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Banned words and racism in schools

Continued use of ‘standard English’ in schools is a key means of upholding racial inequality. Furzeen Ahmed and Ian Cushing take a look at the history of banned words and racism in schools.

4 to 5 minute read

Pimlico Academy, where students protested racist and discriminatory policies in March 2021. Credit: ClemRutter

In September 2021, a school in South London attracted media attention for its prohibitive policy on spoken language, which targeted a number of linguistic features typically associated with the speech patterns of Black Caribbean communities.

The policy, entitled ‘Banned Words and Phrases’, instructed students (and by extension, teachers) that ‘these expressions must not be used’ – listing items such as ‘oh my days’, ‘that’s long’, ‘bare’, ‘cuss’ and ‘he cut his eyes at me’. Whilst some coverage was critical, discussions largely missed how such policies are institutionally racist.

Whilst we are critical of the school, our critique is much broader – directed toward a sociopolitical structure which has long informed linguistic racism in the UK. In the centre of this structure is so-called ‘standard English’ – a socially constructed version of the language based on the speech patterns of white middle class communities, which have consistently been heard and perceived as the most ‘standard’, ‘correct’, and ‘aspirational’.

As such, prohibitive school language policies do nothing for ‘social mobility’, ‘levelling up’, or ‘integration’ (all often used to justify them). Rather, they simply uphold existing systems of racial inequality in demanding that racialised speakers modify their way of using language towards standards set by white speakers and listeners.

Racist roots

‘Standard English’ has long been described as a tool of colonial governance and domination, critiqued by black writers such as bell hooks, Frantz Fanon and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o as an instrument of oppression which is used to maintain power structures and systems of white supremacy. Framed this way, school policies which champion ‘standard English’ as the language of access and opportunity (whilst ‘banning’ non standardised and racialised forms of English) can be seen as traces of the ongoing legacies of colonial linguistic categorisation.

Such policies sorted populations into those deemed to be ‘fully human’ and civilised (i.e. those that speak ‘standard English’) and those deemed to be ‘less than human’ and uncivilised (i.e. those that speak ‘nonstandard English’). For instance, as multiple items in the Runaway Slaves in Britain archive at the University of Glasgow reveal, ‘nonstandard English’ and the general ‘quality’ of an individual’s speech was often listed as a means of identifying runaway slaves (through phrases such as ‘speaketh English very plain’, from 1712, and ‘speaks rather broken English’ from 1770).

State-level education policy in England has a track record of whitewashing and denigrating the language of racialised speakers – such as the 1985 Swann Report commissioned to investigate the underachievement of African Caribbean children in schools.

The Swann Report promoted a monolingual ideology, framing English as the ‘unifying factor in “being British” […]’, and ‘the key to participation on equal terms as a full member of this society’. These same discourses of citizenship, language, nationhood and academic success are found throughout education policy today. For example, in the 2014 curriculum, ‘standard English’ is heavily emphasised, where the criteria for becoming a competent communicator includes the ability to articulate ‘fluently’, ‘confidently’, and have a ‘command’ of the language.

These ideologies are also represented in media coverage of ethnic minority communities, determining their ‘failure’ to assimilate in Western society by their perceived inability to speak English ‘properly’. They are ostracised and stigmatised, deemed ‘lazy’ and accused of segregation if they ‘fail’ to meet these standards.

Such policy patterns highlight how the imposition of ‘standard English’, disregarding the diverse use of language in a plurilingual society as inadequate and ‘incorrect’, is racially motivated. Such notions of linguistic and racial deficiency in an educational context are exposed in Bernard Coard’s 1971 book, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System. Coard examined the disproportionately high enrolment of African Caribbean children in schools for the ‘sub-normal’ and the subsequent impact on their educational and socio-economic opportunities. Coard exposed how racist perceptions of language played a key role in this segregation, with African Caribbean children often perceived as a ‘problem’ due to their speech being a ‘handicap’, ‘second rate’ and ‘wrong’. Such policies set these children up for failure from the outset, leading to their being racially profiled as ‘difficult’, unteachable, and ‘mentally subnormal’.

Challenging white supremacy

And the damage does not stop there. Students and teachers who have had to endure the demoralising policing of their non-standardised speech are all too familiar with the impacts of an education system built on the maintenance of white supremacy. From ‘losing’ a part of their multilingual identities, to feeling isolated within the school context and beyond, students have shared their experiences of suffering psychological and emotional damage as a result of this subjugation. Language policies geared around censorship and policing only contribute to this system, as a form of linguistic violence used to suppress and destruct students’ multifaceted use of Englishes.

If ‘standard English’ is to be taught in schools, it must be taught in a way which explicitly recognises its roots as a bid to uphold white supremacy. Children and teachers need to understand the role that language plays in creating and maintaining racial hierarchies, and only a critical, socio-political understanding of ‘standard English’ can do that. Finally, school policies must shift attention away from the stigmatised language of racialised speakers, and towards the listening practices of teachers, urging them to question dominant attitudes to non-standard English. Rather than asking racialised students to modify the way they speak, how about we ask teachers to modify the way they listen?

Dr Furzeen Ahmed is an Associate Lecturer in English Language at the University of Derby and Dr Ian Cushing is a Lecturer in Education at Brunel University London

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