Category Archives: Critical Race Theory

Raciolinguistics and Early Childhood Education


Research into early childhood education teaching and practice benefits from a critical look at component parts. Language and literacy are key elements of any ECE classroom and many ECE scholars actively engage in critical literacy explorations. The new field of raciolinguistics asks and answers critical questions about the relationships and the intersections between language, race and power. Applying raciolinguistics to the early childhood setting is sure to raise lively debates and discussions. Intersectionality (in the case of raciolinguistics this would be-but not limited to-the intersections of race and language) and anti-essentialism are one of the key tenets of critical race theory (Ladson-Billings, 2013). Critical race theory can also be a contentious issue in the early childhood classroom, but if an analysis of CRT doesn’t belong there, there where does it belong?

Intersectionality has proven to be a productive concept that has been deployed in a wide range of disciplines such as history and literature (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013). Cho et al. affirm that its insistence on examining the dynamics of difference and sameness has played a major role in facilitating discussion and analysis of gender, race and other axes of power. Raciolinguistics is a new field of research ‘dedicated to bringing to bear the diverse methods of linguistic analysis to ask and answer critical questions about the relations between language, race and power across diverse ethnoracial contexts and societies’ (Alim, Rickford, & Ball, 2016). It foregrounds the intersections of race and language. The relationship between language, race and culture has long been a topic of interest in different fields, but, as Alim points out, the reluctance to take issues of race seriously among mainstream linguistics and anthropology has been and is troubling.

I begin this paper with a discussion on intersectionality and critical race theory. I then move to discuss raciolinguistics and how it is connected to intersectionality, and how both fields inform the other. Along with this discussion I bring in research and practice in early childhood education and I comment on the need for greater scholarship in the field of early childhood education from a raciolinguistic perspective.


The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a distinguished law professor, in the late 1980s as a heuristic to focus attention on the ‘vexed dynamics of differences and the solidarities of sameness in the context of antidiscrimination and social movement politics’ (Cho et al., 2013). Crenshaw and fellow critical race theorist Angela Harris developed the notion of intersectionality to explain how anti-discrimination law fails women of color (Delgado & Stefancic, 2013). Gloria Ladson-Billings (2013) attached anti-essentialism to the concept of intersectionality and states that critical race theory scholarship decries essentialism, or the idea that people in a single group act and think the same. She comments that we see things as binaries such as black and white, east and west, rich or poor, right or left, but that when we move into the complexities of real life we recognize we each represent multiple identities.

Critical race theory provides a historical context to systemic oppression and highlights the enduring nature of race and racism in our society. It began in the field of critical legal studies. Derrick Bell, who first coined the term, examined the enduring role of race in the supposedly objective field of law. CRT was then brought into another supposedly objective field: education.

Critical race theory in education offers concrete tools for framing pedagogies of race, such as counter storytelling and testimonio (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). This centralizes the experiences and narratives of people of color, thus legitimizing them as evidence to challenge and reframe dominant narratives about race, culture, language and citizenship.

Intersectionality was a lived reality before it became a term (Crenshaw, 2015). In the first part of the 1800s, Maria Stewart, a black female intellectual, stated that race, class and gender oppression were the fundamental causes of Black women’s poverty (Hill Collins, 2000). Hill Collins refers to group dynamics, the importance of the collective, of group identity and solidarity. Intersectionality by its very nature assumes belonging to identity-based groups. It isn’t simply a matter of where or how you ‘belong’ to these particular groups, but it is a matter of how belonging to these groups restricts movement (literal and figurative) and impedes reaching your full potential. It presents a frame through which to analyze layers of oppression, and challenge the hegemonic system: to challenge what is viewed as objectively ‘normal’.

The African American Policy Forum, co-founded by Crenshaw, highlights the importance of intersectionality as a tool (of analysis and resistance) rather than as academic tactic or fashion (Gillborn, 2015). Mc Call (2005) identified three modes of theorizing the complexity of intersectionality: anticategorical complexity, intracategorical complexity, and intercategorical complexity. An anticategorical approach is post-structuralist, and calls social life too complex to make fixed categories anything but simplifying social fictions. That is to say, race and other identity markers are merely social constructs, negating the central tenet of critical race theory that race is enduring. The intracategorical approach acknowledges intersectionality but does not go far enough in analysing why such disparities exist between groups of people. It offers a more layered approach where categories are almost piled up one on top of the other. The final approach is the one McCall uses to describe her own research methodology. Intercategorical complexity requires ‘that scholars provisionally adopt existing analytical categories to document relationships of inequality among social groups and changing configurations of inequality along multiple and conflicting dimensions’ (p. 1773). In other words, the how and the why particular groups of people suffer oppression is foregrounded, and the dynamic nature of intersectionality is affirmed. We must build on the work that came before and continue to interrogate systems of oppression, and how we can resist and transform lived reality. This approach is a call to action, a central tenet of critical race theory.


