Megan Figueroa: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast. The podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: And I’m Megan Figueroa and happy belated birthday, Carrie.
Carrie Gillon: oh yeah. Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, remember that? I know it’s like-
Carrie Gillon: barely. How many things have happened between last week and this week?
Megan Figueroa: It wasn’t even seven days yet. Hasn’t it been like five days since your birthday? wait. No, it has been a week. Oh my god, time –
Carrie Gillon: Nope. Five days is right. That’s exactly right. yeah. And we lost one of the Supreme court justices.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. We’re almost at 200,000 deaths in the US for COVID
Carrie Gillon: I’m pretty sure we’re over already
Megan Figueroa: we’re over. Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: regardless of what the official number is, I’m certain that there are at least some that haven’t been counted yet
Megan Figueroa: absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: Cause it takes a long time to actually make sure that the death is really a COVID death. And then, you know, it’s, it’s a complicated process. And by the time we hear the numbers, it’s a long time ago.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. It’s like when we see a star, we realize how long ago the light was from.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. that reminds me. So, one thing that was kind of exciting over the last week that was that there was this dwarf star and a planet and the planet is like 10 times the size of the star or something. And it’s really strange, but it kind of makes sense because dwarf stars are collapsed stars
Megan Figueroa: right.
Carrie Gillon: so they are much smaller. But that was kind of a fun piece of news
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yes. Astronomy is still awesome. It still makes me wonder, there’s still more to learn and more to see. I don’t know. Maybe there’s some hope in astronomy,
Carrie Gillon: it feels apolitical even though like nothing literally is, but you know, it just feels like it’s outside of this political moment we’re in. And also the reason why I bring it up is that it’s 80 light years away. So that means it happened eighty years ago, what we’re seeing.
Megan Figueroa: No. It’s like one of the things I remember from astronomy class is like what you’re seeing is not what’s happening right now.
Carrie Gillon: Which is mindbending. I love it.
Megan Figueroa: It’s chilling. It’s chilling. yeah. No, it’s, it’s hard to get on the microphone. Get on the microphone. it’s hard to get on the mic and talk about things. When I feel like the world is collapsing around me, But we get up. I’m upright here I am. a lot of bad things have happened since you had a birthday and even more bad things have happened since I had a birthday in July. It just keeps on piling up.
Carrie Gillon: it is piling up.
Megan Figueroa: Well, some not, I, I wouldn’t call it fun, news, but you know, I’m pretty excited about it. We have a webinar coming up. And here’s my favorite part. Before I tell you what it’s about, everyone in it was a previous guest on the show.
Carrie Gillon: That is so true. It’s hilarious. Although that’s partially because, the person organizing it, was a guest. And then when she asked for suggestions, I suggested two of our former guests.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. I mean, yeah. I always suggest them. I hope that they’ll say no when they need to say no to things, but anyway.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I obviously was just hoping they would do it. I wasn’t expecting them to, but so October 16th, the LSA is hosting a webinar on being a linguist on social media.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. And it’s going to be very Twitter-centric. So you know, talking about linguist Twitter. but it’ll be with us and Drs. Nicole Holliday and Betsy Sneller and PhD candidate Kelly Wright. And Betsy is the one who’s organizing it. And it’s very exciting. just, you know, come for us, we’re enough of a draw, right? All five of us that’s. I mean, who knows, who knows what you’re going to learn something, you will.
Carrie Gillon: A power quintuplet
Megan Figueroa: Yes Exactly. So that’s really fun. I’m really excited about that. with all the work I’m doing or whatever, it’s like, Oh, To work on this. It feels like a bright spot. So October 16th. We’ll post a link to that. speaking of linguist Twitter, we don’t want to say much about what’s happening on linguist Twitter right now, besides to say that perhaps Gritty could do two jobs and one of them could be to be the face of linguistics. Now.
Carrie Gillon: wow. Would I love it for Gritty to be the linguistics mascot. I mean, it’s still, you know, American-centric
Megan Figueroa: it is
Carrie Gillon: and sports-centric, but he’s just so great.
Megan Figueroa: Orange-centric, he’s so great. He’s not divisive. Maybe he not divisive
Carrie Gillon: I’m sure there’s some people who do not like him, but they’re probably Nazis
Megan Figueroa: exactly. Literally. maybe linguistics doesn’t need a mascot. I’ve never been about team sports, so I don’t understand the appeal of a mascot anyway.
Carrie Gillon: I feel like even at the best of times I would be like, really? Can
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, I’m just. I don’t know. I could draw something in 2 seconds that we could use if we want. I’m thinking about how not intricate the wug is and how simple it is and it’s like. You know, I don’t know. It’s all so bizarre to me
Carrie Gillon: Chris was trying to convince me to come up with a wug replacement
Megan Figueroa: so he could do it so he could draw it.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, Right. like any one, any one of us could draw it. Cause you’re right. It’s really simple. Right. But he was just trying to convince me to do it. And I’m like, I’m like, uuuuummmmm, do I just like replace it with a word that is very similar, but
Megan Figueroa: right. But then, but
Carrie Gillon: still be English-centric
Megan Figueroa: English-centric. yeah. Germanic-centric. The phonotactics don’t work in other languages. The sound sequences. Yeah. Or maybe, maybe it would just be an image. Maybe it would not have a name. Can a mascot not have a name?
Carrie Gillon: No and also doesn’t that feel very anti language
Megan Figueroa: Oh, right language That’s what we’re talking about
Carrie Gillon: I mean, it could have a sign, but the sign would still be associated with something.
