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Chapter 6: Towards Caring Language and Literacy Classrooms for Black Immigrant Youth: Combating Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Moral Licensing

by S. Joel Warrican - 2020

Background: In recent years, there has been a shift in migration pattern to the U.S. such that most immigrants are now coming from regions outside of Europe. These new groups (particularly Black immigrant populations) face acts of discrimination and injustices when they display, for example, linguistic and cultural divergence.

Purpose: This paper explored the effects of raciolinguistic ideologies and moral licensing on the linguistic, literate, and broader cultural identities of Black immigrant youth and the subsequent impact on their academic achievement.

Method: I proposed a theory that links raciolinguistic ideologies with the concept of moral licensing to flesh out how the interconnection between these two concepts may be applied to explain seemingly helpful actions that are in fact harmful.

Findings: This exploration yielded a number of insights, but the standout point is that there seems to be a White Eurocentric way of being (that seems even present in schools) that has adverse effects on Black immigrants.

Conclusions: Under the guidance of caring teachers, Black immigrant students can be encouraged to feel valued and respected, and this should help to foster and increase their participation in classroom activities.


In recent years, there has been a shift in migration pattern to the United States (U.S.). Rather than coming from Europe, the largest proportion of immigrants to the U.S. are now coming from other regions, including Africa and other areas with Black populations (McCabe, 2011; Taylor, 2014). With its colonial history, this is indeed a significant shift from the early period when the British settled and embarked on the subjugation of all peoples not White. In these early periods, the presence of Black populations was an indication of the practice of slavery in the U.S. The abolition of slavery in the U.S. did not eliminate racial injustice, as it was followed by a long period of segregation where ethnic groups (mainly Blacks) were legally and socially separated from Whites. Even though segregation seems to have been abolished in the U.S., there still appears to be incidences of racial discrimination which give rise to major concerns in the society (Bialik, 2018).

From the colonial period and up to the mid-1900s, the immigration policy of the U.S. favored White Europeans. Though during that period most migration was from the European continent, by 2017, of the total population of 325.7 million living in the U.S., 44.5 million were immigrants, with only about 11% being Europeans. Approximately 89% were from countries across the globe (Alperin & Batalova, 2018). Many of these immigrants were from Africa or people of African descent from places such as Latin America and the Caribbean. This shift in immigration trend which has resulted in increasing numbers of racial and ethnic groups moving to the U.S. in recent years may signal to some that issues of discrimination and other injustices against nondominant groups have disappeared.

In this position paper, however, I use language as an illustration to highlight the injustices that minoritized groups (particularly Black immigrant populations) face when there is divergence from American Standard English. I present a raciolinguistic perspective (Flores & Rosa, 2015) to demonstrate that the privileging of English as the official language has never been accidental but rather was started as a deliberate policy by the British colonizers (Pennycook, 1998; Phillipson, 1992; Rosa & Flores, 2017; Thompson et al., 2011; Warrican, 2005) and continues as forcefully today as ever before. Having conquered, colonized and enslaved, it seems natural for the British colonizers to then seal absolute dominion by declaring their language, English, as official. This was indeed the common strategy of the time used by the European colonizers (Pennycook, 1998; Phillipson, 1992). Indeed, it seems that there are inseparable linkages, recognized by the colonizers then and the dominant group now, between language and identity.

The colonizers recognized that to subjugate a people, one useful action would be to subjugate their language, making it less acceptable and less valued than the language that is given prominence and dominance (Drayton, 1990; Pennycook, 1998). In modern times in the U.S., this strategy seems to be applied to forge into one people, individuals from different language backgrounds who arrive in the country to make a better living for themselves and their children. It is a means of establishing “the American Way,” a way of being that identifies an individual as being American (Ungerleider, 2007). It is this perceived American identity that is believed to open to these immigrants many opportunities to which they would have no access in their home countries.

Despite the notion that these language policies could have detrimental effects on the identity of these immigrants because of the negative hue placed on the language and culture with which they identify, it is apparent that policymakers may not see the potential harm. It often appears that to the policymakers, providing a home with services such as education and employment is a fair exchange for these ones adopting the language and culture of their new home. It may even be considered a show of gratitude for the goodwill of the adopted country. Indeed, any detrimental effects may even be dismissed by policymakers in the face of the many perceived benefits of coming to the U.S. This situation is reminiscent of the social and psychological concept of moral licensing (Khan & Dhar, 2006), where in the minds of people, the good that they do for others far outweighs any negative effects that may be incurred.