When it comes to broad scholarship on race and ethnicity, language is often overlooked as one of the most important cultural means that we have for distinguishing ourselves from others (Alim, 2016).

Raciolinguistics is a term that explicitly ties race to language: ‘racing language and languaging race’ (Alim, 2016). Rosa (2016) comments that public display of linguistic difference is alternately celebrated or stigmatized depending on the speaker’s social position. “Language use and race come to be constructed and interpreted in relation to one another” (p. 67). Even when superior language skills are acquired, people are still seen (heard) through a racialized lens that views them as inferior (Flores & Rosa, 2015). A clear example of this was shared on social media recently when a Latina scholar was questioned on her use of the word ‘hence’; her professor assumed she had plagiarized (Martínez, 2016). Children are racialized through language almost from the moment they begin to talk. Language, power and race affect their movements and self-identity in a myriad of ways. We have a responsibility to analyze practice and theory related to early childhood using intersectionality and raciolinguistics in order to best help our children grow up healthy in body and soul.

Intersectionality and critical race theory scholars most often take adults and youth as the starting point of their work. Growing numbers of early childhood practitioners and researchers are using frames such as CRT and intersectionality in their work with young children (Vasquez, 2014)(Souto-Manning, 2013)(Kuby, 2013). It is no accident that the same teacher scholars use critical literacy as a frame through which to hone their work. Language and literacy practices are central to most school settings, and we need to be able to identify what teaching practices help or hinder our students, from as early an age as we can. We need to be aware of how language and race intersect in powerful and potentially destructive ways. The language a child brings to school is inherently tied to family and home, and as teachers we must respect and revere this knowledge, or risk irrevocably breaking their spirit.

CRT in education promotes the use of counter storytelling and testimonio (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) to center voices often unheard and to challenge hegemonic practice. In the early childhood classroom children are filled with ontological questions, their own version of counternarratives and testimonio. They busily make hypotheses about who they are, how they are, why they are etc. These explorations manifest in literacy events such as drawing, writing, reading, painting, telling a story, sharing ideas aloud, collaborating in the block area as they build a city, and the list goes on. Children learn first through the body, and then in some form of what we recognize as words. Very young children are able to respond to verbal commands before they can say them aloud. They process the information and act on it physically, without saying a word in response. A conceptual understanding of the world precedes speech, writing and reading.

Cruz (2001) writes from a distinct perspective, but her words regarding an epistemology of the brown body are valid in an analysis of early childhood education and children of color. “Situating knowledge in the brown body begins the validation of the narratives of survival, transformation, and emancipation of our respective communities, reclaiming histories and identities. And in these ways, we embody our theory”(p. 668). Those of us working in early childhood, and in elementary education, must acknowledge the work that has come before, within families, within communities and within the child themself. We must recognize that knowledge is not only passed down through books and words, but it is also transmitted through bodies, communal relations, and other forms of non-verbal communication.

The moment children enter formal schooling, the pressure is on for them to read and write, and often before they reach first grade. Any knowledge gained through the body and through non-verbal communication is thrown to the side, as are literacy and language skills the children have acquired in their early years. This pressure does not produce diamonds, it produces ulcers and skin rashes. This practice is developmentally inappropriate for all children, but children of color suffer worse.

Raciolinguistic ideologies[1] (Flores & Rosa, 2015) position non-native (and non-standard) speakers of English as deficit thinkers even if they possess superior English language skills. Flores and Rosa assert that it is not a question of lack of proficiency in standard English that holds language-minoritized users back; rather racial positioning is at fault. An example given to illustrate this point is a teacher who hears her young African American students making ‘errors’ in standard English when they say ‘he was/she was’, as the teacher was confusing this usage with the Ebonics’ usage ‘they was’. Power differentials that are already vast when adults teach young children become even greater when the child’s language is not respected and revered.