Megan Figueroa: That’s how bizarre I think it is to have a mascot. It’s I’m just like, well, it’s just not, it doesn’t be a name because it linguistics doesn’t need a mascot anyway. So it’s so bizarre that, yeah, I don’t know, but yes, I guess there has to be some sort of language.
Carrie Gillon: Does physics have a mascot? Like do other fields have mascots?
Megan Figueroa: I don’t think so.
Carrie Gillon: Right. And I mean, partially it was just because that’s what people adopted and I don’t want to shit on people for adopting what they
Megan Figueroa: no, no, of course not. It’s it’s, you know, for adopting it cause it’s cute. Cause it’s really cool. And you know, we still use the pedagogy today. we can use it in different languages and you know, in different modalities too. you just have to change the word and yeah, absolutely.
Maybe a year ago, if you would’ve asked me, I would have been like, yeah, of course the wug is our mascot, but no I wouldn’t have, I know I’ve tried it. Look at me trying to backpedal about the wug. that’s how controversial it is right now. It’s so hard to say anything. This might have our, all of our, like a hundred episodes.
I don’t know how many we’re on this might be the most controversial intro ever. Yeah, well, here’s our advice. Stay away from linguist Twitter right now until this calms down.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, I have felt that for the last day or two no one’s talking about it.
Megan Figueroa: Well it’s because justice Ginsburg died. It’s like, I feel like no one really cares about the wug now. it’s hard to care.
Carrie Gillon: move on Onto something more interesting. more important.
Megan Figueroa: Even even maybe uplifting that might be nice for a change.
Carrie Gillon: Uplifting linguistic stories would be good. Feel free to send us any.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Please share with us anything that feels uplifting related to language. I’m excited though about today’s episode because. This person has been a friend of the pod forever, and I’m glad that we were able to speak to him finally, about his work.
Carrie Gillon: It’s a good conversation
Megan Figueroa: It’s a good conversation and a necessary conversation. I always say this, but it’s like, it would have been necessary yesterday, 10 years ago, tomorrow. So, you know, it was good to talk to him about this. So hope you enjoy.
Megan Figueroa: Today, we’re very excited to have JPB Gerald who is an adult educator and EdD student at CUNY, Hunter College pursing a degree in structural leadership. His scholarship focuses on the intersection between language, teaching, race, and whiteness. He’s also the host of the podcast Unstandardized English and, I dare say, a friend of the pod! Thank you so much for being here with us.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, thank you.
JPB Gerald: Thank you for having me on here. This is like a meeting your heroes situation.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, no! Don’t! [Laughs]
JPB Gerald: I started my podcast after listening to yours for a while and also, as I tell this story on my podcast, because my wife just kept hearing me talk and said, “You know, Justin, you should just have a podcast, too.”
Megan Figueroa: Yes! It was the way that she was like, “You know, I love everything you say and love to hear from you but maybe other people wanna hear.”
JPB Gerald: That’s the way I choose to take it.
Carrie Gillon: Speaking of, tell us about your podcast. What’s it about?
JPB Gerald: So, originally, I had this very specific and narrow goal which was I was gonna take a word or a phrase, or a few words or phrases, and I was gonna talk about words that seemed race neutral – I know nothing is, but to people seemed race neutral – and talk about how they weren’t and how we should think about how we use these words. The first episode was about the word “expat” and how, what is really the difference between “expat” and “immigrant,” right. What’s really the difference when you think about it? I talked about that with a friend in the first episode.
Megan Figueroa: Is the answer whiteness?
JPB Gerald: Yeah, I mean, basically. Then the thing about it is, as you mentioned, the more I started talking about this stuff, the more I sort of got, let’s just say, distracted and slowed it off into race and whiteness. So, it’s not just about language, but because I’m still a language teacher at heart, it’s still all tied to language in some way, although not quite as much in the discourse analysis linguistics side as some folks that you’ve all had on the show. Because I’m a language teacher more than anything else, it still comes back to language in some way every time.
Megan Figueroa: Why did you name your podcast “Unstandardized English”?
JPB Gerald: I was going through a bunch of ideas for what to call it because, I don’t know, I think I’m still 11 years old in a lot of ways because I always come up with the title of things before – I’m like, “Good title! Now let me write that.”
Megan Figueroa: Yes!
JPB Gerald: The title’s important.
Megan Figueroa: I have a name for a band, and I don’t have any talent. You know, it’s that kind of thing.
JPB Gerald: I used to make up movies when I was a kid and who was gonna star in them. I wouldn’t write the movies. I just imaged the credit sequence. [Laughter] I’m not joking. That’s not a joke. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: You had, like, the soundtrack listings. You’re like, “I know exactly the songs.”
JPB Gerald: Yeah, I would be like, “To our editors,” and I would write up the – anyway.
Carrie Gillon: Wow! Okay, wow. [Laughs]
JPB Gerald: I still – not that anyone’s going to the movies right now – but I still would sit and watch the credits just to see the order of the way that they – I still do this now. Anyway, I was coming up with ideas, and I was thinking, “What do we even call this language that we use?” I was going back and forth, “Do I call it ‘Dominant English’? Are we calling it ‘American’” – you know, what should we call it?
And then I got around to “standardized” because, I mean, I’m sure you all know this, but just calling it “Standard” just takes out the fact that people made these decisions and imposed them upon people for using the language. And so if that was “standardized,” I said, “What if it was ‘unstandardized’?” That’s how it came about. I said, “I’m gonna try and fight against the decisions that the dominant groups made in putting the language together.”
Megan Figueroa: Is there a particular reason why right now is a good time for your podcast to be out there?