Recognizing the role that the school plays as a socializing agent (Giroux, 2001), I made the decision to develop this position paper using what happens in that context to shed light on the interplay between race, language, identity and the concept of moral licensing. To this end, I set as my purpose an exploration of the effects of raciolinguistic ideologies and moral licensing on the linguistic, literate and broader cultural identities of Black immigrant youth and the subsequent impact on their academic achievement. Although I refer to Black immigrant youth in general, much of the literature and examples that I use to make my arguments are African and Caribbean. I did not however limit the scope to these two broad groups, since I believe that regardless of the region from which Black immigrant youth come, their plight in the U.S. is much the same. The paper therefore focuses in the broadest sense on Black immigrant youth regardless of origin. I do recognize that there are other facets to the arguments presented in this paper, but my intention is to start a conversation and open the way for empirical research on this topic.

In order to pursue an explanation for perceived and observed behaviors towards Black immigrant students in U.S. classrooms, I propose a theory that links raciolinguistic ideologies with the concept of moral licensing, and attempt to flesh out how the interconnection between these two concepts may be applied to explain seemingly helpful actions that are in fact harmful. I end by suggesting how an awareness of this phenomenon could help teachers to adjust their behavior to demonstrate care, respect and acceptance of the cultural and linguistic differences that Black immigrant youth bring to the classroom.


As mentioned before, immigrants to the U.S. must learn to navigate their way through their adopted society, often with great difficulty, especially when their language is different from the official language of English. Although most immigrants will face challenges linked to the newness of the context, I choose to focus predominantly on Black immigrants. Historically the inhumane acts committed against this group are well documented, from the period when they were forced to migrate to the U.S. as slaves to the present day, where, though the context of enslavement is no longer present, many injustices prevail for both Black Americans and newly arriving Black immigrants. For these Black immigrants in particular, apart from general acculturative stress (Tummala-Narra & Sathasivam-Rueckert, 2016), they must also contend with issues of linguistic identity, since others in their new home country may not readily accept the languages that they bring with them. This lack of acceptance may be linked with the raciolinguistic ideology situated within colonial histories (Rosa & Flores, 2017) that privileges European languages over those from other regions. In the U.S., the British colonizers had a monoglossic language policy, which positioned English as the standardized national variety (Flores & Rosa, 2015) and esteemed it over even the other European languages, but especially over non-European ones spoken by people from Africa, the origin of most of their slaves. Though society has evolved since the abolition of slavery, the policy of English as the one official and national language has remained intact.

Ungerleider (2007), in commenting on the U.S. monoglossic policy, describes it as one in which the intention is to mold immigrants into a single desired way. The American Way, among other things, seems to mean embracing the culture and language of the White dominant group. It can be argued that such a White Eurocentric policy can have particular adverse effects on Black immigrants whose home languages and cultures may be far removed from that prescribed in the U.S. The effects of this policy are not only restricted to Black immigrants but also extend to African Americans whose roots in the U.S. go back many generations. Flores and Rosa (2015) highlight the wrongful denigrating of African American English as “bad” English by the dominant group, which fails to recognize that it is an authentic variety of English with linguistic structures comparable to Standard English.

Flores and Rosa (2015) argue that such a policy as espoused by the U.S. goes against a body of research that highlights the value of embracing rather than eradicating languages in a multicultural society. It is a policy, they argue, that arbitrarily prescribes what is legitimized as language and what is stigmatized. This policy, which embraces an ideology of a “shared” culture, representative of a singular dominant group (Ngo, 2008), is likely to pose problems to the identity of Black immigrants. It is difficult for them not to notice that the genesis of this policy is rooted in colonialism, a system in which being Black made one inferior and all cultural associations, including language, were fit only for extinction. With such a policy, it seems unlikely for immigrants to feel any sense of welcome. This is particularly the case for Black immigrants who may recognize that historically, they have never been embraced in the U.S., and that while they may now be allowed into the country in a capacity more than slaves, their languages and cultures seem far from accepted. Rong and Brown (2001) refer to this phenomenon as the double disadvantage of Black immigrants.

It seems that with this sordid history of slavery, segregation and current discrimination (even played out on television and other popular media), Black immigrants should rightfully feel unease as they settle into the U.S. They must grapple broadly with issues of acceptance (whether real or imagined), and specifically, with their linguistic and cultural identities. It becomes evident that the demand on them is to assimilate fully into the American way of being, including dropping their heritage languages while fully embracing English (Rong & Brown, 2001). As a response to this call, the reaction of Black immigrants can range from full acceptance, where they subdue their linguistic and cultural identities, to open resistance, where they proudly and vehemently hold on to all that they consider their heritage.