Intersectionality is inextricably linked to an analysis of power and it helps ‘reveal how power works in diffuse and differentiated ways through the creation and deployment of overlapping identity categories’ (Cho et al., 2013). In reference to U.S. Latinas/os, Rosa (2016) writes that stigmatization occurs through the policing of their English-language use. “Signs of accents and Spanish-language use are regarded as reflections of abject foreignness, regardless of the long history of Spanish-language use across the Americas” (p. 67). Language use is intimately connected to national origin and is often a surrogate for anti-immigrant sentiment, even from people who would otherwise see themselves as liberal. Too many teachers attest to discomfort in the classroom if students are speaking a language they personally don’t understand. We need to question the primacy of English itself, as it is understood in the academic arena. This is a fertile area for future study.

Intersectionality has a core activist component, in that an intersectional approach aims to generate coalitions between different groups with the aim of resisting and changing the status quo (Gillborn, 2015). Intersectionality can be used to identify areas of struggle and to analyze where oppression is coming from, and how it manifests. The burgeoning field of raciolinguistics is also a call to action as affiliated writers and readers take their cue from real world practice and use this as a base from which to theorize. Both intersectionality and raciolinguistics pull from inherently dynamic systems that constantly shift. For this reason it is particularly exciting to see where research and practice will take us. The field of early childhood education is also highly mutable and open to innovative analyses. In the ECE setting CRT activism falls more on the shoulder of teachers and educators than the children themselves, however a challenge to the status quo may come from the work the children do. We must all be ready to take this call to action on.


Alim, H. S., Rickford, J. R., & Ball, A. F. (Eds.). (2016). Raciolinguistics: how language shapes our ideas about race. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4), 785–810.

Crenshaw, K. (2015, September 24). Why intersectionality can’t wait. Washington Post. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

Cruz, C. (2001). Toward an epistemology of a brown body. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(5), 657–669.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2013). Discerning Critical Moments. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2).

Gillborn, D. (2015). Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and the Primacy of Racism: Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in Education. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(3), 277–287.

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from

Kuby, C. R. (2013). Critical literacy in the early childhood classroom: unpacking histories, unlearning privilege. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). Ch. 3 “Critical Race Theory-What It Is Not!” In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

Martínez, T. (2016, October 27). Academia, Love Me Back [WordPress].

McCall, L. (2005). The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(3), 1771–1800.

Rosa, J. (2016). From Mock Spanish to Inverted Spanglish. In H. S. Alim, J. R. Rickford, & A. F. Ball (Eds.), Raciolinguistics. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 23–44.

Souto-Manning, M. (2013). Multicultural teaching in the early childhood classroom: approaches, strategies, and tools, preschool-2nd grade. New York: Teachers College Press.

Vasquez, V. M. (2014). Negotiating critical literacies with young children: 10th anniversary edition (Second edition). New York: Routledge.

[1] The term “raciolinguistic ideologies” was first used, to the best of our knowledge, by Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (Alim, 2016).


