Photo Credit Sierra Lemelle 

The Link Between Race and Language: Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race

Photo Credit Sierra Lemelle

Beyond a method of communication, language is a cultural aspect that shapes identity. The Department of Anthropology hosted Dr. Jonathan Rosa, assistant professor of Anthropology and Linguistics, to discuss his new book Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race. He reveals the central role that language has in shaping ideas about race as a social construct and an important social reality. This relationship between race, language and racism is a part of the foundation for reflecting and defining the way human societies are structured. 

        Rosa challenges distinctions between race and ethnicity in Latinx, a gender non-binary way of referring to ‘Latina/o’, culture and argues that the racialization of Latinx language requires consideration of race. He coined the term “languagelessness” to define linguistic competence and legitimate personhood to examine the association it has with the ideology of language standardization. Languagelessness stigmatizes specific linguistic practices that differs from the established norm.  

        Rosa explains the relationship between race, language and racism as a term called “raciolinguistics”. Rosa’s raciolinguistics perspective examines the categories of race, ethnicity and language as products of colonial distinctions. Rosa analyzes the U.S. as a fundamentally racist society built on colonialism and slavery that has led to the continuation of white supremacy in institutions such as public schools being reproduced. He explores this structural inequality in urban contexts by collaborating with local communities. 

Photo Credit: Sierra Lemelle

        “In a post 1965 moment in the United States the Civil Rights Act and various other forms of legislation have guaranteed equal rights yet we see profound disparities, racial disparities among other forms of disparity that persist despite the legal changes that have taken place,” said Rosa. “Ideas about language come from profound sites of reproduction of inequality.” 

        Rosa drew on ethnographic data collected within a predominantly Latinx high school, institutional policies and scholarly conceptions of language. These sources point out the racialized ways that ideologies of language standardization and languagelessness relate in theory, policy and everyday interactions. Bilingualism is shown as a handicap in public schools and multilingual communities as linguistically isolated in the U.S. Census.  

        Any racialized group can be linguistically stigmatized with ideologies of language standardization and languagelessness. Even if a group is not yet racialized, it could become racialized through these ideological and institutional processes.   

        “In order to disrupt the linguistic reproduction of radicalization and socioeconomic stratification, we must move beyond asserting the legitimacy of stigmatized language practices,” said Rosa. “Focusing instead on interrogating the societal reproduction of listening subject positions that continually perceive deficiency. By changing our analytical strategy in this way, we can gain new insights into how the joint ideological construction of race, class and language perpetuates inequality.” 



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