Several writers have linked the range of reactions by immigrants, as well as the reactions to immigrants by residents of a country (in particular, the dominant groups) to the theory of positioning (Harré & Van Langenhove, 1999; Moje & Luke, 2009; Smith, 2019; Smith, Warrican, et al., 2018; Yoon, 2012). Positioning, according to Harré and Van Langenhove (1999), is “the study of local moral orders as ever shifting patterns of mutual and contestable rights and obligations of speaking and acting” (p. 1). Applying this theory, it is possible to gain insights into immigrants’ portrayal or display of their linguistic and cultural identities, as well as how receptive others in the society are to them. Harré and Van Langenhove (1999) describe this placement of identity as an act of immigrants being positioned by others (for example, by dominant groups) or how the immigrants position themselves as a response to the context.

Considering the theory of positioning alongside the raciolinguistic context with which Black immigrants must contend, it becomes possible to situate the reactions of the newly arrived with the long-established residents. Davies and Harré (1990) suggest that one mode of positioning is self-positioning: that is, individuals such as Black immigrants assess the context and decide what stance they should take. For example, having assessed that a dominant group in the U.S. is openly voicing the view that new immigrants should be prepared to assimilate by accepting the established mores (including language) of the country, plus the ever looming history of the treatment meted out to Blacks over the years, some Black immigrants may decide to position themselves in a way that shows acceptance and compliance. Others may take an opposite stance, positioning themselves in a show of defiance as they publicly speak their heritage language and display openly their cultural practices. In this regard, the Black immigrants are registering a statement linked to how they wish to portray their identity.

Several writers (Moje & Luke, 2009; Smith, 2019; Smith, Warrican, et al., 2018; Yoon, 2012) have also demonstrated through their research that the act of positioning is by no means static. They have demonstrated that in one context an individual can display compliance and in another, defiance. Positioning, they show, is a fluid concept which allows individuals to fit in quietly, either through acts of mutuality simply to gain acceptance, or by using contestation and defiance as they reject the ways of the dominant groups. This fluidity associated with positioning seems essential to the survival of Black immigrants as they must make decisions about how to navigate within a context that is often hostile.

Interestingly, positioning is not always self-directed and intentional. Davies and Harré (1990) suggest that it can also be interactional: that is, individuals such as immigrants are positioned by others based on factors such as their language. In such cases, rather than the immigrants through their own awareness making conscious decisions to position themselves, others (dominant groups) decide where they should or should not be placed. This mode of positioning also has special implications for the Black immigrant in the U.S., a country with a history of prejudging, assigning and excluding people based on the color of their skin. Therefore, Black immigrants coming, for example, from Africa may feel that they start at a disadvantage. They have to contend with policies that privilege English over all other languages; they are in possession of African languages that are less valued than European ones; and they recognize that in the society there are a significant number of people who believe that superiority or inferiority is based on skin color. They can, therefore, rightfully feel that how they are positioned is for all the wrong reasons.

This type of racial categorization assigned to Black immigrants by dominant groups is often an act designed to maintain the perceived power over such minoritized groups. It is a power that they believe has been handed down to them through generations of White dominance, and after years of legitimization through state agencies and societal practices, segments of the White populations have arrived at a point where they have a sense of entitlement to power. Though in the U.S. there is an overwhelming sense that the British were beaten in the War of Independence and driven out, one cannot help noticing that through coloniality (Calderon, 2014), many of the tenets of colonialism reside in the minds and practices of many in the U.S. Calderon describes coloniality as those valued practices and traditions that live on from colonialism and help to maintain the old power balances. With the show of power through, for example, state mechanisms (such as English-only policy) and overt voices and practices of dominant groups, many Black immigrants to the U.S. can easily be made to feel powerless. Since positioning is mutable, as stated earlier, the fact is that the same Black immigrant who today appears powerless may subsequently take a counter stance in the future to exert his or her power through acts of defiance.

The power relationship between immigrants and dominant groups, like other power relationships, is one signified by dominance versus subordination. This is at least from the viewpoint of the dominant group, who in the case of Black immigrants to the U.S., often seems to believe that Blacks should be beholden to Whites. In their minds, the White dominant group is doing a good deed for Blacks by allowing them a way of escape from their plight at home, to enter the U.S., not as slaves anymore (as Blacks in the U.S. once were), but as legitimate residents with rights that they once were denied. Members of the dominant group may not comprehend why a Black immigrant protests the English-only policy when they now can vote in a country that for years denied them that privilege. The dominant group may indeed envision voting as a privilege and not a right. As mentioned earlier, this way of thinking can be likened to moral licensing (Khan & Dhar, 2006), where dominant groups feel that doing an act of good counterbalances an unfavorable act. This perspective of dominant groups runs counter to the ideals of democracy and rightfully should be challenged by Black immigrants and their supporters.


