July 2018
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BLACK SPACES AND WHITE NORMS: THE IMPORTANCE OF BELPAF FOR THE TESOL COMMUNITY
Riah Werner, National Pedagogical Institute for Technical and Professional Training, Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire

TESOL International Association (2018a) “values and seeks diverse and inclusive participation within the field of English language teaching” in both principle and practice and lists “respect for diversity, multilingualism, multiculturalism, and individuals’ language rights” as one of its core values, as befits an international organization with membership spread throughout the world. TESOL’s membership includes teachers from around the world and the presenters at the 2018 Convention, held in Chicago, Illinois, USA, represented dozens of countries, spanning all six populated continents. Yet the annual TESOL Convention typically follows Western academic procedures and the adjudication process rewards proposals that are “well-written” and “cutting edge.” This benefits speakers of standard Englishes who are familiar with Western academic contexts and who have institutional access to current scholarly publications over those without these privileges. The Convention is also held in North America, typically in the United States, a highly racialized society. These factors combine to create a conference environment that, by privileging White norms, is not racially neutral.

This situation invites us to reflect on the ways Whiteness is normalized through everyday practices and discourses in our field. Kubota and Lin (2006) write that “it has been argued that Whiteness exerts its power as an invisible and unmarked norm against which all Others are racially and culturally defined, marked, and made inferior” (p. 483). To ensure that TESOL is enacting its core values of respect for diversity and multiculturalism in practice and not just principle, we need to make sure that the annual Convention is not imposing White norms on all its members. One way we can do this is by supporting the work of TESOL’s Black English Language Professionals and Friends (BELPaF) Professional Learning Network.

While I’d heard about the BELPaF Forum during my first TESOL Convention, it wasn’t until this year’s Convention in Chicago that I was able to attend their annual business meeting. BELPaF, which is explicitly inclusive, “exists to enhance the professional growth and development of ESOL professionals of color and to support the needs of ESOL students of color and their teachers,” and “welcomes the participation of all who are interested in issues affecting students and teachers of color worldwide” (Black English Language Professionals & Friends, 2018).

Although anyone with an interest in supporting students and teachers of color is welcome in BELPaF, I was one of just two White TESOLers who chose to attend. As such, I was aware that I was operating in a space in which the onus was on me to conform to a set of norms rooted in a shared racial identity that I don’t belong to. I was acutely aware of how different the Black-centered space felt in contrast to the rest of the TESOL Convention. Developing this awareness among other White TESOLers is crucial, because “the invisibility of Whiteness…allows Whites to evade responsibility for taking part in eradicating racism” (Kubota & Lin, 2006, p. 483).

I was also struck by the diversity within BELPaF, represented by the nuanced ways people identified themselves during the round of introductions. As Ibrahim (2014) writes, “Blackness is a historically contingent category that is always-already multicultural (Jamaicans are not Ghanaians), multilingual (Black Brazilians speak Portuguese while Tanzanians speak Swahili), multiethnic, multinational and more than ever heterogeneous.” BELPaF’s membership directly attests to the multifaceted nature of Black identity. By creating a space where Blackness is the norm, BELPaF centers this diversity, allowing self-identifications to take precedence over reductionist perceptions that define Black people solely by their race.

At the BELPaF meeting, there was much discussion of the change from Forums to Professional Learning Networks (PLNs), which meant that the very meeting I was at was the last of its kind. This is because TESOL considers PLNs to be “informal, discussion-based groups” (TESOL Board Approves Final Phase of Governance Restructuring, 2018) and, as such, will no longer provide rooms for PLN meetings at the annual Convention. As Lavette Coney, the chair of BELPaF, put it when she opened the final meeting, “we have been further marginalized.”

