The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

JFMC teach-in: Race and Language

5 min read
An orange flyer advertises a social justice teach-in called "Race and Language."

UMW student Layla Barnes, a junior English: creative writing major in the secondary education program, led a James Farmer Multicultural Center social justice teach-in on race and language. | Photo courtesy of Layla Barnes


Editor-in-Chief & Staff Writer

On the evening of Thursday, Jan. 26, junior Layla Barnes asked those in Chandler Ballroom to close their eyes, think back to when they were young and raise their hand if the following situation ever happened to them.

“You are very young, probably early elementary school, usually somewhere between first and third grade, and you need nothing more than to desperately go to the bathroom,” she said. “You most likely say something along the lines of, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’” 

“Your teacher might not just respond with yes,” she continued. “But you might have had a teacher that says, ‘I don’t know, can you?’ Or maybe you have a teacher that says, ‘Do you mean may I go to the bathroom?’ and insists on correcting you.” 

Many audience members raised their hands. 

That was the beginning of the James Farmer Multicultural Center’s “Race and Language,” a social justice teach-in about standardized English and institutionalized racism, led by Barnes, an English: creative writing major in the secondary education program studying to be an English teacher. 

Throughout the teach-in, audience members engaged in a critical dialogue about language and race in the education system. Those in attendance answered discussion questions with the people at their table, and Barnes led the conversation, interweaving research on standardized English that she has studied since her freshman year at UMW. 

“Standardized English is the English that we claim to teach in schools,” she said. “It is what we say that we are teaching when we are enforcing correct grammar, when your teachers are telling you to say, ‘May I go to the bathroom?’ It is understood as the most widely and universally accepted form of English, and it becomes the privileged way of speaking.” 

Though many think of standardized English as rule-based and invariable, Barnes said, that is not the case. 

“We envision standardized English as somehow without variation, as uniform, as standard, but all spoken languages are variable at every level,” she said. “The only languages that are truly standardized, that are no longer changing, that are no longer varying, are dead languages. But if we have a language that is living, that is still in use, it will, by definition, continue to change and resist standardization.”

Therefore, Barnes said, standardized English is no more than a myth. Instead, it is an abstract concept referring to the language of the educated, which, in American history, consists of mostly the white middle class. 

“Standardized English is this imagined idea of the language of the privileged, and it becomes this abstraction that we use as a gateway,” she said.

The students “incorrectly” asking to go to the bathroom was an example of correctness versus effective communication. 

“They have these ideas of grammar, correctness, education. But ultimately, that’s not necessary for understanding,” said Barnes. “It is different to be grammatically correct, as your teacher wanted you to be, according to some arbitrary rules, versus to have actual effective communication, which is when we are both mutually understood.” 

When educators correct phrases like these, Barnes said, this reinforces that standard English is superior. Minoritized variations—those that belong to historically marginalized communities—are consequently seen as inferior.

“We have a couple common myths that seem to attach themselves to most if not all minoritized dialects of English,” she said. “You’ll often hear them referred to as slang or vernacular or even street English. So the idea that they are not really a dialect or an ordered language system with their own grammatical systems, but they’re just ignorance—they’re just a failure to learn standardized English. … And these are all unequivocally amiss—none of these things are actually true.”

Barnes then closely examined African American Vernacular English to illustrate the inaccuracy of these myths. 

“Unlike these common myths, it is a sophisticated and rule-based language system,” she said. “There is a correct and an incorrect way to speak in African American Vernacular English. It is not a simple incorporation of slang or a failure to learn.”

Many students in attendance heard about the event from their professors.

“I was already pretty familiar with the topic because I’m in sociology, but I learned about how deep the information goes,” said freshman Alex Pineda-Bautisa. “It may seem like a surface-level issue but there’s actually more to it, especially involved systemically, than what we think.”

Katy Field, a freshman elementary education major who also attended the teach-in, said she learned valuable information that she will employ in her future classroom.

“I have learned that language is deeply tied to our culture and our identity, and that our languages deserve recognition and validation,” she said. “I hope to use everything I learned in my classroom when I become a teacher to make each of my students feel safe and appreciated.”

Barnes’s research started as an assignment for ENGL 480: The Peer Tutoring of Writing, the class that trains writing consultants for UMW’s Speaking and Writing Center. 

“I set out thinking I was going to research how we could better help students who speak English as a second language and how we could help students who came into college lacking fundamental writing skills,” Barnes said after the teach-in. “I stumbled on this issue of race and language in the Writing Center almost by mistake, and the course of my paper completely shifted. What was supposed to be a two-page paper turned into seven.”

Every semester, Barnes now presents to the training class about the myth of standardized English in higher education and the role tutors play in furthering that relationship. When working with students whose writing does not adhere to standardized English, consultants must decide to either suggest changes to the writing—which would likely improve the students’ grades—or leave it be and risk students’ grades suffering for “incorrect” grammar.

“I really began to realize that there was no satisfactory solution we could achieve from within the center—we were stuck in the impossible balancing act that I described in my presentation,” she said. “And to make a real change we had to reach the people who had the power to evaluate and enforce language.”

Looking ahead, Barnes will be sending out a survey to the campus community to learn more about their experiences with language and race. With the aim of getting more students involved in the project, she is also working with the Office of Student Activities and Engagement to create a club.

“I ultimately want to privilege the lived experiences of students of color who actually deal with this issue over my own perspective,” she said. “That’s something I’ve been really conscious of throughout this whole process, trying to avoid positioning myself in the role of the ‘white savior’ swooping in with all the answers or speaking over people of color about what’s best for them.” 

Barnes’s ultimate goal is to organize a larger conference on the topic.

“There are a lot of different things on the horizon right now, and I’m certainly not done,” she said. “The biggest challenge, honestly, is balancing all of that with just being a student.”