In this section of the article, I argue that the perceived “positive” act of accepting Black immigrants in the U.S. and providing them with essential services such as education is used by the dominant group to mask the negative consequences of relegating the linguistic and cultural identities of these immigrants to a subordinate place.

The concept of moral licensing is often depicted as people pointing to some act that is considered good to justify or excuse behavior that they recognize to be bad or immoral. Malcolm Gladwell (2017), using several examples in his podcast “Revisionist History,” speaks to this concept. He points to the individual who counts a Black person as a best friend and uses this to combat accusations of racism when he speaks negatively of other Black people. He speaks of males who dispute the charge of misogyny, pointing to the fact that with their support, a woman was given certain privileges. He aptly supports this point by referring to the 19th century female painter Elizabeth Thompson, who painted the exquisite piece Roll Call, and who was the first woman to have her work prestigiously displayed by the Royal Academy of Arts. He also referred to Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia. For both these women, male society opened the figurative doors to let them into male-dominated roles, allowing these men to later claim no prejudice against women. Essentially, any misogynistic behavior that followed could then easily be denied by these males.

No doubt, moral licensing is a psychological phenomenon that allowed, for example, slave owners to feel virtuous when they claimed that they treated their slaves well, feeding, clothing and sheltering them in ways that others did not, while overlooking the fact that they were depriving these kept individuals of their freedom. This phenomenon also provides an explanation for the way immigrants are treated in countries such as the U.S. The application of moral licensing to excuse certain behaviors may be a deliberate and public act, but sometimes it is subconscious. There is no doubt that there are those who are aware of how doing a moral act can allow them to get away with future immoral actions, and they may use this awareness to their advantage. Others may stumble into this advantage, recognize its benefits and decide to utilize it while disregarding the fact that they are performing immoral actions. The benefits of immorality, through moral licensing, seem more compelling to such persons than continuing on a path of moral deeds.

Merritt et al. (2010), in addressing the issue of moving from moral to immoral deeds, raised questions about the intent of moral licensing. For example, they questioned whether moral licensing provides people with a way of reassuring themselves that they are moral people. This idea presents a credible explanation for the way policies relating to immigrants and their language and culture are designed. There is the sense that policymakers want to appear to be “virtuous” and well-intentioned by accepting these immigrants into their country, even as they appear to overlook the negative impact that some of these policies may have on the immigrants. This theory is a powerful one to explain many of the issues of race that seem pervasive in postcolonial America. For example, Effron et al. (2009) found in a study that people who were able to openly express support for Barack Obama before the 2008 U.S. presidential elections were more likely to make public racist statements than supporters who did not overtly express their support for him. Thus, those supporters who openly voiced support for Barack Obama seemed to think that they then had the moral authority to be racist in their remarks as they could point to the fact that they supported a Black person in his bid for the U.S. presidency. Their moral defense would be, “how dare you accuse me of racism when I supported a Black candidate for president?”

According to Merritt et al. (2010), those who engage in moral licensing seem to think that they accumulate moral credits from past good deeds which they can then draw down on as license to do bad or immoral acts. It may be the thought of such moral credits that drives many to dehumanize Black immigrants. As a society, the dominant group may feel so virtuous for having provided these immigrants with a home and many social services that they overlook the fact that some of the policies put in place to help the immigrants are indeed detrimental to their psychological and emotional well-being. The dominant group may express outrage that anyone could view their actions as ill-intentioned or racist and may dismiss these views as ingratitude on the part of the immigrants and their supporters.

In the case of Black immigrants entering the U.S., as the concept of moral licensing is presented to explain actions directed at them, we cannot forget that looming large is the history of colonialism. As mentioned earlier, some may feel that Black immigrants should be especially grateful as they now have a status greater than slaves. They of course may be mischaracterizing every Black person as a descendant of slaves. They may even believe that the act of ending slavery and later segregation should be considered as moral credits. With these so-called credits, the state itself can then make the claim that the English-only policy or that of cultural assimilation to the point of extinguishing home cultures is justifiable. In that regard, the state seems to fuel the desire by many in the society to suppress cultures and languages other than English.