This feeling of increasing marginalization grows out of the decades-long diminishment of BELPaF’s formal status within TESOL. Mary Romney, who served as the first chair of the International Black Professionals and Friends in TESOL (IBPFT) Caucus after its official recognition by TESOL, recounted the group’s history during the meeting. I was shocked to learn that what is now BELPaF started as the Standard English as a Second Dialect Interest Section, an interest section that explicitly addressed how to teach Standard English to speakers of other dialects, including African American Vernacular English (AAVE). This interest section served as a home for many Black TESOLers, but was dissolved in the late 1980s because of low membership numbers. After its dissolution, the former members met informally at the Convention each year, until Connie Perdreau founded the IBPFT Caucus at the 1992 TESOL Convention in Vancouver, Canada. In 1997, Mary Romney applied for IBPFT to become a formal membership entity within TESOL, which was approved provisionally and then made permanent in 1999. However, in 2006, the Caucus Review Task Force was formed, and the following year, the caucuses were replaced with Forums, conceived of as independent entities separate from TESOL. IBPFT renamed itself BELPaF, and was granted a non-adjudicated academic session and a meeting space at each year’s Convention along with its Forum status. This continued until the recent governance restructuring, carried out from 2014–2017, led to the reformulation of TESOL’s communities of practice.

The new system was formally instituted in May 2018 (TESOL International Association, 2018), just after the Chicago Convention, with many Forums transitioning to PLN status, including BELPaF. Though TESOL states that “the PLNs have been created to provide a flexible model for groups like Forums to be recognized and be part of the association’s governance system” (TESOL Board Approves Final Phase of Governance Restructuring, 2018), this formal recognition as TESOL entities is accompanied with a decline in material support. As outlined in the TESOL Communities of Practice Procedure Manual (TESOL International Association, 2017), TESOL provides PLNs with an online discussion platform, a staff contact who will help establish the PLN’s presence on myTESOL, and the ability to submit a Convention proposal to the Conferences Professional Council to be adjudicated. Because this session may or may not be accepted during the adjudication process and TESOL does not guarantee meeting space for PLNs as it did for Forums, there is no assurance of any in-person contact for PLN members at the annual Convention. Though I believe that this change was not made with the intention of marginalization, the removal of institutional support that accompanies the shift to the PLN structure disproportionally affects BELPaF and other identity-based PLNs that represent marginalized groups within the TESOL community.

In-person meetings are particularly important for BELPaF members, because Black TESOLers are underrepresented within the field and at the annual Convention. As I debriefed with my grad school classmates after my first TESOL Convention, in Baltimore, Maryland in 2016, I noticed how the experience I had, of finding a racially diverse group of conference attendees with a prominent core of Black TESOLers, was a direct result of having chosen to attend all the race-focused sessions on the program. At sessions without an overt racial focus, like those the majority of my classmates chose to attend, the absence of Black TESOLers was so common as to not be noticed and White norms prevailed.

When it’s more typical for Black TESOLers to be absent than present in any given professional setting, the result is the exception(al) syndrome (Nero, 2006). As Nero (2010) writes, “The problem with having so few faculty (or professionals) of color, is that one person (the exception) is made to carry the burden of the group (for better or worse).” BELPaF is an example of a space where Black TESOL professionals are able to be “normal,” able to both succeed and screw up, without constantly “trying to disprove the negative stereotypes associated with people of color” (Nero, 2010), which Nero warns against. The normalization of Black teachers can also disrupt the dangerous cycle that leads Black students to believe that “Blacks themselves should not expect to be teachers because most teachers (at least in the United States) are White” (Nero, 2006, p. 24). If these students see examples of successful Black TESOL professionals, such as those within BELPaF, they are more likely to enter the profession.

BELPaF creates a space where racial awareness that includes Black experiences is the norm. Questioning whether Black lives matter in bilingual education, Flores (2016) points out that current practices within his field simultaneously position native English speakers as White and erase the experiences of AfroLatinx Spanish speakers. Bilingual education programs also regularly ignore language variation, including AAVE. As a TESOLer, I find these same dynamics to be present in our field as well. Knowing that TESOL once had an interest section dedicated to exploring the acquisition of Standard English as a second dialect, a topic I rarely see discussed today, makes Flores’s inclusion of AAVE here particularly powerful. He writes that because anti-Blackness is prevalent in U.S. society, institutions perpetuate anti-Blackness unless they explicitly acknowledge and work to dismantle it. In his words, “anything less than this is tantamount to treating Black lives as if they don’t matter” (Flores, 2016).