JPB Gerald: The summer of 2019, before I started the podcast – because it started at the end of last summer – I started working on an article that got published later, I wrote that summer, and that article was about altruism, which we’ll talk about a little bit. And as I was going through that, I realized that there is now, of course – I mean, you’ve had Dr. Flores and Dr. Rosa on the show – there is now a fair amount of discussion aligning race and language and language teaching. I don’t mean to say that that is finished, but in talking about these things with people, they still were externalizing all of the issues. Like, “You know, that’s a problem, this racism.” And I’m like, “Yes.” And they’re like, “Yes, all those racists over there. That’s a problem.” And I’m like, “Okay, but wait a second.”
And people really never wanted to think about possibly being complicit in it. People also got really, really uncomfortable if I even said the word “white.” I wasn’t even really talking about it at the time. It’s just mentioned talking about established frameworks like with privilege and so on and so forth. Every time I got to the third rail, which is the New York subway way to say something just really popping off, people got deeply in their feelings. And I said, “Okay.”
Then in one of those sad accidents of history, I had a second article published. I wrote it in January of 2020, so it had nothing to do with any of the stuff that was gonna happen, and then it got published at the end of May. That article was more specifically about de-centering whiteness in English language teaching. We all know what was happening at the end of May. All of a sudden, everybody really wanted to talk to me about it.
Having decided as a means of trying to stay stable in New York in March and April to record a blistering number of podcast episodes consecutively, I think I had 12 weeks in a row where I had an episode. When I ran out of energy, which I did eventually, in June, I took the summer off, saying I’m gonna come back and I’m going to make the show better and so forth. Now, we’re starting up. By the time this comes out, we’ll be towards the beginning of the second season. And there’s a lot of things happening related to whiteness that people have wanted to talk about. I think right now, if I could toot my own horn, which I have been asked to do, is a good time to check in on it. You can look at the back episodes when I’m not sure what I’m doing.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. We will share links to your podcast and all of that. But let’s shift gears a little bit so we can talk about your scholarship and your teaching.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Why do you think that people are getting so up in their feelings about even just the word “white,” even it just being mentioned? What’s going on there?
JPB Gerald: One of the articles that I – not that I wrote – but that I found really useful by Bree Picower was talking about how white teachers, when they’re confronted with whiteness – it’s mostly talking about teachers, but it’s not just teachers – will often fall back on, like, and ethnicity so that they don’t have to identify with whiteness. They’ll say, “Oh, well, I’m Italian.” “Well, I’m Irish.” I’m not picking on those things, they’re just places. I think because the people who have made a point of identifying as white have usually been very scary. People are just like, “I’m a white person,” and you’re like, “Whoa, okay now.”
Which so, if I were white, I would understand why I wouldn’t wanna be talking – making a lot of noise about being white. But the problem is, they’re still white. You can’t – I don’t know if I saw this image a few months ago of people trying to renounce their white privilege in Los Angeles or something like that. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Oh, god, yes. I saw that.
JPB Gerald: You can’t do that. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t pull a Rachel Dolezal. I think a lot of it, to give it a charitable spin, is that a lot of people are just deeply uncomfortable with what it means to be white because even if they don’t feel complicit in a lot of the stuff that’s been always going on, they think that by saying out loud, “Yeah, I’m white,” it means that they’ll be tagged with guilt and tagged with an anchor of all of the stuff that’s happening.
That is a necessary first stage to deal with. Then the problem is that to get stuck there is really where we end up. Because these are people who, again, to be charitable, are often well meaning and kind in their hearts, but they don’t wanna feel like the bad guy or the bad lady – I don’t know what the opposite of bad guy is.
Megan Figueroa: What I’ve noticed too is that white people are getting uncomfortable with other white people calling them “white.” I think that’s new – a little bit new. Like, they’ve always been uncomfortable with non-white people calling them “white,” I think, but now it’s like, I don’t know, there’s this whole thing with, just like what you said, what’s happening that it’s even crossed over to in-group uncomfortable feelings. And it’s good though. Other white people should be calling out other white people for all this kind of stuff. Maybe that’s why it’s kind of new too is because white people haven’t been doing this work before and calling it out.
JPB Gerald: They don’t have the muscles built up, to use sort of – you know. They start running and they’re like, “Ah, I’m tired.” We have been doing this for hundreds of years. You’re gonna have to keep going. I’m sorry. And the fact that they’re now getting it from all sides – like where other white people who have done a little bit more of the work are calling them out for it – it’s easy enough to just ignore us. It’s easy enough to just, “Well, the black people are complaining about racism, so we don’t need to pay attention to them,” but it’s more difficult when your friend or your colleague or your relative is like, “You know, you really shouldn’t be doing that.” It’s like, “I thought this was a safe space for me where I could just be white and not think about it.”
Megan Figueroa: Exactly! Like, “I thought we didn’t talk about being white. It’s just the default. So, why are we bringing it up?”
JPB Gerald: Speaking of well meaning people, because I don’t – although the people who are not well meaning are very loud and all over the news, it’s still mostly people who are well meaning and are just heading in the wrong direction, I think, most of the time. Maybe I’m just a Pollyanna about it. But I remember calling somebody out for something and mentioning that she was white and her saying, “What does my race have to do with it?” [Carrie sighs] I just didn’t respond after that. You have to modulate yourself and decide if you’re going to continue to engage once –
Megan Figueroa: Sure.
JPB Gerald: Yeah. And that was just a whole thing. But now I wouldn’t have modulated. I would’ve just kept going.
Carrie Gillon: Right. Yeah, no, we all have to learn when to push and when to not, and we should be pushing more than we have been probably.
Megan Figueroa: Especially white people.
Carrie Gillon: Especially white people, yes. But yeah, I think you’re right to target people who do mostly mean well because what are we gonna do with the absolute, complete white supremacists? Not a whole lot. We’re talking deprogramming on a different level. I don’t know about you, but I do not feel up to that task at all. Worming my way into well meaning people’s brains and helping them get a little bit better, I feel more comfortable in that zone.