During the colonial period, policies and laws such as English-only were self-serving, established primarily to preserve the dominance and control of the colonizers (Thompson et al., 2011; Warrican, 2005). Through its modern arm, coloniality, this self-preservation continues by utilizing old strategies of building up moral credits and using them to justify their actions against minoritized groups such as Black immigrants, regardless of whether the effects are deleterious or not. Even if we accept the English-only policy in its official sense where English is the language of government, business and education, Ungerleider (2007) suggests that it is unfortunate that in the U.S., immigrants are not only expected to adopt English, but also to suppress their heritage languages in much of their day-to-day lives. Ungerleider likens the U.S. approach to dealing with the languages and cultures of immigrants to the fashioning of an alloy where all the elements are melted to become one, thereby suppressing the original components. Without a doubt, this perceived drive for oneness seems to disregard issues of diversity and seems to suggest that the identity of the dominant group is placed above that of the individual. It appears to be an unreasonable expectation for immigrants to embrace the values of the adopted country and shed their own linguistic or cultural identities. This appears to be a lack of understanding of the value immigrants may place on their identity. More controversially, it suggests the devaluing of the cultures and languages of minoritized groups such as Black immigrants. The standout point seems to be that through state mechanisms and public sentiment, both drawing on moral credits, an Anglo-American culture is preserved.

This Anglo-American Way is fiercely guarded by some members of the White dominant group who call upon the American Way as well as emblems that represent discrimination and the injustices of the colonial era (Stiem, 2018). In the U.S., many continue to fight to put an end to the injustices that persevere up to today, and to remove from public spaces symbols that link the greatness of America to injustices such as slavery (Stiem, 2018). With such public fights led by many Black Americans, it is reasonable to expect that the groups opposing such struggles would want to limit Black immigrants from entering the country. They may very well be concerned that they may be strengthening the fight for Black Americans, even if by just increasing the numbers. Failing to block entry, the next best thing would be to force these immigrants to follow the American Way that calls for, among other things, English only and a suppression of home cultures. Even after fighting to deny the Black immigrant entry, the dominant group can still draw down on the moral credit that they perceive they have accrued. For them, the distorted reasoning seems to be: We did not have to let you into our country, but we graciously did! [The earned moral credit.] All we ask is that you conform to all our ways. [The detrimental effect for the immigrants who are required to erase their identity].

It is not inconceivable that what members of the dominant group fear most is an America where they are no longer the majority, where Black and other ethnic groups together have the greater numbers. They may look to statistics that point to that trend and fear the worst: losing power as they know it now. Kotin (2010), writing on the changing demographics in the U.S., had this to say:

the United States of 2050 will look different from that of today: whites will no longer be in the majority. The U.S. minority population, currently 30 percent, is expected to exceed 50 percent before 2050. No other advanced, populous country will see such diversity. (para. 12)

This seems a worrisome position to be in if a group is concerned about maintaining its dominance. With the strong possibility of losing its standing in terms of numbers, the dominant group may believe that it needs to be more strategic in its quest to maintain the status quo. An insistence on a monoglossic policy and suppression or elimination of cultures may seem to be the best way of maintaining dominance even if it becomes the minority. To counteract the perceived threat to its power base posed by increasing numbers of Blacks and people of other races and cultures, the dominant group turns to acculturation to maintain its ascendancy. Through the credit system of moral licensing, and aided by state mechanisms such as the school, these dominant groups seem to have found an effective way to maintain that desired control.


The link between the school and societal values has over the years been a source of debate. The nature of the debated connection between these two is usually influenced by the underpinning philosophical perspective, be it functionalism, Marxism or any other. For example, a functionalist perspective may look to the pioneering works of Emile Durkheim and later contribution of Talcott Parsons to frame arguments about the relationship between school and society. Both philosophers portrayed the school as a microcosm of society, playing a central role in the maintenance of society by passing on its norms, values and culture (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008) with a view to ensuring the smooth functioning of the society. In this regard, the school is a uniting agency where children learn to accept and value what the society holds as important for its existence. Applying this in the U.S. context, in school, children learn to value standard American English as the language to be esteemed above all others to facilitate effective communication for the smooth functioning of the country.

Karl Marx and other Marxist followers present a perspective that is different from that of the functionalists. To them, the school is an agency of the state and the ruling class that helps to impose desired norms, mores and values on the subject class in an effort to maintain power and control over them (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008). Again, using language as an example, one can see how some might conclude that the English-only policy of the U.S. can be considered the type of imposition described by the Marxists. If American English is the only accepted language in a country with millions of immigrants with their own heritage languages, then it is easy to imagine how difficult it may be for them to take prominent positions in the society.

