caribbean island of Nevis (the sister island to St Kitts where my own grandfather was born). Hamilton’s talent as a writer was recognised in his hometown and, in 1772, local merchants raised money to send him to college in New York, away from his tragic childhood and towards opportunity. He literally wrote his way out. He then went on to write his way into history as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and either designed or influenced many of that country’s political, financial and judicial systems. You need only look at some of his essays on the constitution (the Federalist Papers), or George Washington’s farewell address (written by Hamilton) to see the artistry in his words. The act of telling this story in the 21st century through the lens of what is, essentially, a hip-hop opera, with an all-black and minority cast, is a provocative statement about who owns words and who writes history.

It would be very possible to write this book without a section on power, race and disadvantage. The book could stand without it and still be useful to teachers. I could avoid the challenge of unpicking this incredibly complex but critical set of issues. I have decided that I can’t do that.

I am a woman of mixed heritage; my grandfather came here from St Kitts in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation and he and my British nana went on to raise a family of very talented black children. They were the only black family on their estate in East Leeds. While my father is a lovely man, he and my mum separated when I was very young and most of my opinions and cultural experiences have been formed from within the bosom of a fiercely proud, ambitious black family. Navigating the world of teenage hormones and identity crises, when you are also struggling with the misplaced guilt of being light-skinned in a world where that means you can ‘pass’ for white, is hard. I watched while my mother experienced discrimination – monkey chants on the streets, bullying at work – and felt that I was somehow cheating by not having to deal with these experiences. Whilst it was infinitely more difficult for my mother facing this kind of treatment on a regular basis, it was also hard for me to feel a sense of belonging anywhere when people didn’t see me as I saw myself.

I’ve worked through this now and feel far more comfortable in my own skin – I understand my role as an ally, and I know that I have a right to belong to my Caribbean as well as my British culture. This does, however, give me a unique insight into power structures and language. I have all the privilege of a British education, including a prestigious university. During my time at Oxford, I learned quickly how to navigate spaces which were not, at first, natural to me. After three years of reading English at Merton College, I had refined my understanding of the rules, the codes, the expectations of language use in this ancient and sacred academic space – one which, I hasten to add, made me feel at home from the very start. On the other hand, I have a deep understanding of my Caribbean culture and can appreciate the feeling of being ‘other’ in traditional spaces like schools. My family still meets every single week for Sunday lunch, and we have a way of discussing the most challenging political issues of the day in a perfect cacophony of raised voices, laughter and argument. We are not quietly taking turns; we are passionately coming to a consensus in another way – in a Caribbean way. Looking round the table, I see a PhD candidate, an Alderwoman, a Trades Union speech writer. We are not uncivilised or uneducated – it just happens that our discussion structure is not what might be considered acceptable to families from other cultures or, more significantly, in a classroom. I often feel that I am standing in the middle of two different worlds, and that my mission has to be reconciling these two sides. Essentially, our ambition must be to enable all students, regardless of background, to be the best academic writers and speakers they can possibly be, but this must be tempered with a mature understanding of our own cultural bias and the way we see our students.

Who owns words? We cannot deny that the conventions and forms that we teach in our classrooms are a valuable currency in later life, but what is given status is also dictated by the dominant culture. In her groundbreaking work on culture in the classroom (‘Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom’, 2006), Lisa Delpit says:

There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a ‘culture of power’ (linguistic forms, communicative strategies, and presentation of self; that is, ways of talking, ways of writing, ways of dressing and ways of interacting.)

The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power.

Delpit is talking about US society here, but the same applies everywhere – the ‘codes’ that our students need to be taught are those that will enable them to succeed in the real world. These codes can include the structure and conventions of a formal letter, an academic essay, a developed response at a job interview, or an exchange with a stranger at a networking event. Our world is filled with conventions that are entirely the domain of a dominant culture – in the UK this is the white middle and upper classes. All the children we teach need to be able to navigate these codes, but we must acknowledge the fact that some children are already ahead of others in this area. My husband and I are raising our son – we are two educated parents with good jobs who have a very firm grasp of these codes and, critically, possess time to invest in teaching them to him. At three years old he chats to himself and explores different vocabulary to describe the jungle he is imagining in his head; it is ‘enormous’, ‘gigantic’, ‘very incredibly huge’. He is playing with the codes – he knows he is rewarded with smiles and praise every time he says something clever, and he will be one of those students who starts primary school with an impressive vocabulary and awareness of sentence structure. Not all children have the same pre-school experience. I used to teach at a 3-18 school where every year we had a number of children starting with us in reception who were non-verbal. Their parents had experienced significant challenges in their own education and were unable to use the ‘codes’ effectively.