JPB Gerald: Yeah, I don’t really know what to do about them. The thing is, there’s always gonna be a few people like that, so I’m not saying I’m not concerned about them. You can’t even really have a conversation with them. What’s the purpose? And I don’t mean when I say “conversation” that you’re going to resolve the issues with whiteness just by talking. When I say that – because some people are like, “Oh, he said ‘conversation.’” No, that’s not what I’m saying. Because there’re some people – “Well, we’ll just debate.” And it’s just like, “No, no.” But I do think that you do have to speak to people in some way or engage with them in some way. If they basically reject the premise that you’re a human, well then – [clap].
Carrie Gillon: There’s no point.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. How you gonna get anywhere with them, for sure.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, that’s how I feel about it. I’m still white, but I’m a woman. Some of these people, the way they talk about women makes me not wanna talk to them either because I don’t think they think of women as humans either.
JPB Gerald: Nope.
Carrie Gillon: Anyways, let’s go back to whiteness. You talk about “heretical whiteness.” What is that?
JPB Gerald: Oh, yeah. That’s a thing that I was thinking about, which I’m gonna write more about in the fall, actually. I guess when you say “heretical,” right, you’re making a metaphor of a religious experience or something like that. Because “heresy” is going against a religious belief. Not just going against it, not just being an atheist or something like that, but literally turning back against the religious belief and calling it out and saying, “No, I don’t believe.”
Well, I feel like you can use – there are so many metaphors for whiteness. I mean, Leonardo has a list of them. But the one that I keep coming back to is thinking of it as, because it’s an ideology more than it is a skin color – I mean, yes, the skin color’s important, but you know what I’m saying – you have to turn back on what you’ve been raised in and call out the issues with it directly. That doesn’t mean – if you were actually talking about religion – it doesn’t mean if you’re doing that in Catholicism that you aren’t Catholic. It means you’re pointing out like, “Hey, look what’s happening here in the church. This is a huge problem.”
I think that to be heretical in this metaphor is just to say that like, “No, I’m not going to be comfortable just trying to make small reforms in the way whiteness affects people.” The foundation is built on trying to separate itself from other groups of people. Again, not all white people – #NotAllWhitePeople – but [laughter] – because somebody’s gonna, “Hey, wait!” That’s not what I said, and I don’t mean like the lightest skinned people. I don’t necessarily mean Scandinavians or something. I don’t know. But I’m saying I’m specifically talking about reading all this stuff about how whiteness was created and maintained since the 16th Century or whatever just making up arguments for why they’re better than people.
They’re just making these things up, and they’re still arguing about it. You have to call that out to say, “Wait a second. At no point was there a legitimate basis for this to be created other than to subjugate people.” Some people take that too far. I don’t mean to say like, “Because race is not biological then we should never speak of it.” It’s like, yeah, okay, but it’s here, so we can’t just pretend it’s not here.
Carrie Gillon: It’s socially real, not matter what we talk – yeah.
JPB Gerald: The power’s there. The power construct, it exists. If we just pretend it’s not there, it’s not gonna make these things go away.
Carrie Gillon: No.
JPB Gerald: That would be nice though.
Carrie Gillon: It would be nice! If not seeing color really was a working strategy, sure. But no.
Megan Figueroa: What are some of the ways that white fragility show up in English language teaching?
JPB Gerald: This whole thing started with that, not just white fragility, but just white feelings that I have not even tried to elicit. This whole turn towards looking at whiteness in language teaching started – I had a very small survey that I sent out right when I first started to listen to your podcast, actually. I didn’t have anything to do with that. But anyway. I sent it to the fellow graduates of my master’s program because I thought that they would respond.
I asked them some simple questions that had no judgement in them, but they were just like, “Do you talk about race in the classroom?” The thing is if they said no, I wouldn’t have been mad. I just wanted to know. So, some of them said yes some of them said no. But what was interesting was among the people who said yes, then there was a follow up question. I said, “Okay, so how?” I didn’t write it that way. “Give me an example. What do you do in the classroom when you teach race?” They would all start saying, “Well, you know, I just like to mix the cultures.” And I’m just like, “That’s not what I asked you.”
There’s a lot to be said about that phrase, and what these people are saying, but I said, “Okay.” Then I started to ask teachers about that. Most of the time what happened, when they get really uncomfortable, is that they either change the subject or they find a way – and I use this word deliberately – to denigrate me in some other way. Most of the time they don’t just come back and argue with my point. Maybe that’s because I think I make the point well, but they usually don’t wanna have an argument about me pointing out that whiteness shows up in teaching or whatever. But they’ll find some other way to basically be demeaning.
It’s like if we were doing a scientific experiment, you couldn’t call it cause and effect, but it just seems to correlate. It just happens afterwards somehow. I remember I said I was talking about whiteness and language use, about race and language teaching, and a person goes, “Interesting topic.” Then ten minutes later is saying things like, “You know, when we started allowing more people of color into the class, the work was less good.” And I’m just like –
Megan Figueroa: No!
Carrie Gillon: No, no!
Megan Figueroa: Oh, no!
JPB Gerald: I’m just like, “I don’t know why you brought that up just now, but it seems like I’ve got you thinking about race, and then you really felt like you needed to tell me that.”
Carrie Gillon: It’s really interesting that they tell so much about themselves. There’s the smart way if you’ve got those horrible thoughts in your head is to keep them quiet, but no, they feel the need to tell you. It’s interesting.
Megan Figueroa: Well, they don’t know that it’s horrible! They somehow think they’re adding something to the conversation.
