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  • REACTInitiative

What You Got in the Box?

Demographic data are among the most commonly collected data in the United States and include information such as: race, ethnicity, class, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, citizenship status, religion, disability, and so on. Almost every official process from applications to school registrations includes boxes requesting these data, the results of which typically aid and abet

Person lying under a pile of boxes with various demographic labels (e.g., race, class, language, marital status, etc).

interpersonal and organizational “othering” of historically marginalized groups. Yet, regardless of every one of the aforementioned boxes, all students arrive at school with a wealth of information, distinct experiences, legitimate cultural-linguistic values, and unique perspectives. This cannot be overstated in our increasingly diverse country situated in an extremely diverse global society.

Despite this diversity, many of our schools operate in an outdated paradigm. From kindergarten through post-secondary programs, educational institutions are often underprepared to receive, respect, and build upon diverse student experiences. Instead, educational practices and policies are typically structured to reward those who most closely assimilate to and reproduce mainstream cultural-linguistic values. As a result, those whose lived experiences differ from that of the mainstream group are positioned at a disadvantage that is subsequently used to construct and reinforce notions of deficit. The onus of these constructed deficits is, at once, assigned to historically marginalized students without full consideration of the role of the institution of education including: disparate school funding; the degree of teacher preparedness; biased curricular content; the norming of standardized assessments on mainstream culture; and the use of those standardized tools to measure the socio-political construct of knowledge.

The call to assimilate has been evident throughout the trajectory of my educational journey. I was raised in a bidialectal home where we spoke both African American English and Mainstream American English. In other words, my early literacy skills were founded upon a rich oral tradition that included recitations of Dunbar’s In the Morning punctuated by Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Because of this I had the ability to codeswitch in school, and I could seamlessly adjust

my dialect…

my hair…

and my clothing…

oh, and my body language…

well, let’s be honest, the very fabric of my being…

to effectively and efficiently “play the game” of education. I could step outside of my own “othered” box and force myself into a more narrowly defined existence as my teachers almost always expected and often explicitly demanded. A number of my peers did not demonstrate this flexibility. At times they suffered academically, not because they were less intelligent, but because they boldly insisted upon bringing their full identities into the classroom. Some were likely aware of and had already unpacked these proverbial boxes; they had no reason to hide the contents thereof—no one should.

My experiences in post-secondary programs were no different. Mainstream cultural-linguistic values were consistently the focal point and exploration of issues pertinent to global majority groups remained on the periphery. This relegation of global majority populations to the margins of the profession is reflected in the demographic uniformity of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) students and professionals across several boxes such as race, sex, income level, and monolingual status. Seriously, if we truly valued and wanted different demographic outcomes, the powers that be would shift the way we structure these programs.

No, really…pause and reflect: who else can afford (financially, mentally, socially, and emotionally) to dedicate six unpaid years of study in expensive-as-all-getout CSD programs that revolve around and cater to mainstream identity and culture?

Child peeking out of a large box labeled "Nonmainstream Dialect"

Who are our standardized

assessments normed on?

What do all of our courses

(save one class meeting) focus on?

Which students are forced to take

courses to reduce their accents?

Which students are pushed

out of CSD programs?

Who is centered as the standard?

Whose perspectives are

reflected in research?

Hell, who are the most prominent authors?

Whose evidence is captured in our

so-called Evidence-Based Practice?

Which voices are minimized or missing?

Educators in CSD programs have a moral and professional responsibility to promote equitable access and opportunity to education for all students. Furthermore, these educators are responsible for fostering student agency in the classroom and beyond. We are charged with incorporating educational content that is situated within a global context and that explores intersectional identities and diverse lived experiences. Education is a tool to equip students of all backgrounds to make independent, informed decisions, and to forge their own definitions of success.

Teaching pedagogies can be either assimilationist, segregationist, or anti-racist. In an assimilationist model the notion that minoritized groups must adhere to and reproduce mainstream cultural-linguistic values in order to be successful is paramount. Segregationist pedagogies suggest that students who do not conform to mainstream educational standards should be educated separately, usually in a lower course of study, remedial program, or alternate setting designed to mitigate the cultural and linguistic distinctions that set them apart from their mainstream peers. Anti-racist pedagogies, on the other hand, simultaneously center culturally sustaining content while also identifying and dismantling practices and policies that perpetuate assimilationist or segregationist ideologies. My teaching philosophy aligns with the latter. Rather than demanding that my students deny their identities to meet with educational success, education should promote critical thinking that calls into question the practices and policies leading to disparate outcomes across demographic groups.

No student should have to compromise their identity to be successful. No educational system should pathologize or criminalize diversity. Instead, education should build upon the diverse experiences of students, foster an exchange of information and perspectives across different groups, promote critical thinking, and address institutional and systemic issues that uphold inequities both inside and outside of the learning environment.

Demographic boxes, all too often, are used to diminish identities that are infinitely complex. Our day-to-day lives begin and end with boxes, from the boxes I checked on my grad school application to the boxes in which historically marginalized folx are expected to perform for educational and even professional pursuits. So, I encourage you to take a moment to sit back and reflect on the proverbial boxes you carry in your own life. Unpack them, sift through the contents, and seek to understand them for what they actually are…and, for God’s sake, dismantle what you’ve learned about these boxes—yours and those carried by others—through biased institutions and inequitable systems throughout your life.

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