In our schools today, we might look around and identify a whole range of students who are less au fait with the ‘codes’ than others. This isn’t about making sweeping generalisations and judgements, it’s about knowing where the challenges are likely to lie, and then making reasoned decisions about student needs based on our knowledge of individuals. These students are most likely those who exist outside of the ‘culture of power’ – the dominant social group: those for whom English is an additional language, or whose parents do not speak English; those who have limited verbal communication at home with adults from a young age; those who are living in poverty; those who have no access to books at home; those who belong to cultural and/or ethnic groups which experience oppression and discrimination. I could go on, but we know the multi-faceted nature of disadvantage and the damaging impact it has on young people and wider society as it persists.

I hear cries from some quarters in education from those who would like to do away with terms like ‘disadvantaged’ in the name of equality. People say, ‘I don’t use labels in my classroom’ or ‘I don’t see disadvantage: I see individuals’. A lot of people feel this way, it seems, but I wonder where this comes from? All teachers are privileged, even if they didn’t start out that way. We must be mindful of the level of privilege we have – our education, jobs, a degree of security, position of power – all of these things make us privileged. We are far more literate and more able to engage with the world around us than the average person. This is privilege, and it can make us feel a sense of guilt. We can often worry that, by calling someone ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘culturally poor’, we are somehow judging them, or buying into the very stereotypes that we see as keeping them down.

All of these concerns are very natural, but we must ask ourselves who we are really trying to protect. A lot of these issues; the judgement, fear of patronising, fear of being called racist or intolerant; these are all about how wefeel, how we are affected by poverty and injustice. It’s easier for us to say, ‘well, I don’t see disadvantage because I’m not judging people’, than it is for us to just deal with the fact that society is unfair, and we happen to be closer to the top of the pyramid than many of our students. The ability to ignore injustice is our privilege. Many of our students and their families can’t ignore it, because they are living it every day. The least we can do is acknowledge it – see it for what it is, call it out, and try our best to deal with it. In a perfect world, we would be able to treat everybody the same way, and there would be no need to recognise differences like this. We don’t live in that world yet. To ignore disadvantage is nonsensical: we can’t start living in a world we haven’t created yet. So, let’s call it out and recognise ‘disadvantage’ and lack of power for what it is. If we see and take ownership of our feelings of discomfort and guilt, we can use these emotions as a spur to action: let your discomfort give you your why.

So, if we are to teach children from all backgrounds to access the codes of power and ensure their success in later life, we must be willing to acknowledge the reality that, for a complex array of reasons, some children are disadvantaged; they sit outside of the ‘culture of power.’ Delpit goes on to say that:

‘If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.’

In other words, explicitly teaching students the rules and conventions of excellent writing and speech, focusing on ambitious knowledge and the rigorous application of skill, will make them more able to engage in the culture of power. Teaching a curriculum that is ambitious and challenging is the best way to achieve social mobility and life-long success for our students.

Navigating the culture of power: the English language

We must seriously acknowledge the fact that, as English teachers, we deal in a dangerous currency with a complex past. I have already said that language can dictate how people engage with society and the extent of control they might have over their own lives. It goes far deeper than this, though. For all its beauty, the English language represents something here and elsewhere in the world that makes me feel uncomfortable.

‘Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’ – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is one of my favourite writers. Here, she explains perfectly the complex cultural challenges of English Language and Literature. We cannot deny that, as a direct result of aggressive expansion of empire and an ingrained sense of British superiority, our language and literature have dominated large parts of the world. Adichie recalls only ever reading white British writers when she was a child in Nigeria. These alien voices were given prominence over the development of Nigerian writers and non-white voices. This is a pattern that has been repeated in many other places worldwide. Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o says:

‘In terms of language, English is very dominant vis-Ã-vis African language. That in itself is a power relationship – between languages and communities – because the English language is a determinant of the ladder to achievement.’

I am not seeking to unpick this mess. It is what it is. On one hand, British literature is a rich, beautiful gift that has been lavished upon the world. On the other hand, it has acted as a bully which has effectively beaten out and squeezed many other viewpoints, languages, forms and traditions.

