Is it that deep? The impact of policing Black British language speakers in British schools
This blog is written by Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health (BLAM UK) to support their work to end linguistic injustice in schools. This piece explains why banning the use of Black British English in UK schools reinforces negative perceptions and stereotypes which are harmful to Black students.
Black British English (BBE) is a combination of the Jamaican language Patois, West African Creole (Pidgin), White Mainstream English (WME), and Black-British vernacular. The creation of BBE follows the History of Black Language Creation in the diaspora which Ife Thompson, BLAM UK founder, explains follows the globalised pattern of African descended communities creating and using language as a form of resistance and cultural retention against white supremacy, imperialism, and oppression.
Enslaved Africans on Caribbean plantations often did not share a common language. They developed new languages and ways of communication utilising elements of WestAfrican languages and English vernacular. BBE is often misidentified as slang, but it is a language heavily creolised with Patois.
This misinformation around BBE is rooted in anti-Blackness and, despite its rich linguistic heritage, has led to many teachers and schools dismissing its use as “poor grammar and poor use of Mainstreamed English”. The practice of policing and shunning Black languages is known as Anti-Black Linguistic Racism. The term, coined by Dr April Baker-Bell, refers to the linguistic persecution, dehumanisation, and marginalisation endured by Black Language (BL) speakers. It is the belief that there is something inherently wrong with BL, therefore, it should be eradicated. It includes teachers’ silencing, correcting, and policing BL, and insisting that Black students code-switch to avoid discrimination.
When Black students’ language is suppressed or outrightly banned in classrooms they begin to absorb messages that imply Black language is incorrect and unintelligent, this can cause them to internalise anti-Blackness. Students who internalise negative ideas about their language and culture may develop a sense of inferiority and lose confidence in their own abilities, and school in general. Internalised anti-Blackness can affect the wellbeing of Black students. Researcher Beverly Hendrix Wright found Black children that had lower levels of racial esteem also had lower levels of self-esteem. Anti-Black policies can have a direct effect on how Black children perceive their Blackness, thus lowering their racial esteem.
The linguistic stigma of BBE also encourages the inappropriate and racially discriminatory discipline of Black children. In 2021, this was evidenced when a South London school with a large proportion of Black students introduced a language ban that included BBE vocabulary and semantics. Children could be reprimanded and punished for speaking in a way most natural and culturally significant to them, fuelling the practice and policies of UK schools criminalising Blackness.
Black Caribbean students are five times more likely to be excluded than their white peers. Policies such as the above increase exclusion rates for these students. We have already seen the impact on our caseload and have encountered students excluded from school for the repeated use of BBE and removed from lessons for kissing their teeth or greeting friends in BBE. We must challenge such policies. The effect of BBE language harms the racial esteem and in turn well-being of Black children and reproduces and reinforces Anti-Black Linguistic Racism.
We are addressing this matter through a campaign to abolish BBE bans. To support schools to promote linguistic justice, we provide training and education on Black British English and heritage. Through our Grounded Project, we organised for children to learn and perform a play in BBE. In our partner schools, we begin the sessions with an emotional check-in and encourage pupils to use BBE words to express their feelings. Our current youth mental health project is developing a mental health booklet that uses a combination of BBE and ‘standard’ English to normalise Black expression in literature.
We take a multidimensional approach to build up Black children's confidence and affirm their identity. It is why we need to form coalitions with those who share our vision. We have written numerous blogs to educate and shed light on these issues, but need your help to reverse the delegitimisation of BBE and its damaging impact on Black children within British schools.
Please join us by sharing this blog or getting in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Mary Taylor from Pexels.
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