JPB Gerald: I think there’s also this idea that when they present something that they consider to be a fact, right, it can’t be argued with, in their mind, based on whatever assessment they were doing in the class, that these students did less well. I’m sure, based on whatever assessment they gave them, that those students did less well. I’m sure that whatever test or whatever thing, those students got lower numbers.
Therefore, first of all, I wasn’t there, so I can’t say, “Actually, they did better on the test.” Also because I wasn’t there, I can’t say, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have assessed them that way.” You know, putting me in a position where I can’t say, “Actually, those students didn’t do more poorly on the test,” or whatever, so I just have to nod and be like, “Okay. If you wanna say that.”
Those are just some ways that it’s shown up personally for me. Generally speaking though, more broadly in language teaching, I think that a lot of the ways is that people just don’t want to examine themselves. That’s really where it shows up. Because very rarely am I pointing my finger directly at one person. Even if I’m talking to one person, unless I’m really mad, I’m not going up to one person and saying, “This is bad. Don’t do that!” I’m saying, “Let’s think about this field, this industry, and how these things manifest.”
But as soon as I do that, they’ll either do what Bonilla-Silva calls “discursive buffers,” they’ll bring up some other form of oppression. And then I have to be like, “Of course, that is also important.” So, now we’re talking about that. I had one person, and I was just like, “Yeah, we really need to think about whiteness and race and language teaching.” And she’s like, “Also religion.” And I’m like, “Yes.”
Carrie Gillon: Really? That’s interesting. I wouldn’t think of that one naturally. You know, like gender and sexuality, those things I can understand. But religion – what?
JPB Gerald: Well, she was trying to make a point about discrimination against Muslim students. But, I mean, yes, this is a problem. It’s not really a different problem, but it’s on the same – you’re almost there.
Carrie Gillon: Almost, yeah.
JPB Gerald: When people do that, and they start to talk about other forms of oppression, you get caught up in it because what am I supposed to say? “No, don’t care about other oppression! Don’t care about it!” Now, when people do that, if I were to make that point, I would back up and say, “Well, let’s think about. How many of these things aren’t tied to whiteness in some way?”
In fact, that’s one way I’ve started talking more about whiteness than just race because when I say “whiteness” people think I’m talking just about race, but I’m not because it’s not just about race. It’s about power, and it’s about class because, remember, the people who have the power don’t actually care about white people without money either. They don’t care about them even though they’re lying to them to tell them so. They don’t particularly care about white women, although –
Carrie Gillon: A little bit more.
JPB Gerald: Yeah, a little bit more. It’s not just a color thing. Now that I’ve spent more time thinking about it, I’m able to respond to that – I’m more on my toes about it. But generally speaking, at least in the past, when we were out in the world and all that, people would just try to distract. They would try to externalize things, like I said earlier, and they would try to minimize it or they would just say things like my co-worker said, when I told her what I was working on, she said, “That sounds interesting,” and turned away. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: There’s the deflection, right. It’s just deflecting because you’re getting a little bit too close to their feels – their uncomfortable feels.
Carrie Gillon: I really do think it’s very important that we all switch to talking about whiteness. I think you’re actually completely right. Race obviously is a component of it but it’s so much bigger than that. It’s really about us. White people are the problem, so we really do need to interrogate it that way.
JPB Gerald: To add to that because what whiteness is – I mean, there’s how many books. I’m not gonna do it in one sentence. But one of the big things that whiteness is, is anti-blackness. Whiteness was created so that black could be created so that it could be oppressed. And people will say, “Well, what about races?” It’s like, “Wait, I didn’t get to my point yet.” It’s that one of the big things that happens is people will say, “Well, what about,” and they’ll list this officer. They’ll list George Zimmerman. They’ll list these people who aren’t white who are doing anti-black things.
It’s like, “But if this dude is running around the town trying to be a cop, he’s trying to get into the whiteness.” Even though he himself is not white, doing things in service of whiteness, the whiteness itself is still very important even if the person isn’t white. That’s why when I present on these things, I say that we may or may not all be white. I mean, we’re not all white, but you know what I’m saying. Even if we’re not white, we could be perpetuating the power of whiteness. Because otherwise, that’s how you end up with people saying, “Well, I don’t know what to do. We’ll just hire this black person, and the problem is solved.” It’s like, “Okay.” Ben Carson is in the Cabinet so, you know.
Megan Figueroa: I was gonna say. It’s like a Ben Carson situation – absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, man.
JPB Gerald: They just bring him out. They’re like, “See? We have one!”
Megan Figueroa: Right? Yep.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, and Tim Scott. You got two now.
JPB Gerald: Oh, no, they had one on every night in the convention.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, did they? I wasn’t paying attention.
JPB Gerald: I didn’t watch them. I just read about it. And they have them on talking about how not racist things are. So, you know, just doing the tap dance. But anyway.
Megan Figueroa: How are all of these things that we’re talking about – how is this white fragility harming racialized students and, ultimately, the bigger fight for anti-racism in English language teaching?
JPB Gerald: One of the big problems for the students is the white teachers but also the teachers who are doing things in service of whiteness. It causes this – since you can’t be questioned on these parts of your identity, right, it also means you feel you have a larger authority than you otherwise would. The confidence of, they say, a mediocre white man. But it’s not all men, but it’s the same idea.
I cite this article a lot, and I need to find a new one because it’s old, but they don’t seem to be doing many studies on this, but it’s by – I don’t know how to pronounce it, I’m not gonna say it. It was focusing on a community language program in Minnesota. The article was published 2008. It goes through, and what’s really innovative about it is that it asked questioned of the students, it asked questions of the teachers, and the administrators. You never really see all of that.
