Dr. Patriann Smith talks to us about race, language, and immigration. Dr. Smith is known for her transdisciplinary research at the intersection of linguistics, (im)migration and race in literacy education. Her forthcoming book, with Drs. Arlette Willis and Gwendolyn McMillon, Affirming Black Students’ Lives and Literacies: Bearing Witness, will soon appear in Teachers College Press. Dr. Smith is a member of the Board of Directors of the Literacy Research Association (LRA) and co-author of LRA’s recent report, Advancing Anti-Racism in Literacy Research. Dr. Patriann Smith is an Associate Professor of Literacy Studies in the College of Education at the University of South Florida. Check out her guest page on the Classroom Caffeine website for the resources Dr. Smith mentions in her episode.
To cite this episode:
Persohn, L. (Host). (2021, Nov 23). A conversation with Patriann Smith. (Season 2, No. 14) [Audio podcast episode]. In Classroom Caffeine Podcast series. https://www.classroomcaffeine.com/guests. DOI: 10.5240/CDCE-5B71-CBFF-6CC8-F68A-X
Education Research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. But the questions and challenges from teachers practice sometimes don't become the work of education researchers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. In a new episode every other week, I talk with an education researcher or a classroom teacher about what they have learned from their work in education, and what questions they still pursue. In this episode, Dr. Patriann Smith talks to us about race, language, and immigration. Dr. Smith is known for her transdisciplinary research at the intersection of linguistics, immigration, and race in literacy education. Her forthcoming book with Drs. Arlette, Willis and Gwendolyn Macmillan, titled Affirming Black Students Lives and Literacies Bearing Witness will soon appear from Teachers College Press. Dr. Smith is a member of the Board of Directors of the Literacy Research Association, where the LRA and co author of LRA's recent report Advancing Anti Racism in Literacy Research. Dr. Patriann Smith is an Associate Professor of Literacy Studies in the College of Education at the University of South Florida. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode, and check out her guest page on the Classroom Caffeine website for the resources Dr. Smith mentions in her episode. So pour a cup of your favorite morning drink. And join me your host, Lindsay Persohn for Classroom Caffeine, research to energize your teaching practice. Patriann, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show. Thank you. I have a couple of questions for you today, from your own experiences and education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now? Thank you for that lovely question. I would say that as a black mother moving from the Caribbean to the United States, and raising a black daughter, I think it has been very useful to think back and to view a lot of my research through the lens of being a mother to my daughter. For instance, looking back now, I remember how my daughter would often ask me about colorism, you know, at least now that I think back on it. It really was about colorism. When she was a little girl growing up in the Caribbean, she would often ask the question, Mommy, why am I black and you are beige. And I would think wow. And I would explain to her how the different shades occurred and all of that. But I wasn't thinking very much about the impact of color back then or the impact of race back then. You know, I think back on the fact that being a quote unquote light skinned person in the Caribbean, there is often this idea that individuals who are light skinned are looked upon more favorably. And so being in that sort of category would have precluded me from seeing a lot of what my daughter would have been seeing as a child who was dark skinned growing up in a context like that. And so I would explain to her about the different shades. But at the time, being a younger mother, I unfortunately did not pay much attention to the impact of color or race back then. One could say that a lot of my life's experiences as a younger mother were viewed through a quote unquote raceless lens, largely because, as I mentioned, I was not as dark skinned as my daughter to experience the negative responses that naturally occurred with a lot of folks when they had that complexion in the Caribbean context. Coupled with this I remember a quote that my light skinned sister also often described when she spoke with my brother who was dark skinned back then as a child, and she would say you stayed too long in the open she will often tell him. And of course as kids back then we did not know what we were saying; we were innocent in this sort of context. But there were so many subtle ways in which race was being construed by us and being discussed by us, but not so much so in any formal context, or intentionally by our teachers, or our parents or friends. It was not something that would often come into the conversation formally. So you would have people saying to my mom, you know, your daughter is so pretty, and then they would look at another person's child who was dark skin, you know, they would say absolutely nothing at all. So you had this sort of subconscious, but very deliberate kind of effort on our parts in the Caribbean to make sure that we sanctioned a certain kind of beauty, but that beauty was often very, very adjacent to whiteness, and what it meant to be white. And so now as an adult, being a black person in the US for the past decade, and viewing my daughter's growth through the