Unmasking the Linguistic Policing of Black and Brown Children in Today’s Schools: A Call to Action

Written By Pamela Jones

Make no mistake: Black and Brown students are “stopped and frisked” relentlessly in schools for their linguistic and cultural identities.1 It is not hyperbole to assert that they are under linguistic surveillance. Many well-intentioned teachers in today’s schools enact pedagogies that dishonor Black and Brown students’ heritage languages, and I attribute this to an unflagging allegiance to a myth that seeks to “protect English from its speakers.”2 Some teachers engage routinely in overcorrection of students’ language and others go so far as to generate banned words’ lists. When I ask teachers to challenge the arbitrary primacy of Standard English, some of them often respond quickly by saying, “But I have to make sure my students are prepared for the world outside of school, a world where they will be expected to present themselves in a professional way.” While I have no doubt that the vast majority of these teachers would reject any notion that they are complicit in linguistic policing of their students, this is precisely what is happening. I believe that teacher education programs should expose their in-service and pre-service teachers to the history of linguistic policing so that they realize these policies do not exist in isolation but, rather, are rooted within larger socio-historical and political contexts.

If we accept that mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow,3 then we must also accept that linguistic policing is an outgrowth of a deeply troubling history of policing of Black and Brown students in schools. The criminalization of Black and Brown students was made all the more possible when school personnel were granted the “authority to identify students as ‘pre-delinquent,’” and I posit that linguistic policing is yet another vehicle for invoking and assigning the pre-delinquent label.4 I contend that linguistic policing has been subsumed under zero-tolerance policies in schools as a “behavior considered school disruption”5 and is made more readily accessible to teachers and administrators as a surveillance and enforcement tactic. While the ACLU didn’t name it as such in their white paper titled “Bullies in Blue: Origins and Consequences of School Policing,” they indicated clearly that school personnel have been given increased license to address “perceived rowdiness and disorder through arrests and surveillance of schoolchildren.”6 The term “rowdiness and disorder” opens the door to subjecting students to broader scrutiny and it also serves as precursor for a higher level of linguistic surveillance that is a world apart from episodic monitoring.

Take a moment to consider what it means to be under constant linguistic surveillance. Surveillance, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “supervision for the purpose of direction or control,”7 means there is a concerted effort afoot. Entire infrastructures and personnel exist to manage this system, and the goal is to render the invisible visible and “catch” children deploying language varieties that run counter to a sanctioned standard. Linguistic surveillance is panoptic by design, reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s writings in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. There is rarely a single spot that is not within view of the powers that be, which means that classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms, recreational spaces, and even bathrooms become unsafe. There’s nowhere to hide from policies and personnel waiting to pounce on the briefest utterance that runs counter to a supposed standard. With this history in mind, teachers would benefit from tangible action steps to help them shift in thought and action.

Language use signals cultural affiliation and is “inherently tied to identity.”8 As Black and Brown students shift between languages, they often internalize their teachers’ language attitudes. If these attitudes are negative, students can develop negative self-concepts and begin privileging the standard. If, for example, your student’s journal entry reflects dominant and non-dominant varieties of English, how would you respond when giving feedback? Whatever your answer, the inescapable truth is that your response will leave an indelible imprint. It is for this reason that I implore teachers to reject Standard Language Ideology,9 with the full knowledge that doing so will require a seismic shift in attitudes, thoughts, and actions. Taking action has the potential to stem the tide of this systematic oppression. Four steps I recommend for those ready to accept the challenge include:

  1. Start with the self. The first and best step to take is to grow your racial literacy10 by examining your own thoughts about race writ large (and language attitudes and biases, more specifically). Ask yourself, “Do I privilege Standard English at the expense of my students’ language varieties?” If the answer is “yes,” you are not alone but you have work to do, as do we all. Embark on documenting your own racial autobiography by asking yourself questions about your earliest experiences around race and language.11 Digging deeply into the what, how, and when of your thoughts about language and race in your own history will help you engage in this process with greater insight and honesty. With due diligence, you’ll gain clarity about the languages you privilege and any biases you may hold.
  2. Upend linguistic hierarchies in your classrooms. Let’s say you answered “yes” to the question about whether or not you privilege Standard English over other language varieties. If this is the case, your task is two-fold: (a) acknowledge that you uphold a linguistic hierarchy in your classroom and (b) upend this hierarchy, one rung at a time. How do you do this? By engaging in critical conversations with your students and shifting your pedagogical approach.
  3. Facilitate critical conversations about the interaction among race, language and power. Dismantling linguistic hierarchies requires a methodical approach and a critical mindset. Aim for transparency in this process and engage your students in conversations about the dynamic that exists among language, race, and power; in so doing, “students can develop the critical ability needed to make sound linguistic choices related to their own empowerment and not simply the maintenance of someone else’s power.”12 Highlighting the systemic nature of language biases mitigates students’ tendency to locate blame and deficiency within themselves.
  4. Adopt culturally sustaining pedagogies. Begin to integrate culturally sustaining pedagogies into your practice, which Paris defines as an alternative pedagogy that sustains students’ “cultural and linguistic competence while also offering access to dominant cultural competence.”13 One such pedagogy is code-meshing, which encourages “students to exploit and blend differences”14 in grammar, pragmatics, and semantics.15

I applaud practitioners who take up the charge to unmask and dismantle linguistic policing in their classrooms and schools. This unmasking is tantamount to what Baldwin would most likely call an act of love for your students because you are removing lenses to which you’ve grown accustomed to wearing and ones you have long believed you could not “live without.”16 Our Black and Brown students need us to show up as racially literate, interpersonally attuned, and advocacy-minded educators. With the goal of justice-filled educational experiences as our guide, nothing short of this call to action will do.


  1. Erickson, 2004, as cited in Rueda, 2012, p. 99.
  2. Lippi-Green, 1997, p. 55.
  3. Alexander, 2012.
  4. American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], 2017, p. 5.
  5. Ibid, p. 7.
  6. Ibid, p. 9.
  7. Surveillance, n.d.
  8. Young, 2014, p. 3.
  9. Lippi-Green, 1997.
  10. Stevenson, 2014.
  11. DiAngelo, 2016.
  12. Kirkland & Jackson, 2009, p. 147.
  13. Paris, 2012, p. 95.
  14. Barrett, 2014, p. 43.
  15. Canagarajah, 2009, 2011a; Young, 2009, as cited in Barrett.
  16. Baldwin, 1963, p. 109.


American Civil Liberties Union. (2017). Bullies in blue: The origins and consequences of school policing. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/report/bullies-blue-origins-and-consequences-school-policing

Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1963). The fire next time. New York: Dial Press.

Barrett, R. (2014). Be yourself somewhere else: What’s wrong with keeping undervalued English out of the classroom? In V.A. Young, R. Barrett, Y. Young-Rivera, & K. B. Lovejoy, Other people’s English: Code-meshing, code-switching, and African American literacy (pp. 33-52). New York: Teachers College Press.

DiAngelo, R. (2016). What does it mean to be White? Developing White racial literacy. New York: Peter Lang, Inc.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Kirkland, D. & Jackson, A. (2009). Beyond the Silence: Instructional Approaches and Students’ Attitudes. In J. Scott, D. Straker, and L. Katz (2009), Affirming Students’ Right to Their Own Language: Bridging Language Policies and Pedagogical Practices (pp. 132-150).

Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an accent. New York: Routledge Publishers.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.

Rueda, R. (2012). Cultural perspectives in reading: Theory and research. In M. Kamil, P. David Pearson, E. Moje, & P. Afflerbach, Handbook of Reading Research, Volume IV (pp. 84-103). New York: Routledge.

Stevenson, H (2014). Promoting racial literacy in schools: Differences that make a difference. New York: Teachers College Press.

Surveillance. (n.d.). In OED Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/195083?redirectedFrom=surveillance

Young, V.A. (2014). Introduction: Are you a part of the conversation? In V.A. Young, R.Barrett, Y. Young-Rivera, & K. B. Lovejoy, Other people’s English: Code-meshing, code-switching, and African American literacy (pp. 1-11). New York: Teachers College Press.