It asked the students who left the program, “Why did you leave?” And then it asked the teachers, “Why do you think they left?” And then it confronted the teachers and the administrators with what the students said. I was like, “Why aren’t there more studies like this?” My answer is it’s probably hard
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, it’s probably very heard.
JPB Gerald: The reason I actually went into my doctoral program is because I used to run – “run” – I used to be the manager of an adult language program in Manhattan, and people left. And I was just like, “What? Why did they leave?” The program is free. It’s not that. A lot of the students who were in the class, there was a head start preschool program, and they were the mothers. They’re already there. It wasn’t convenience. So, I said, “Why aren’t they showing up to class?” I wasn’t mad. I just wanted to know that. I said, “If I could figure this out, all these programs have better attendance” and then so on and so forth. That’s literally the problem of practice that started me into my doctoral program.
This article was one of the first ones I found in my first semester. I found in there one of the things that just sort of made me sad is that the students are saying, “Yeah, the teachers, they don’t listen to us. They don’t listen to us. We ask them what is going to be in the class, and they give us unclear instructions,” which is implying basically they don’t really respect the students. The students, they’re empty vessels. They’re not actually going to be – especially these are adults. They’re not children. I’m not saying children should be treated that way, but these people are adults, and they’re treated as though they’re lesser in a lot of ways.
It’s not just treating people as though they’re lesser because that could be just racism and not necessarily whiteness or white fragility or anything like that. It’s when they are questioned, they just dismiss the thing. It’s that part that I’m more interested in. It’s not the mistreating people that interests me, which is a problem, but that happens in a lot of ways. That’s not necessarily a white thing to mistreat people. But it’s the whole –
Megan Figueroa: And yet, so good at it. [Laughter]
JPB Gerald: It’s the being questioned like, “Hey, why did you,” “Hey, why don’t you,” and then to assume that the way they do things is right. Because then they ask the teachers why they thought the students left, and the teachers all gave them logistical answers. “Well, they can’t get here.” “Well, they have childcare issues.” Now, these things are legitimate issues obviously, right, but when they asked the students, the students said, “No, they just didn’t respect me.”
Then they went back to the teachers and the administrators and told them what the students said, and they said, “We work hard, okay? We work hard.” That’s always what I’ve heard at the beginning of this. That’s why I started coming up with this like, they’re throwing up this thing like, “I work hard, so therefore, I cannot be mistreating people.” And I’m like that’s not really how it works.
Carrie Gillon: Those are two different things!
JPB Gerald: That has nothing to do with anything. I feel like the inability to just even be questioned whatsoever, to even reflect on why something might’ve gone wrong, or just assuming that people are doing things for stereotypical reasons that you haven’t examined whatsoever. If you’re just like, “Oh, she couldn’t come. She must have childcare issues.” What, are you just assuming she has nine kids or something? I mean, like, she was in the class in the first place, so something worked out to get her there.
I mean, I’m not saying that these things don’t matter because obviously this country doesn’t treat people with small children very well, but that’s not what happened in these cases. I expect, because I could not find the people who left my class because they left, that some of these things were happening. Because I wasn’t teaching most of the classes. I had teachers teaching the classes. And I do wonder if they felt that they weren’t treated the way that they needed to be, and they left the class, but I don’t actually know.
Megan Figueroa: I wonder if this is related to white saviorism. Like, “Why are you questioning what I’m doing? I’m doing a good job here. I’m working hard. I’m saving you,” basically.
JPB Gerald: I mean, I would expect that it is because why do people get into some of these things. Well, there’s surveys, there’s stats on why people get in, but of course, that’s why people say they get in. They’re not gonna say, “I want to save them.” But there is still this idea that – I mean, I think a lot of people, especially in language teaching, a lot of them stumble into it. Because I did. I was like 21. I graduated college. I was on my dad’s couch, and he was mad at me. So, I was like, “I need to get a job.” I moved to South Korea. He told me to get a job. I said, “Oh, I’ll get a job.” I left the hemisphere.
That’s what happened to me, and I think a lot of people, especially the ones who teach overseas, and that’s a lot of the people who end up teaching the language, they just sort of like, “I dunno.” Then the people who are here in the states, or in Canada, if they go through a certification program that’s like Teach For America or another type of program, there is the aesthetic of, “Look, you are smart” – which we can get into what does that even mean. That’s the message, “You’re smart, and therefore you have something to give to these people – these people who are the Dangerous Minds children,” right?
Megan Figueroa: I was so thinking of Michelle Pfeiffer. It was there.
JPB Gerald: It’s like, “We’re gonna go in there, and then after they experience you, they will be better off.” I don’t think that this is really explicitly discussed among the teachers. I think this is just an undercurrent, and that’s why, if you bring it up to them, they’ll say no. But, based on their actual actions, then – because one of the things that I really hate – I really hate – and at first I – like, I understand why it happens – is that whenever people advertise for these programs, usually they’re like free programs at non-profits which is the kind of place where I used to work, is always this United Colors of Benetton ad with one person from every possible – you know, like, “We have one from here. And we have one from here.” And then it’s like one white person who’s clearly the teacher in the back just smiling.
People wanna be the person in that picture because you’re just like, “I didn’t even choose to help children, I chose to help the adults. And they still don’t speak the language, therefore there must be something wrong with them.” I mean, I speak more about adult teaching, but it’s still true for the ones who teach the kids. It’s just that that’s where my lens tends to be from.
Carrie Gillon: This also reminds me of Insecure.
JPB Gerald: Oh, yeah, the whole first two seasons. I think the show started – my last year at the non-profit was the first year of the show. I was just like, “Oh.”