lenses of what I know now, as a scholar who has looked at immigration and language and race and how they intersect, I can see now how my daughter's questions about race would come to largely define a lot of how the world viewed her in the United States as a black child. And, you know, the past 10 years have been very, very indicative of how the United States in the context of the United States causes the Caribbean person or the immigrant person who is black, to begin to focus on that blackness, and to either decide intentionally that we will identify with our blackness, or that we will not. And so that was a lot of me grappling with that kind of experience, and also with deciding how I would engage in discussions with my, with my daughter about how other people responded to her. But unfortunately, it took me quite a while to get to that place where I was able enough to have the conversations that I needed to with her, and I look back on it, and can see now, as a teacher, also in the Caribbean, how I missed so many opportunities to validate black children and also as an educator here, when I first started working with teachers, how I missed the many opportunities to help teachers validate black children's literacies in classrooms. And so for me all of these layers about race, immigration, and language, really, I look back on them as key moments that have influenced how I have come to think about my research, and how I would like to interact with teachers as I move forward. I really appreciate the way that story highlights the complexity of a child's identity. In framing so much of your your story in family context, I think really helps us to see those complexities are huge, even outside of the schooling context. So once we bring those identities to school, we're talking about additional layers of identity. And as you said, literacies and language. And I think that it's so important for us as educators to think about the whole child and what they bring to their schooling experience. And maybe those conversations that they've had, or potentially haven't had at home around how race informs identity and all of those, as you mentioned, those subtle yet overt structures that tell kids who they are in the world. So thank you so much for shedding some light on that up. So Patriann, what do you want listeners to know about your work? I would like listeners to know that as a black Caribbean immigrant coming to the United States, I was as oblivious to race as many of the folks who my often discuss with in the US and in the Caribbean too who asked me Why do you focus on race in your work? It is divisive and it is contentious. Why don't you just focus on something that is less divisive? I'd like to say to them that being so oblivious about race meant that it was possible for me to do harm to students in my teaching. It was possible for me to do harm because I was so unaware of the ways in which a lot of my literacy and my English language arts instruction, both as a teacher and as a trainer of teachers prevented me from helping teachers to identify and address inequities in classrooms. And so I, I really see a lot of what I do now as saying to teachers, there is a lot that we tend to miss when we do not overtly address and identify how a lot of our teaching is focused on a Eurocentric sort of standard. One would often say that teaching a child to read is not about teaching race, right. But if we think of each literacy standard, or each English language arts standard as one that has that has really built into it a certain child in mind and if we think of how this child that tends to be built into the standard is often a monolingual child, a child who was not a child of color, or a child who is not linguistically diverse, then we see why so many children of color in the US, and often also in the Caribbean do not, quote unquote, do well, you know, while some others are often regarded as great exceptions, and so we tend to say, Okay, if this child of color can do it, all the rest of you can do it too. But we overlook the fact that built into these mechanisms that we have in literacy classrooms are ways that are intentionally designed to support a certain kind of child. If we are to truly level the playing field for all children, our work on equity, therefore, I believe, must really begin by returning to those literacy standards as teachers as educators, and asking ourselves, who is this standard designed for? Whom does it naturally exclude? Whom does it naturally include? And whose reality does it really overlook? In a transraciolinguistic approach for literacy classrooms, which is a framework that I've proposed recently, I provide teachers with concrete ways that they can use to revamp, revise, and even sometimes replace literacy standards, in ways that can really and intentionally address the ways that we can undo harm. And we've got to focus on undoing harm, because in order to undo harm, we first have to identify the harm that we have done. And I placed myself in that category in humility, because I have done harm to children by overlooking the racialization. That often occurs. And also, you know, in that process of undoing harm, think specifically about black children and the legacy of slavery that we we still have inherited, and thinking about black children specifically, and how we're going to undo that harm for them through this revision of standards are revamping of standards, and also to children of color and to all children in general, because every child can be taught to treat other children better. And so you know, we are thinking here about