The presumption of innocence pt 2

Lawsuits have been filed with the Office of Civil Rights[1] regarding racial disparities in school suspensions but the tricky part is explicitly identifying racial abuse. It is no secret that implicit bias haunts many classrooms. As already mentioned, children of color are singled out for discriminatory punishment, yet a charge of violating that child’s rights is not always easy to prove. In 2014 the ex-Superintendent of Schools in Minneapolis placed a moratorium on suspensions of children in Pre-K, K and First grade when it was found that there was a dramatic increase in suspensions for this age group. Ex-Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson also sought to implement an initiative that would have seen potential suspensions of African American, Hispanic, and Native American children for non-violent offences brought before her office for review. This came after data showed that black students in Minneapolis Public Schools were sent home at a rate ten times that of white students. Johnson commented that far too often school officials are suspending students of color for a behavior that doesn’t lead to suspensions for white students. She states that the inequities exist not in student behavior, but in adult response. Michelle Alexander (2012) states that the genius of the current caste system is that it appears to be voluntary. Personal choices are to blame for personal downfall, but “never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices-often for less compelling reasons-are in fact going to college”. Less than two months after defending her decision in the Washington Post, Johnson abruptly resigned from her role as MPS Superintendent, a job she held for over four years. Despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence of racial bias, and despite the OCR examining disproportionate discipline policies in the MPS, people opposed to this initiative claimed that the only way to reduce racial disparities would be if school officials were more lenient towards students of color and tougher on white students. They were able to sidestep the part where white students already stay in school for offences that would see students of color sent home. Opponents also said that this policy would be unfair to whites, sidestepping the fact that systemic racism leads to incredibly unfair policies for children of color. The needs of white people take precedence over the needs of those less advantaged, and whiteness is seen as the ‘normal and neutral measure by which all other groups are defined and compared’ (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Bernadeia Johnson sought dialogue regarding disparate disciplinary measures, not accusations of guilt. Without dialogue there can be no understanding of individual student need: without dialogue too many children are viewed simply through an essentialist lens. Critical race theory decries essentialism and the belief that all people of a particular group think and act in the same way (Ladson-Billings, 2013). Johnson sought to upend education policy that simply maintained the (racist) status quo. For this she herself was unfairly disciplined, with blame for her departure apportioned to her inability to raise test scores, rather than opposition to a push for racial equity in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Policy shortfall in regards to addressing racial inequities in schools is sorely depicted in the examples discussed here. It is disturbing that attempts to curb suspensions of our youngest children are met with resistance, and disturbing that attempts to balance the playing field when it comes to suspensions by race are also met by resistance. To call opponents of these policies racist would most likely offend their sensibilities. In a ‘post-racial’, ‘colorblind’ era the worst thing anyone can be called is racist, yet racist abuses continue. If the reasons for disparate exclusions from school (inclusions in prison) “can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, or even their families, then society is absolved of responsibility to do anything about their condition”(Alexander, 2012). It doesn’t seem to matter that the school-to-prison pipeline is explicitly addressed (Broome in Louisiana); nor that it’s pointed out that children of color are punished for behavior that white children are not punished for (Johnson in Minneapolis). Schools and districts are not held accountable for exclusionary policies that target children of color. In 2014 California became the first state in the nation to ban the use of suspensions and expulsions for “willful defiance” for children in K-third grade. Prior to the signing of this bill, 10,000 children in these grade levels alone were issued with suspensions for this particularly loose charge. It was hoped the bill would reach into the higher grades but Jerry Brown stated that he could not support “limiting the authority of local school leaders”. Just as Loretta Lynch says the US government should not require police to report fatal shootings of civilians, citing federal overreach, the needs of local school (police) officials to exclude and punish takes precedence over accountability measures that may engender racial justice.

The school-to-prison pipeline is real, and with suspensions and expulsions of our youngest children on the rise we have a moral and ethical imperative to stop this in its tracks. The 6th annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout is taking place right now-October 3 to 11, and in the Bay Area an “Education not Incarceration” convening happened for the first time on Monday the 5th of October. Mobilizing of this kind “highlights the need for regional and multi-issue approach to ending the school-to-prison pipeline”. We have strength in numbers, and we have strength in recognizing the need for the rehumanization of education through decolonizing pedagogy that sees all children presumed innocent, and that sees all children in the brightest light possible.

[1] More than 580 complaints from parents, students or other individuals were received in fiscal year 2013-2014. These complaints regarded possible civil rights violations involving school discipline systems.

Coleman Advocates:

Dignity in Schools:


Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, N.Y.; Jackson, Tenn.: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution.

Horsford, S. D., & Grosland, T. J. (2013). Badges of Inferiority: The Racialization of Achievement in U.S. Education. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). Critical Race Theory-What It Is Not! In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

