In a thought-provoking blog post, Naomi Barnes of Brisbane, Australia, recently asked what other white people were doing to break down the barriers built by whiteness. This is a very good question. One thing we can do is to challenge the dominance of English.
Language is not neutral in research or education. English is the dominant language of both, worldwide, as a direct result of colonialism. English is dominant even though it ranks only third in the world: more of the world’s people speak Mandarin Chinese, or Spanish. Studying for a PhD (or equivalent), or writing an academic journal article, is demanding enough when you can do it in your native language. Every year, around the world, millions of people have to study and write in English when that is not their native language, which makes already difficult work much more difficult. People like me, who are born into an English-speaking country, are unbelievably lucky and have a massive head-start. A lot of us, I think, don’t realise how lucky we are.
Professor Bagele Chilisa of Botswana, in her excellent book from 2012 on Indigenous Research Methodologies, calls this the ‘hierarchy of language’. (The English version of the search engine I use, duckduckgo, has never heard of her book, which rather proves her point.) The hierarchy of language comes with a range of ethical implications for native English speakers, and I will outline three of the main ones here.
First, we need to understand that there is not just one form of English, there are many: from Bangalore to Boston, from London to Lagos, from Sydney to Sao Paulo. This means we should not assume that someone’s ideas have less worth because their spoken English is heavily accented, or formulated differently from our own, or their written English is not entirely fluent.
‘Language-ism’ is embedded in structures such as academia and publishing. People who write non-standard English, regardless of the quality of the content, are less likely to have their work formally published in academic journals – or, at least, not the journals usually indexed by Google Scholar or the Directory of Open Access Journals. This is one of the ‘barriers built by whiteness’ referred to by Naomi Barnes. As a result, work in non-standard English is harder to find, so it is less likely to be used, shared, or cited. Yet some of these researchers are doing excellent work which is well worth exploring.
This is the second ethical point: we need to try harder to find, and use, work by non-native English speakers. Those of us who can read other languages have a head-start here. (Many non-English speaking countries teach languages, including English, to children throughout their schooling. In England in the 1970s, when I was at school, learning other languages was mostly optional – I spent just three years learning elementary French and have only needed to use it, since then, when actually in France. Even there many people speak better English than my French. This is another indication of the dominance of English.) But whether or not you can read other languages, you need to know where to look for research from beyond the countries where English is dominant. Here are some ‘starters for 10’ thanks to Andy Nobes of INASP on Twitter, in conversation with Raul Pacheco-Vega, Pat Thomson and Jo VanEvery:
Latindex (Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal – Spanish only)
Scientific Electronic Library Online (Latin America, Spain, Portugal and South Africa)
Many of these are supported by the research, knowledge and development charity INASP through its Journals Online project. Most have an English option on their website and some, if not all, articles available in English. Much of the content is openly accessible.
The third ethical point is to look at this the other way around. If we write in English, we should do all we can to get our work translated into other majority languages. There are 23 languages in the world that are each spoken as a first language by over 50 million people. The top 10 are: Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and Lahnda (a Pakistani language). Translation brings its own ethical problems, as there is not always a straightforwardly equivalent word for an idea or a concept, so translating from one language to another can involve some creativity and interpretation. However, a careful translation between any two majority languages will make your work available to many more scholars. In particular, translations from English help to reduce its dominance.
So there are three ways for white people (and native English speakers of colour) to challenge the dominance of English and so help to break down some of the barriers built by whiteness. If you can think of other ways to do this, please add them in the comments.