While we have already discussed Delpit’s theories about the ‘codes’ of power within the English Language, Dr Christopher Emdin writes about other cultures having different ‘codes’ – movements, words and sounds which constitute meaningful communication which is unique to particular ethnic groups around the world. (‘For White Folks who Teach in the Hood, and the rest of y’all, too’, Beacon Press, 2017) When we teach writing and speech in our classrooms, we are largely relying on Western European ideas of what sophisticated expression should look like. Dr Alfonso Del Percio, associate professor in applied linguistics at University College London puts it like this:

‘In our Western Society there is a kind of fundamental assumption that we share. A good person is somebody who is rational, who is able to hide their real emotions. So a good person is one who can display rationality. The problem with this Western view of language is that what counts as ‘rational’ is often the language of the white male elite, and what counts as ‘emotional’ language is that of the working class, of ethnic minorities, and to an extent still today, it’s the language of women. That attitude to language serves the legitimation of inequality in society – inequality between races, between genders and between classes.’ (‘Class Talk’, Radio 4, 2nd March 2020, hosted by Kerry Hudson, produced by Liza Grieg)

We have to be conscious at all times that there are other forms of communication, other ‘codes’ which exist in the world, and that to ignore these or assume that they are lesser than our traditional forms is to perpetuate the myth that the English language is somehow superior to everything else. It is not. It’s great, and it’s what we’re working with, but let’s teach students how to use it as a tool for them rather than as the font of all language. We would never argue that writing an orchestral symphony is the bestand only way to express complex emotion in music – we know that there are a variety of genres and forms that offer opportunities for creative beauty. We would never argue that sculpture is the only way to express humanity in fine art – we know that there is a plethora of other media available to artists, and that all of them have capacity for excellence. In the same vein, if we truly respect writing as a high art form, we must accept that the standard form of the English language is just one of the colours in our paint palette.

Many of us teach students who have their own cultural stories, forms of communication, systems for debate and discussion which do not necessarily correlate with what is ‘the norm’ in Britain, but which are deserving of our respect and interest. English teachers, therefore, must walk a fine line. In order to ensure the success of our students, we must teach traditional ‘Western’ forms and genre conventions really, really well, but we must also acknowledge the wider potential of the written word beyond these forms. People have done things differently (and sometimes better) elsewhere in the world, and perhaps we should seek those out.

We are also seeing interesting shifts in language and power because people are rapidly changing what ‘the norm’ is. In our constantly evolving world, our most effective modes of conversation are dependent on online platforms constantly in flux, where the traditional gatekeepers of publication no longer hold sway. A person no longer has to submit an article to an editor of a broadsheet to write about politics. It might, therefore, be sensible for us to look at the conventions of blogging and ‘threads’ on social media (or whatever other innovations have popped up since this sentence went to print!) because these are increasingly the medium of choice for those trying to express opinions, and these have potentially massive audiences.

What should teachers be doing to navigate these issues?

  • Teach the knowledge and skill students need to be ‘exam ready’ – whatever that means.
  • Teach the knowledge and skill students need to exist, write and succeed in the real world.
  • Explicitly teach the ‘codes’ which some students do not possess – teach these in an effective, direct manner.
  • Strive to be evidence-informed and think critically about what you are doing, what you are asked to do, and why.
  • Be honest with yourself about your students and your attitudes to them. You bring expertise and knowledge to the classroom which is of enormous value, but they bring their own understanding, skill and cultural heritage, too. Listen to them.
  • Be a snob about the right things: hold the great canonical writers in high regard, but be ready to welcome other writers and voices into your classroom – if they offer textual complexity, high levels of challenge and artistry, they, too, have a place on the curriculum.
  • Strive to change the narrative about what and who a ‘writer’ is, what a ‘hero’ or ‘protagonist’ is and who can have opinions about the great issues of our time. Representation is not so much about students seeing themselves represented in texts, but more about showing readers that other kinds of people can alsobe the heroes, the thinkers and the writers.
  • Acknowledge your own privilege. Allow yourself to think about it and understand that, for some of your students, the classroom is not necessarily a space where they feel a sense of belonging. The content you are teaching them might feel distant from their own experiences.

A thoughtful, reflective teacher who has high standards and ambitions for all their students can change the way such students engage with education and the world around them.

This is an extract from ‘Teach Like a Writer’ (2020). Find more information and all the resources from the book for free here.

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