Regardless of philosophy, one thing that is apparent is that the school has an essential role to play in the value system of a country. This role seems particularly important when it comes to the education of young immigrants whose early education may already be anchored in another country. These young immigrants enter the new school system with an identity that is already being shaped by their homes and home countries. They may, for example, already have heightened sensibilities about their heritage languages and cultures and may already be literate in at least one of their home languages. In a country such as the U.S., the perceived drive to seek oneness in language (English) and culture can then cause some level of dissonance for the immigrant youth that can eventually lead to a fracture between home and school. Alidou (2000) shows that this fracture, which could be along linguistic lines, can affect immigrant students’ academic performance. The task of learning English, as well as participating in class activities in the new language, can make it particularly challenging for these immigrant youth to excel in their academics.

The challenge of performing well in the new setting may be disturbing to the immigrant youth, who may not only be literate in other languages, but may have been high achievers in the education system of their home countries. As reinforced by Martens and Adamson (2001), literate identities are merely perceptions that students have of themselves that are linked to literacy. They are not fixed but rather they are associated with factors such as experience and performance on literacy activities. It therefore stands to reason that immigrant students who in their home countries did well in literacy activities would in that context have strong, positive literate identities. However, being faced with the challenge of learning a new language, and to become literate in that language without any recognition of their previous literacy experiences can lead to a shift towards the negative for their literate identities. The issue of ignoring the immigrant youth literacies is a serious one, but it appears to be driven by the underlying aim of rapid acculturation. With this drive to help the immigrant youth to fit into a new way of being, there seems to be a trend towards rejecting that which these young people bring to the school (Cummins, 2009). There is a sense that sometimes, even when teachers have the good intention of wanting to help these immigrant students adjust to the new environment, they may in fact unconsciously provide this help in a way that ignores their cultural, linguistic and literate identities (Warrican et al., in press).

The fact is that even when Black immigrant youth from, for example, Africa and the Caribbean end up in special programs to support their assimilation, they are often treated as if their languages (and related literacies) and cultures do not exist (Warrican et al., in press). As a result, many of these Black immigrant youth, as do other minority students, feel as if they are not accepted in their schools, and as such feel little sense of belonging. This feeling of a lack of belonging to the school is not helped by the challenge of learning English (or a new variety of it), communicating with others in this language and the negative response to them by their peers (Tummala-Narra & Sathasivam-Rueckert, 2016). Writers such as Nero (2006) have also shown that many Black immigrant youth experience discomfort even when they enter the classroom as English speakers.

According to Nero (2006), many Black immigrant students are quite often from countries where, because of their history of colonization, English is the official language. Nero points to a hierarchy of acceptance of English that is linked to race and ethnicity, where a variety of English spoken by a White group is more likely to be viewed as acceptable English than a variety spoken by a Black group. Alidou (2000) argues that this nonacceptance of other varieties of English that exist in the U.S. is an act of linguicism, that is, “the ideology and structure that is used to legitimize, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and a resource between groups…based on the devaluation of one’s linguistic heritage” (p. 103). With this perceived raciolingustic hierarchy, Nero (2000) suggests that many Caribbean immigrant students, for example, run the risk of ending up in traditional ESL classrooms, a placement that she argues against on the grounds that their language skills generally surpass those of the typical ESL student. Nero (2006) posits that the Caribbean immigrant student and others that are from a background where a variety of English is spoken at home would acquire standardized American English without traditional ESL classes.

Linked to Nero’s point is the fact that for many of these immigrant youth who speak a variety of English at home that is not American English, although there may be variation in their speech patterns, many of them may already be literate in English and may only need to adjust to the expected standards of the new system. In these contexts, it is important for the teacher to recognize that differences in, for example, accent, pronunciation or vocabulary (culturally related meaning of words) are not an indication of the absence of literacy in English. Many of these immigrant students have sufficiently sophisticated literacy skills and with some guidance, they could perform as well as the nonimmigrant students. In fact, many of these students, as demonstrated in Caribbean studies (Warrican et al., 2019; Smith, Cheema, et al., 2018), would have been not only educated using English as the medium of instruction but also tested on international tests such as PISA using English as the testing language. Teachers should therefore be able to recognize the literacies that these immigrant students bring to the classroom. Having recognized them, they should then be willing to embrace these literacies, making the most of them as they help the students to adjust to the new living and learning environments.