moving across the different bodies of children, whether it's children of color working with white children, and vice versa. We're not just saying that this work is for children of color; this work is for everyone. And that reconciliatory approach that can build these bridges, and allow us to, to sort of redeem ourselves to redeem ourselves through our humanity. So you mentioned a transraciolinguistic approach and acknowledging that that is a very complex idea, I'm hoping that you can offer some ways that that teachers or educators can get started in thinking through this approach. Definitely. So I would really like to provide some resources at the end that teachers can go to and can use when we talk about a transraciolinguistic approach, we're actually saying that because race, language, and immigration are intersecting for a lot of black children who are coming to the United States, there is a way to have all children think intentionally about how they're thinking about language, to help them think about how they're thinking about culture, and to also help them think at the same time about how they're thinking about race. We call these three different types of thinking, meta linguistic, meta cultural, and meta racial understanding. And I propose that teachers can work with all students to develop these types of understandings that allow for reconciliatory sorts of approaches in literacy classrooms. And I provide tangible, concrete ways in which this standards can be revised to allow teachers to do that kind of work. the resources you mentioned, we will certainly link those in your guest page so that listeners are able to go there and get some of the tangible documents that they can think with as they, as they reconsider how we think, and talk about and, and approach language, culture and race. And I think in my mind, you've mentioned it here that these are, these are often hidden structures. I think, for a lot of teachers, particularly, particularly in the US and that's typically what I talk about, because it's it's the context I've worked in, we don't know that we are thinking with structures that don't really allow kids to bring their full selves to class. We don't know that we are thinking with these sort of exclusionary ideas around how we present standards, how we think about standards, and even as you said, how the standards are constructed. And, you know, it struck me as you were talking earlier, that the way that we haven't focused on race in schools. I think we don't recognize that that is really a structure of power, that we can even make that choice or even unconsciously make the choice not to think about a child's race. And I like you whenever I was a classroom teacher, I had the this conception that I didn't see race, because every kid in my classroom was equally important and valued for what they bring. But without acknowledging that race is part of culture and race is part of identity, that doesn't work. Right, it doesn't work to say I don't see your color, because it is part of who kids are and what they bring to the table. So I think it's important to acknowledge that.Patriann Smith:
So Patriann, given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear? So I'd have to say that the racial reckoning that we have recently faced in the United States, and also across the globe, has really brought many things front and center for me and for so many teachers out there. This has been coupled with the opposition to immigration, and immigrants in the United States, particularly. We have seen the attack on Asian immigrants, on Asian Americans, and the rejection of those who speak Englishes and languages that seem very foreign to us. So this is the context in which I would like to talk to teachers, and to sort of respond to teachers and say that, in addition to that whole racial reckoning, the anti immigration, and the ways in which people's Englishes have been rejected, we've also seen a pushback. We've seen a pushback by social media and so many forums were the voices of so many people who know they are legitimate, who know their languages are legitimate, they know that they belong, right? They have pushed back, and the children of those people, their parents, they have come together, so many of us have come together in many ways, and to be able to sort of get together in solidarity, across class, across race, across nationality, across borders, and to sort of respond to this hate and to this opposition and oppression. So we are seeing increasingly, the humanity of our children in schools become front and center, because emotions and the effect that we have as human beings are being called to the front and to the center of our educational enterprise. And so for teachers today, in a world where the pandemic remains a major concern, we are being called not just teachers, but educators as well to prioritize the well being of the child. So the child now becomes the first component, the humanity of the child, the well being of the child becomes the first, the first component that we are focused on. The child is coming into a school, the COVID pandemic is is, you know, raging we our first moral obligation is to say, are you okay? So COVID has created and the racial reckoning has created, coupled with COVID, a situation where teachers must now take up this responsibility of thinking of humanity of the child first. What are the odds that we have now come to a situation where there is no other way but to think about whether the child has COVID, is the child going to be sick, and I must check the temperature, right? So because of this