More thoughts on Language for Racial Equity


Last week we wrote about dual language programs and the value of them. I’m happy to share my partners from OneAmerica reported the bill to expand access to bilingual education for Washington’s students (HB1445/SB5529) have passed BOTH chambers of the legislature budget committees with bipartisan support. The next step is to get a similar bill passed out of the Senate. To lend support to this effort please join OneAmerica’s mailing list.

This is the second part of last week’s blog post. Heidi (of the fakequity team) sent me detailed notes and thoughts about dual language and how language factors into racial equity. This is how our conversation went. “Hey Erin, You wrote a good personal narrative about dual language programs. What happened to all of my notes?” “Yeah, I couldn’t fit in all of your detailed notes. Sorry.” So to make sure Heidi’s good thinking and notes are shared with the blogosphere here are Heidi’s ramblings and thoughts about language, race, power, and learning with more personal narrative by Erin.

Assimilation and The Price of Assimilation

“Lastly, let us not forget that the eradication of our Native languages not only brings about spiritual and cultural loss, but the elimination of our languages has been central to colonial and genocidal efforts. The colonizer wants us to forget that we are originally free peoples who had our own forms of governance, spirituality, ways of living and languages. Eradicating our languages is a means to eradicating who and what we are as Indigenous peoples.

 “Teaching an Indian youth in his own barbarous dialect is a positive detriment to him. The first step to be taken toward civilization…is to teach them the English language.” -Commissioner of Indian Affairs John D.C. Atkins, Native language Survival & Revival

Language is one of the ways people of color are told and forced to assimilate into mainstream cultures. In the United States that meant Native and indigenous people were forced to give up their languages and in many cases children were forcibly removed from families and sent to boarding schools where they were reprimanded, including physical punishment, for speaking their Native languages. Across races this legacy of forced assimilation, and English only is now deeply embedded into our society, workplaces, and education systems. We no longer see losing home languages as an act of cultural genocide, but one that is just the “way we do business.”

The normalization of English only practices (whether conscious or unconscious) means the original colonizers have succeeded with their original intent to forcibly assimilate through language elimination. Monolingual English speakers and systems almost always make non-English speakers come to their turf, on some occasions wander out of the English only castle (translation and interpretation), but rarely spend time in spaces that are using other languages as the tool of power. Because they don’t want to and don’t have to give up that power.

Cost of Assimilation

Language assimilation and loss were and still are the ultimate tool of assimilation. Because language holds cultural insight, perspective, and value taking away a home language takes away these connections. Forcing or using only English defaults us to being limited to thinking and tools that benefit the colonizers.

Defaulting to an English only framework places people who speak a different language than English at a disadvantage, we are always trying to fit into the American/English speaking framework because we are using someone else’s tools.

“Thinking in English leads to thinking and acting like the colonizer.” – Native Language Survival & Revival


As an international transracial adoptee, I [Heidi] see how much value is placed on “economic security,” learning English to be able to survive and hopefully thrive in America. There is lesser concern about the “cultural loss and separation,” and even with economic security, adoptees still face trauma from adoption, racism, and cultural loss. For adoptees who want to reconnect with their country of birth, and biological families loss of language can create retraumatize or create new trauma because there is no sense of belonging – not belonging in the adoptive culture, but not having a homeland to return to. Language ease makes you feel comfortable in the US, but seeing yourself mirrored in society makes our birth country’s a place of comfort until we open our mouths.

In immigrant and refugee families loss of language can create gulfs between family members. Parents or grandparents who continue speaking their mother tongue and children who may be English only cannot connect with each other. Or the power dynamics are reversed when a young child who has to translate for their parents. This disconnect is taxing within families and can create trauma within families. Programs such as dual language programs that help students maintain and continue to grow in their home language are wonderful bridges and helps children develop racial pride.

Language as a Tool for Racial Equity

Language is a very tangible way to move closer to racial equity. When we design for two or more languages we default to hiring different people, using different cultural norms, learning different history, etc. We intentionally slow down and begin to see our work as more complex and inclusive.

“Guajardo is acutely sensitive to the critiques voiced by Alvarez and others. “Without the infusion of culturally appropriate, culturally relevant approaches, I think that we don’t touch the spirit of the region,” he said. At one point, he was interrupted by a phone call; someone from the MBA program was looking for a course taught in Spanish to fulfill a breadth requirement. He pitched a Mexican- American studies class. “Stephanie would be great for the MBA students,” he told the person on the other line. “She would turn [the business students] upside down with all kinds of Chicano studies stuff that they would do well to know.” – Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University

Racial equity work is about creating relationships with people different than us so we can begin to have expanded world views. Language and ability to use language as a tool to make this happen is important. Erin recently took her kids to the public library and there was extra space in the Spanish language storytime. Her daughter loves storytime, so much so they have to have play storytime at home. Yet during the middle of the Spanish storytime the kids asked to leave because they ‘didn’t like it,’ they couldn’t understand what was being said, but they could follow along, but they stayed. It was important for the kids to not be at the center and it was ok they didn’t understand. Learning empathy and how to struggle with language is an important part of developing racial equity skills.

In a final thought a friend shared this thought: “I dream in Somali and think in Swahili. If I take time to answer you, know that my brain is trying so hard to translate my multi-lingual syllables in your English language.” English is her fourth language which she forced herself to learn to survive life in colonized world. “I love and appreciate folks with deep accent. I often want to hold them upon hearing their accent.. it shows they are rich in language and culture. That I’m not alone. That they come from another world just like me.. and their courage speak for itself through their accent. Diaspora. Immigrants. It’s so beautiful I have no words for it.” 

By Heidi Schillinger and Erin Okuno