Without a doubt, the school is a powerful agent to facilitate the transition from home country to adopted country for the Black immigrant youth. With a show of care, teachers can help make this transition one that leaves the immigrant students with a sense of worth which has a positive association with academic achievement (Bankston & Zhou, 1995). Care for students in class can be manifested in multiple ways (Warrican et al., 2008). In the case of the Black immigrant youth in U.S. classrooms, this care can be demonstrated by teachers valuing these students’ languages, literacies and culture by, for example, creating opportunities for them to see their heritage languages and cultures embraced and incorporated into their classroom experiences. The reality is that, as Traoré and Lukens (2006) suggest, this sort of positive projection is rare in and out of U.S. classrooms. Referring to African immigrants, Traoré and Lukens (2006) suggest that it is more likely that schools and the wider society will cast Africa in such a way that the Black immigrant youth are more likely to read, see and hear negative portrayals of their continent. Such portrayals, along with the nonacceptance of their languages, send a clear message by the school that what is good and acceptable is an Anglo-Americanized language and a culture that embodies the American Way.

The school, it seems, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in pushing the American Way agenda, is likely to marginalize Black immigrant youth. Even when these students appear to conform, many of them may only be positioning themselves in a semblance of acceptance in order to have as smooth a passage through their schooling. Such a stance by these students should in no way be interpreted as an embrace of the new way of being. As mentioned earlier, the act of positioning is a fluid one that can change with context (Yoon, 2012). Those same students may respond later to the acculturative stress (Tummala-Narra & Sathasivam-Rueckert, 2016) by positioning themselves in a way that demonstrates resistance. It seems, however, that many in the dominant group, including many teachers, as Ngo (2008) articulates, have created simplistic understandings of immigrant cultural, linguistic and literate identities. These poorly developed understandings, for example, ignore the fact that the Black immigrant youth may have already applied literacy skills acquired in one or more of their home languages to explore and experience the world. It is possible that the level of ignorance relating to Black immigrants’ identities is what causes members of the dominant group to react with outrage when they see any sign of protest and resistance in response to their actions. Perhaps resistance is unexpected because, as the theory of moral licensing suggests, these Black immigrant youth, now and later as adults, should be grateful for an America that welcomed them after their “unfulfilling” lives in their home countries.

Blinded by an attitude that suggests that Black and other immigrant youth should be grateful to the U.S. for opening “welcoming” arms to them, people can lose sight of the issues and effects of marginalization. For example, Cummins (2009) found that concomitant with marginalization are feelings of alienation. According to Cummins, marginalization and alienation may very well be tools linked to coercive relations of power which help to force immigrant students to succumb to the covert and overt suggestions of accepting the mainstream culture and values. If the purpose of U.S. education is more than to maintain the status quo of the dominant group, then the school may have to revisit the provisions made for minoritized groups such as Black immigrant youth. Equally, if the purpose of education is not aligned to a philosophy where the school seeks to maintain the existing divisions of society, then there should be deliberate efforts to ensure that groups such as Black immigrant youth are provided with fair opportunities to succeed. Without a doubt, the school is in the best position to demonstrate acts of care and respect that would make the Black immigrant youth feel a sense of belonging, of being a part of the greatness that is associated with the U.S. Such expected acts of care should permeate the school and be translated into action by the individual teachers who interact with the immigrant youth in their classrooms.


Without a doubt, the classroom is the space within schools where immigrant youth are most likely to come face to face with many of the challenges outlined in the previous section. Conversely, it is also the place where caring teachers can help immigrant youth find a voice and a sense of belonging. The sense of belonging would only be possible when immigrant youth can openly express themselves about their culture or can draw on their languages and literacies as they participate in class activities. There are studies conducted in the U.S. (for example, Warrican et al., in press) that have found that even when teachers think they are giving voice to immigrant students, when the students are consulted, they indicate that they feel left out of classroom activities as they have a sense that their languages, cultures and that which they possessed before (such as their literacy knowledge and experiences) are not valued. Teachers who try to include the immigrant youth but disregard their languages, literacies and cultures, seem not to understand the importance of these human characteristics to individuals’ participation in their communities, whether these be neighborhoods or classrooms. For example, they ignore the fact that much of what humans know, and how they share what they know, are accomplished through acts of literacy. Imai et al. (2016) point out that there is a correlation between language (including associated literacies), culture and thought. It is important then for teachers to be aware that individuals’ thinking and the ideas that they generate are influenced by their culture, and that in order to share these ideas with others (be it through literacy acts or otherwise), they use the medium of language. It is this awareness that should help them to understand that to denigrate the cultures and suppress the languages of immigrant youth (Black or otherwise), in essence, cuts off their avenue for sharing their thoughts and ideas, which in effect takes away their voice, thus silencing them.