situation, our emotions, as teachers and educators and our empathy is now as important, if not more important than just focusing on the intellect, which has been our major preoccupation. We have prioritize this for way too long. And so for teachers, your success in this moment, I would say, needs to be determined by the degree to which you can be human, while addressing literacy in ways that allows students to feel that they belong. My intersectional approach is that focus on race, on language and immigration, that they make it possible for children who are immigrants, who are linguistically diverse and racially diverse, to be able to experience that sense of humanity. And they also ask us, those of us who are not people of color, or who are not linguistically diverse, to be able to engage in community with equally legitimate peers. So I say to teachers, you are already good enough. I know so many teachers are out there, you know, wondering, can I get these kids back up to grade level, and I would urge you not to measure your success by getting a student back up to grade level in these times. Your success simply needs to be measured by can you be human, but also, can you teach students to be able to exercise that humanity? Because in that process, then, and the revising of literacy goals, we begin to see literacy not just as something that comes to life on paper, but something that really becomes how we live, how we give, how we exercise our God given right, and our God given potential to be able to, to share and to care with others, that it really is where literacy becomes. So focusing on these insights, and on others can allow us to be better and to remove ourselves from simply focusing on on achievement, lots of goals, to getting to the place where we value the the whole self of the child. Thank you, I really appreciate that. And I think, you know, it reminds me that the world works in mysterious ways, right? That that at the same time we are as, as a society dealing with the COVID pandemic, we are also dealing with a new wave of racial reckoning. And I think at least it's, it's the biggest wave in my lifetime and I think it's been such an important movement. But I think the way that you tie those two together, I think is really important for teachers to think about, that it has caused us to look at kids and say, Are you okay? And I don't know that that has always been at the forefront, as you pointed out, it's always been Are you learning? Did you develop your knowledge enough today? But instead, we've kind of really come back to some very fundamental human elements of life, you know, are you as a person doing alrgiht? Are you, as a child, yeah, okay? And when I teach right now, in my classes, here at USF, and I work with teachers, I asked them, are you okay? Do you need more time? Do you need me to give you some some more support? And that humanity is what I think we try to model to teachers here at USF. And we want them to go back out there and start thinking about the child as that kind of person. And then the work can always come, the intellectual stuff will be there. But the world is now forcing us to get to that place where we think of the person first, and then everything else after. Yep, I really appreciate that. And I do have one more question for you. It is I won't say it's a quick question, because I think it's such an important question, but it's something I hear from educators. And it's particularly from people who look like me, with white skin who have lived in the US, and they want to be a part of racial reckoning, but they don't know how to start. And they don't know how to begin that journey without saying something offensive, you know, without just doing the wrong thing. And I think that these are questions from people who now realize that maybe they've been doing the wrong thing for a really long time, but somehow feel paralyzed in that scenario. We don't know how to move forward, but we certainly don't want to move back. Can you offer any advice to anyone who's feeling that way? So I mean, I would say that I would go back to the beginning of the podcast where I talked about not knowing anything about race as an intentional discussion to wanting to learn and by no means when I say that I am white. But I would say that I did also have that sort of lack of a language. I lacked a language to talk about race. And when I first started off, I felt very uncomfortable. In fact, I was quote unquote, called out at a conference and you know, asked to address race when I talked about language in my research, and I was so happy that I was, I was asked to do that. Because when you are oblivious to something, it is almost as if you need a mirror. So basically, people can be our mirrors. And they can help us to see ourselves in new ways. And so I placed myself in a lot of circles, where I had so many different mirrors, even though I felt uncomfortable, I knew that I was placing myself in a space of discomfort. And a lot of my African American brothers and sisters, who had more of a language about race, those were some of the people that became sort of like a really great community for me to sort of say, Okay, here's how they think about things. Here's how they see the world. And I have not seen the world like that, even though we both are racialized as black. And so I began to place myself in these these situations. And I think that for folks who are white, folks who are willing, folks who really want to learn, that the first step for this to happen, is the place the self in spaces where, yes, it's going to be uncomfortable. Yes, I