Carrie Gillon: Oh! [Laughter] That’s even deeper then, yeah. What changes need to happen within the field of English language teaching to de-center whiteness?
JPB Gerald: You know, presumably, at some point, we’ll be out of our houses.
Carrie Gillon: Ugh! [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: No, I don’t believe you.
JPB Gerald: Listening to this in the future, you know, let us know. But at that point, if we are in a place where we’re going to congregate, which just seems so foreign now, but one of the big things is that – and people can say, “Well, this shouldn’t be how the industry is,” but it still is. So, for as long as the industry is like this where conferences and those sort of things matter – those are a big center of the industry.
Now, even now, when we’re not going places and we’re doing this stuff virtually, think about whose knowledge is being centered there. Who’s on your panels? Who’s being keynoted? Who’s plenary-ing? That’s not a word, but you know what I mean. And then people will hear this and say, “I’ll get one.” I’m like, “Don’t do that.” They’ll always do this, “We got one.” No.
Like, who’s running the conference is a big part of it. Think a little bit harder than, “Well, the person’s first language isn’t English.” Like, that’s good, but what is their first language? You know what I’m saying? If you’re gonna use the language – because I understand that language is also an access of discrimination, but of course, it’s really tied to race. Because you’ll see people that are like, “Well, these people are” – TESOL will always say, “Well, we have international people.” I’m like, “You have a lot of people from Western Europe.” It’s not quite the same thing.
That’s why conferences are a big thing. Journals are a big problem. I mean, they’re a problem just in the whole. But a particular issue with this field that claims to care about students of color, racialized students – but I did a, you know, not IRB-approved, which is to say I was just doing it on my computer for fun last fall, I was going through journal articles specifically in language teaching just to see something. I was going through all of the citations. This was a very boring project. It was just counting citations and then looking up the people. There were times when I couldn’t tell how the people identified. And some of the people didn’t have a website because they’re just an old citation or something.
But from the stuff that I could conclude – because sometimes you’ll go on there, and the person has written something about themselves, and they’ll say what race they identify as. When articles were choosing to challenge the status quo in some way – which is not really a binary between challenge and not challenge, but I still made it binary for the purposes of what I was looking at – somehow, they end up citing a lot more scholars of color. I think a lot of the time, if journal articles are – “journal articles” – journal editors are choosing to publish things that are challenging the status quo, they’re also gonna get a lot more people who look different, who’ve had different experiences, because that’s usually who wants to challenge the status quo.
Looking for different perspectives – because I understand they’re blind. You can’t go and find, “Oh, I will have five of them in this article.” You can’t really do that. But you can look at what the aim of the article is. And even if you say, “Well, this is not quote-unquote ‘good enough’ for this journal” – which, eh, we see what gets published; I don’t know about that. Even if you say that, that it’s not rigor or whatever, you’re gonna work with them. It’s what you do. You’re an editor. So, go in and look for things that are challenging the status quo, or you can admit to yourself you like the status quo. I mean, hey, I’d rather you admit it than start pretending. That’s a bit thing.
The hiring practices, we need to get away from the native speaker fallacy. I mean, this is old news in a lot of this stuff, but not something everybody knows. You know, what is native speaker? Unfortunately for students, and students are often clients in adult language schools, they will perceive even whatever we call a “native speaker” as having a accent – I know we all have accents – but they’ll perceive them as having a not native accent because they’re not white. The schools know this, and so they won’t necessarily prioritize hiring a white teacher, but they’ll say, “We need a native speaker.” You end up with the same thing.
This happens overseas, and it happens here, and it’s not – one of the articles I published, I published in a Canadian journal. Part of the reason for that is that I think sometimes – and I know, Carrie, you can chime in on this – that sometimes Canada thinks that it doesn’t have the problems that the United States has. Like, a lot of the sources I’ve used are from Canada. These problems are over there, too.
Carrie Gillon: Mm-hmm. Definitely.
JPB Gerald: So, the hiring practices, the support in the scholarship – because, I mean, I said “journals,” but I mean, I’m talking about schools because I am finally in a program where 14% of my cohort is black. How many people do you think are in my cohort? Seven. So, what do you think 14% means?
Megan Figueroa: You. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: That’s what I was gonna guess.
JPB Gerald: They’ll say, “Our cohort is 14% black.” I’m like, “Okay. All right, now.” Now, of course, my degree isn’t specifically in language teaching. It’s in education in general. But still, that is a problem. The pipeline isn’t there. And then people will say, “Well, academia itself” – okay, fine. Yes, yes, yes, that’s a big problem, but that’s not just a language teaching problem, that’s not just this field’s problem. But if we want people to be challenging the status quo, and then we’re gonna say, “Well, we won’t trust you unless you have this degree,” well, then, you gotta help them get the degree or get to a place where they’ll be taken seriously, and so forth.
Also, what you’re doing, what I’m doing, is that people, I think, need to really take other forms of public scholarship seriously. I’m sure you all agree with me because you’re doing it.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely, yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Yes.
JPB Gerald: But I do think that – I went, and I did a presentation last fall on the first article I published, “The Altruistic Shield,” and I think there were 30 people in the room. That was a big – you go to a conference, 30 people, unless you’re the keynote, 30 is like, a lot. It’s like, wow, you got a lot of people. It went really well, and I recorded it for the podcast. I put it on the podcast, and I got 300 people. I mean, and I don’t even have that popular of a podcast.
So, it’s just sort of like, just putting the stuff on your computer, or on the internet from your computer at home, you’re gonna get more people paying attention to you in many more places – although, I guess everything is virtual now, but you know what I’m saying – than you do getting stuff into a conference, even though the conferences are supposed to be super important. Then, you know, people don’t even really tend to read journal articles, especially if they’re behind a paywall, but that’s a whole other issue. Again, that’s not specific to this field is my point.