In order to keep the avenues for in-class communication open and increase levels of participation in classroom activities, immigrant youth need to feel that their languages, literacies and cultures, even if not thoroughly understood, are at least respected and valued. Writers such as Ladson-Billings (1995) in her seminal work on culturally relevant pedagogy, and Paris (2012) in the more current and still evolving perspective of culturally sustaining pedagogy, have strongly proposed the affirming and valuing of cultures of minoritized groups in the classroom. Paris (2012), for example, in the call for a culturally sustaining pedagogy, posits that it “seeks to perpetuate and foster – to sustain – linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling” (p. 95). Paris goes beyond just embracing and valuing minoritized student languages, literacies and cultures to making the case that they should be provided with opportunities to challenge systemic inequalities wherever they exist, including in the classroom. Through such democratic processes in the classroom, it is anticipated that participation in class would increase, which ultimately can lead to increased chances of academic success for minoritized groups such as Black immigrant youth.

Increased in-class participation is without a doubt dependent on a principle of cultural inclusion where the activities of the classroom are not merely a reflection of the dominant culture, but also that of positive projections of the minoritized groups such as Black immigrant youth. Such positive projections help Black immigrant youth to feel that who they are as people is valued and accepted by the teachers and nonimmigrant students. This is particularly important since some people of African origin (especially when they are generations removed) have themselves bought into the popular notions of African civilization being somewhat inferior to those of Western origin. It is expected that through positive portrayals, they would develop a level of understanding for the diversity of people of African origin, as well as tolerance and acceptance for this diversity.

Ideally, then, it seems that to encourage participation of all students in the classroom, teachers must create an environment where different cultures come together in a unified whole, where students can see themselves reflected in the whole and can perceive that what they bring to the space is respected and accepted (Smith et al., 2017; Warrican, 2012). In this unified space, the idea is not to create a figurative, homogenous alloy (Ungerleider, 2007) where some cultures and languages (especially those of the minoritized group) become lost or are no longer discernible. The aim, rather, is towards a heterogeneous mixture by facilitating the integration of the constituent parts in such a way that all languages, literacies and cultures are reflected in classroom activities. Clearly, it is not sufficient for teachers and education policymakers to just enable minoritized groups such as Black immigrant youth to have access to education.

This act of providing only a basic service may fall into the realm of moral credits where some policymakers or even teachers believe that it is their only obligation to Black immigrant youth after the state has done the good and noble deed of allowing them into the country. While providing such a basic service is necessary and may appease the consciences of the dominant group and might even pander to their notion of moral credits, overall it is not sufficient. The greater good seems to be to foster an environment where Black immigrant students feel safe to participate fully in class, which could ultimately lead to increased academic success.


In this paper, I explored the impact of policies (in particular, those related to language and multiculturalism) in the U.S. on immigrants to that country, with an emphasis on Black immigrants. Using a raciolinguistic theory and the concept of moral licensing, I advanced an explanation for the dissonance between what might be considered good intentions of the host country and the evident deleterious effects of implemented policies on the psyche of these immigrants. I argued that the existing policies of elevating American English above all other languages can run the risk of rendering them voiceless and, for all intents and purposes, powerless. This type of powerlessness paralyzes, disempowers and restricts Black immigrants, a state of being that is perhaps most vividly evident in education settings. In these settings, as teachers implement English-only policies in the classroom, they suppress the literacies, languages and culture of Black immigrant youth, thus limiting their participation in learning activities. This restricted participation may in turn negatively impact the academic achievement of these immigrants, which may later inhibit their ability to hold positions of leadership in the society.

 Finally, I argued that raising the awareness of classroom teachers about these issues, sensitizing them to the need to value the literacies, languages and cultural identities that immigrant students bring to the classroom, and integrating them into the teaching and learning transactions can have positive effects. Under the guidance of caring teachers, Black immigrant students can be encouraged to feel valued and respected in the classroom, and this can foster and increase their participation in activities there, which can increase their chances of academic success. For these youth, the American Way does not have to be one that makes them feel ashamed of who they are and what they learned prior to immigrating to the U.S. For them, it can be a journey that embraces the identities that they have already developed and allows them to add to the richness of that which typifies America and makes it the colorful, linguistically and culturally diverse melting pot built on the forging together of the good brought by its immigrant populations. In this way, the U.S. can truly be greater than the sum of the individual contributions of the various literate, linguistic and cultural groups that seek refuge under its star-spangled banner.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 13, 2020, p. 1-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23387, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 12:51:56 AM

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About the Author
  • S. Joel Warrican
    University of the West Indies
    E-mail Author
    S. JOEL WARRICAN, Ph.D., has been in the field of education for over 30 years, with teaching experience at all levels, from kindergarten to tertiary. He is currently the Director of the School of Education at The University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus. His recent publications include the article “Peer Effects in the Individual and Group Literacy Achievement of High-School Students in a Bi-dialectal Context,” published in Reading Psychology.
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