Within TESOL, BELPaF is a powerful force asserting that Black lives do matter. It has striven to dismantle anti-Blackness, brought awareness to the specific needs of Black English language learners (ELLs) and suggested tangible ways teachers can create more racially equitable classroom practices. In an enlightening article that asserts Black ELLs are “no longer the silent subgroup,” Cooper, Bryan and Ifarinu (2016) point out “the picture of an English learner that most often appears in one’s mind is not a child of African [descent].” This leads to Black ELLs being viewed as exceptional. As a result, their needs are too rarely considered. The linguistic variation within the Black ELL community is also extensive and often overlooked. The Black community includes speakers of Standard English and AAVE; colonial languages, such as Spanish, French, and Portuguese; Caribbean English and English Creoles; and African languages and varieties of English. Black ELLs are present in every region around the globe, both in Africa and throughout the diaspora. Both ESL and EFL teachers can work to ensure they are affirming the languages and identities of Black ELLs, considering Black experiences in professional development programs and doing the outreach needed to welcome elders and leaders from the community into the classroom (Cooper, Bryan, & Ifarinu, 2016).

By bringing attention to the needs of Black TESOL professionals and ELLs, as well as other racialized groups within TESOL, BELPaF has been doing important work in service of TESOL’s mission of “respect for diversity, multilingualism, multiculturalism, and individuals’ language rights” (TESOL International Association, 2018a). By carving out a space separate from the White norms that prevail at the annual Convention, BELPaF supports Black TESOLers, who are given a break from being the exception. By raising awareness of Black ELLs and encouraging antiracist pedagogies, BELPaF helps the entire TESOL community consider and respond to the needs of the many, many students of color we teach. All of this work makes TESOL a stronger organization. I hope TESOL recognizes and supports BELPaF fully as it transitions to being a PLN, instead of contributing to the marginalization of an already marginalized section of our community.

References

Black English Language Professionals & Friends. (2018). Statement of purpose. Retrieved from https://my.tesol.org/communities/community-home?CommunityKey=774b62ef-32ff-44ca-943f-f5b67d8514ab

Cooper, A., Bryan, K. C., & Ifarinu, B. (2016). No longer the silent subgroup. Language Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.languagemagazine.com/no-longer-the-silent-subgroup/

Flores, N. (2016). Do black lives matter in bilingual education? [blog post]. Retrieved from https://educationallinguist.wordpress.com/2016/09/11/do-black-lives-matter-in-bilingual-education/

Ibrahim, A. (2014) When the black body is made black: Rethinking the nuances of blackness. Black Ottawa Scene. Retrieved from http://blackottawascene.com/awad-ibrahim-when-the-black-body-is-made-black-rethinking-the-nuances-of-blackness/

Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (2006). Race and TESOL: Introduction to concepts and theories. TESOL Journal, 40, 471–493. doi:10.2307/40264540

Nero, S. (2006). An exceptional voice: Working as a TESOL professional of color. In A. Curtis & M. Romney (Eds.), Color, race, and English language teaching: Shades of meaning (pp. 23–36). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nero, S. (2010). Shondel Nero: NNEST of the month [blog post]. Retrieved from http://nnesintesol.blogspot.com/2010/07/shondel-nero.html

TESOL Board Approves Final Phase of Governance Restructuring. (2018, January). TESOL Connections. Retrieved from http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolc/issues/2018-01-01/2.html

TESOL International Association. (2017). TESOL communities of practice procedure manual. Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/docs/default-source/education-programs/cop_procedures-manual-4-26-18.pdf

TESOL International Association. (2018a). Mission and values. Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/about-tesol/association-governance/mission-and-values

TESOL International Association. (2018b, May 8). TESOL instates communities of practice. Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/news-landing-page/2018/05/08/tesol-instates-communities-of-practice


Riah Werner is an English teacher and teacher trainer who has taught in Africa, Asia, and South America. She is currently an English Language Fellow based in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, where she has designed a national continuing professional development project for in-service teachers. Her research interests include drama and the arts, social justice in ELT, and locally contextualized pedagogy. She documents her projects and blogs about the articles she reads at riahwerner.com.

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