“Can Immigrant Learners Identify the Language of Discrimination?”

I went to the Spring 2013 SFSU MATESOL Conference  last week, where the graduate class of the MATESOL program present their capstone projects. If you’re at all interested in doing the MATESOL program at SFSU, it’s a good idea to attend one of these to see what kind of work and topics we work on in the program.

As some of you may know, the month of May is designated as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, which pays “tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success.” I mention this because the one presentation in particular that really impressed me, partly because of my own interest in Asian American issues but also because race/racism seems like a topic that isn’t really discussed much in the field of TESOL.

Presented by Elissa K. Ouchida, here is the presentation title and description:

“Where are you REALLY from?” – Can Immigrant Students Identify the Language of Discrimination?

The difference between being charged for a robbery or a hate crime can be as small as one word. In fact, an act of discrimination can be something as subtle as a change in intonation. If English Language Learners are not able to pick up the nuances in the language of discrimination, they cannot take the proper recourse actions. With a focus on discrimination against Asian and Pacific Islanders, this project investigates whether immigrant students can identify the language of discrimination.

The presentation made me think about my own experience with racist discourse and whether or not I’ve been able to recognize and react effectively to it. I remember my father telling me his own experience with racist discourse. He had gotten in a car accident and in comparison to the other party’s truck, his car had suffered much more damage. When the police came to document the accident, one of the things my dad remembers the police asking him informally was why he drove a Japanese branded car (Inifiniti brand) instead of an American branded car. This obviously had nothing to do with the accident and had no place in the police officer’s role in documenting the accident. And yet, for some reason (obviously because of the fact that my dad is Asian), the police officer felt inclined to ask that question. I don’t think the police officer would have asked that question if my dad looked white instead.

Fortunately, my dad had lived in the United States long enough to be sensitive to what Ouchida explains is categorized as “symbolic racism”. This is racist discourse that expresses racial discrimination in subtle, implicit, and indirect ways. You can probably see how many immigrant, English learners wouldn’t be able to recognize the implicit messages embedded in such language, and since many discriminatory language is either directed towards or about minority populations, this disconnect in what is being said and what is understood is unfortunate and problematic.

Some pedagogical implications that Ouchida suggests are:

    • Students need to understand the language of discrimination
      • They should know how discrimination can happen to them.
      • They also should be aware of what they say so that they can avoid a dangerous situation or situation where they are the cause of discrimination.
    • Students should know the resources available to them.
    • Students seem interested in learning and discussing the topic of discrimination.
    • Recommended that this is taught to advanced level students
      • Understood it the most once explained
      • Seemed to be the most interested

Some suggested resources from Ouchida are:

    • Angry Asian Man Blog: http://blog.angryasianman.com/
      • A blog that follows all aspects of Asians in the mass media and pop culture with a particular focus on racism towards Asian Americans.
    • JACL (Japanese American Culture League)
      • Based in San Francisco, this is the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization.
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