The presumption of innocence pt 1

“The presumption of innocence is the only civilized presumption”(Gillen, 2014). It is this presumption that is expected to follow a person into the courtroom, and it is for this reason we have courts of law and juries of our peers. Children of color are too often tagged with a brush labeling them as deviant and as troublemakers, before they even walk into the classroom, before the teacher has even set eyes on them. Kindergarten suspensions and expulsions are on the rise in many parts of the US with children of color being at least three times more likely to be suspended for what could often be deemed trivial matters. Louisiana saw 7,400 children in K-3 suspended in 2013-2014 for loose charges like “willful disobedience”, or as Andre Perry says, “being a kid”. A recent bill that would have seen out of school suspensions banned for Louisiana’s youngest children was met with resistance from teachers’ unions and other groups allied with K-12 education. The bill would have seen loose (and subjective) charges such as “willful disobedience” and “intentional disrespect towards teachers and principals” met with loss of privileges, referral to a counselor or social worker, or other in-school interventions. The bill’s sponsor, Sharon Broome, stated she wanted to stop the school-to-prison pipeline; opponents of the bill chose to see it as potential handcuffing, and loss of authority over their right to suspend. The argument put forward by the ‘pro-suspending of young children for non-violent offences camp’ is that some children need to be removed from the classroom so they do not ‘disturb other children’s learning’. It can be easily be argued that exclusionary discipline practices have a stronger impact on the learning of all children in the class than removing the child presenting with disruptive behaviour. Perry asks, “When kindergartens expel black kids what so they learn next?” What all children learn from discriminatory and exclusionary discipline measures is that a child of color will be unfairly treated by the system, no matter how young they are. They will be presumed guilty before even taking a breath in the classroom.

Last year The Washington Post reported that suspensions and expulsions are down in DC charter schools. Suspensions in early childhood, however, rose from 2.4% to 2.9%. A mealy mouthed response from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended ending suspensions of pre-kindergarteners as “young children might not understand why they are being punished and might be acting out in ways within developmental norms”(emphasis added). It is difficult to digest this comment, and difficult to understand why more teeth are not in the game. Exclusionary punishment is meted out without any accountability, or any referral to experts in the field. It can take as little as one suspension to suck a child into the prison pipeline, but this doesn’t deter those so hard of heart they favor punishing kids who barely reach their waist. Most urban charter schools boast of ‘no excuses’ policy so that children can ‘rise above the odds’. The DC suspensions figures didn’t disaggregate for race but a quick glance at around ten DC charter school profiles show that their population is made up almost 100% of children of color, mostly African American. It appears that only black and brown kids need the ‘tough love’ approach. The myth of black inferiority is reproduced in these schools and the perpetuation of this myth is most dangerous and damaging (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Black and brown bodies are viewed as something to control, rather than being viewed in their full humanity. The ‘no excuses’ brand is modeled on the ‘broken window’ theory of policing, a theory that is blatantly ineffective and that unfairly targets low-income communities of color. What’s more, ‘no excuses’ is an extreme extension of this theory (Goodman, 2013) as many of the behaviors the schools demand are not wrongs in themselves. It is not wrong to talk to a friend, it isn’t wrong to slouch, and it isn’t wrong to gaze into space. Yet charter schools such as KIPP punish children for the most minor of ‘infractions’ such as not following the teacher with his or her eyes. Falling asleep in class garners 10 demerit points, which triggers a detention, missing a detention may lead to a suspension. There is no suggestion of talking to the child to find out why they are so tired in school. ‘No excuses’ charter schools take an ahistorical view of the children in their care. A director of a DC charter school said suspension rates are higher at her school because of the population the school attracts-“kids who have struggled with incarceration, chronic truancy and other problems”. There is no deferral to understanding the child’s home life and to providing support that respects them as a human being. This would require a humanizing pedagogy rather than the colonizing model these schools use. When viewed through a historical lens there is clearly a paternalistic model in play, one that harkens back to the days of slavery. There is no true desire to improve the lives of children of color living in poverty, as profits come from keeping them down. From the youngest grades on children must comply at all times to directives from above (that make little sense for the most part). They have no control over the curriculum and are unable to properly interrogate subject matter. Individual effort is key, no collaborative learning, and often no speaking for long periods of time. If children fail to (respect authority) follow directives, public shaming may follow, such as wearing a school t-shirt inside out to show he or she needs to work on their behavior (if they want to get ahead). These children are nothing more than data points. A non-critical and ahistorical interpretation of educational statistics only serves to oppress students of color further (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Even if charter schools could prove their methods help children do better on standardized tests, the people running these charter schools do not respect the humanity of each and every one of their students. The one (or two, or three) time/s a five year old is suspended for daydreaming may be all it takes to one day see him or her referred to by number and not by name.


Gillen, J. (2014). Educating for insurgency: the roles of young people in school’s of poverty. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Goodman, J. F. (2013). Charter Management Organizations and the Regulated Environment: Is It Worth the Price? Educational Researcher, 42(2), 89–96.

Horsford, S. D., & Grosland, T. J. (2013). Badges of Inferiority: The Racialization of Achievement in U.S. Education. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. Routledge.