Carrie Gillon: Actually, one of my former students specifically asked us at some point to talk about the fact that there’s this native speaker prioritization in teaching English overseas. He teaches – he might not be there anymore – but he was teaching in Japan. That was what he noticed. So, yeah, this is definitely a problem, and we need to talk about it more, but perhaps another time.
JPB Gerald: It’s interesting because, at least in South Korea – I mean, this may not be true anymore – but, I mean, I think it is still is, but I dunno. When we were hired, we’re supposed to send a picture, right, which had nothing to do with your language, obviously. And this is not – as many problems as the United States has, this is illegal in the United States. You can’t do that. I’m not saying this to be down on South Korea because they’re following a global, you know, practice to want to prioritize who can be marketed in their materials, and who they can market in their materials is like – I found out that the ideal in both look and sound was a white Canadian woman. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: I believe it. I believe it.
JPB Gerald: They often – because I had friends who were white Canadian women. There was a brochure. It was like, my friends who teach here. Then there’s a whole issue of class in the sense that I think I actually only got the job because I had an ivy league undergrad degree, and they were like, “Well, he’s black, but.” Because there weren’t a whole lot of people who were hired who weren’t white. I mean, there were a couple of people who were Asian, but then they had their own issues in the sense that people were just like, “Why don’t you speak Korean?”
Carrie Gillon: I also wanted to ask you about – just very briefly because we’re almost out of time – but on Twitter and in the media, you’ve been talking a lot about these “pandemic pods.” Maybe explain what pandemic pods are and why they’re a problem.
JPB Gerald: Yeah, so, there’s – this changes every day. [Laughter] Well, because, I mean, they’re new, so people are coming up with new things. And I think also the fact that there’s pushback now, the mostly white parents are like, “Uhh, I dunno.” They’re still doing it, but they feel uncomfortable about it which, hey, whatever. But basically “pandemic pods” is that – there’s a spectrum on how inequitable they are – but the general gist is that it’s not safe for kids to go to school in most parts of the country, and so the parents are podding up with their friends, or their kids’ friends’ parents, and bringing three people into one house, or four people in one – whatever – and they’ll either hire a teacher or a tutor to teach them, and in so doing, pull them out of the public school that they’re already in, or they will have someone come there and help them with the remote work that they were doing from the school.
Now, hiring someone to help them with the remote work is more like sending them to a Kaplan or something. It’s inequitable, but it’s a normal kind of inequity. Pulling them out of the public school will be very bad financially for the public school, not now, but later. Then, of course, what happens to the kids – because some districts are open, but everybody has the choice to pull their kids out – and who’s not having that choice is the kids whose parents gotta work or they don’t have the money to have a tutor at home or something like that.
That’s one way that it really can increase inequity. Some people say, “Well, you know” – because there are communities of color who are doing sort of co-ops, but the difference is they’re not pulling their kids out of the school. It’s also, there’s more of a responsibility on white and wealthy parents to think about the communities that they serve. The one point I’ll make, because I know we’re gonna run out, is that I do hear this pushback from some people who say, “Well, my community is almost all white, so I’m not really hurting any kids of color.” And then I say, “You’re right. Now, why do you live in that community? How did that happen?”
Because for me, the pandemic pods, they’re bad, but they’re very much a 2020 sort of situation, the specifics of them, but they’re just a symptom of a larger disease. To me, I would much rather you go figure out why your town is 90% white and do something about that than, if you wanna have a pandemic pod this fall, go have your pod, but go fix your town.
Carrie Gillon: Go fix your town! [Laughs]
Megan Figueroa: I love that!
Carrie Gillon: Wow. This has been a really great conversation.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I wish we could talk another ten hours. Do you have one last message for our listeners that you would hope they would take away from our conversation?
JPB Gerald: I promised my professor who told me about the podcast that I would mention when I was on the podcast, so I wanna say, thanks for telling me about it in class in an offhand comment. I really ran with the idea. Then otherwise, that last point I made about public scholarship, I mean, what you’re all doing and what I’m trying to do, and I think that it’s inevitable. It’s gonna take a long time. But I do think, especially all this time we’re all spending online now, it is going to be really important for us to, especially as marginalized scholars and/or racialized scholars, push against the status quo in whatever way we can. It’s gonna be messy. And I think people don’t like that. But is the order actually working for anyone besides, like, two people at the top? Because it’s not. We need to push against it. Whatever mess is the result is gonna be better than what we have.
Megan Figueroa: 100% yes. That’s fantastic.
Carrie Gillon: It’s not working for any of us.
JPB Gerald: It’s not working. Doesn’t work.
Megan Figueroa: It’s not working. Well, thank you so much. This was amazing.
Carrie Gillon: Yes.
Megan Figueroa: We, of course, leave our listeners with one final message – don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: We would like to thank our two newest patrons from last month, Cheri Giffith –
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: And Andy Bouchard.
Megan Figueroa: Yay! Thank you. Ooo, you got that French name down. You knew.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, I don’t know. I pronounced it with D, so /bʊʃɑː/ [laugher] would be closer to the French pronunciation.
Megan Figueroa: I’m sure they’re used to getting it both ways all the time.
Carrie Gillon: Well…
Megan Figueroa: Maybe. I dunno.
Carrie Gillon: I’m pretty sure he’s American, although I guess I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure he’s American, so probably /bʊʃaɹd/.
Megan Figueroa: Well, thank you so much. We really appreciate it, especially during these trying times.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. Seriously. Thank you so much.
Megan Figueroa: Appreciate you.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and our website is vocalfriespod.com