may get called out. Yes, I may have a little learning, or maybe a lot of learning, right, to do. But then as you go through the process, step by step, you keep learning. And so my black brothers and sisters who were born in the US, who have faced all this racialization, overtly... I mean, I've learned so much from being in community with them. I've also placed myself in lots of white spaces. One of our key professors here at USF, Dr. Jim King, we have very overt discussions about race, him being a white man, and me being a black woman, and we talk about it, you know, very, very openly, how do I really feel about what you just said, I mean, this makes me feel really terrible, Jim, you know, and we laugh about it. And so it's in a safe space, it's an open space. But we both know that we've placed ourselves there intentionally to engage with the discourse. And I think that that is the first step. I think that we tend to want to arrive at a place of, you know, being great at doing this. And there is never an arriving point, as I mentioned, in my research, it's, it's always going to be a continuous process. Even now, sometimes I'll go to a restaurant, and my black American friends will ask me, why were you there to come to no that, you know, there are certain spaces where you are going to be less well received, and I just wouldn't know as a black immigrant person in the US, right? So I mean, you, there's a lot of learning that we've got to do, no matter who we are white, black, you know, immigrants, we've got to learn to adopt a culture of humility. And we've got to learn also to realize that this work is not for one group of people. The work is for all of us. We all have the work to do and that's where I come from, with the God given responsibility to engage in that, that sort of journey. Right, that gets us into thinking about humanity. That's, that's so helpful. And I know, in conversations you and I have had in the past, I remember you acknowledging that effort in the right direction is always appreciated, it may not be perfect. And that is really the approach that I've taken, I find myself in spaces and conversations where I feel like I have so much to learn.Patriann Smith:
You know, that I am at step one, when others may be at step 20 in this journey, and I...Patriann Smith:
And that's okayLindsay Persohn:
Right. And that's an I've, I've come to realize that. That you just have to acknowledge where you are, make an effort to to see a different perspective and to learn something new because I think the idea that that it's we're never at a point of arrival I think that's also really helpful. There's never going to be that that ultimate place because guess what, we are always growing and we are always Well, I thank you so much for this conversation. I thank you learning something new and that is why I tend to be the kind of person who says that, you know, if the person is making an effort, let's let's allow them to make an effort. If the person is not making an effort, there are ways and means that we can, you know, in love and in humility, we can talk with others about where they can grow. And sometimes it's just best to be silent, you know? So we've got to start thinking about the other person, whether they're white, black, brown, a ourselves, right? We've got t start thinking about how can love this person and engage with this person, just as I alue myself. And I think that's oing to take us a long w y as teachers, as educators wh are doing this emotional work. It's a lot of emotional work. A d it requires of us first worki for your time. And I thank you for your tremendous g on the self. Joel Warrican nd and I recently published a piece on The Self and learning t work on ourselves, and to be ab e to see ourselves first as the ones who need to become human nough to do the work that ne ds to be do contributions to the field of education. Thank you so much, Lindsay, for having me. I appreciate it. Dr. Patriann Smith is known for her transdisciplinary research at the intersection of linguistics, immigration and race and literacy education. Her forthcoming book with Drs. Arlette Willis and Gwendolyn McMillon, Affirming Black Students Lives and Literacies Bearing Witness will soon appear from Teachers College Press. With her work, Dr. Smith advances solutions such as a transraciolinguistic approach, and the framework for black immigrant literacies for racial justice in literacy classrooms. Dr. Smith's research is published in journals such as The Reading Teacher, American Educational Research Journal, Reading Research Quarterly, Teachers College Record, and in blogs such as the International Literacy Association's Literacy Now, and the London Society of Economics United States politics and Policy. You can find her in another recent podcast, A Transraciolinguistic Approach for Literacy Classrooms on voiceEd radio. She is a co editor of the Caribbean Educational Research Journal, and an associate editor of Linguistics and Education. Dr. Smith's current projects include two books under contract with Cambridge University Press and Teachers College record. Dr. Smith is a member of the Board of Directors of the Literacy Research Association, and a co author of LRA's recent report Advancing Anti Racism in Literacy Research. Dr. Smith was recently awarded a three year $3.6 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development to partner with the University of West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados to create an educational research center to help support decision making and policy in Barbados and the eastern Caribbean. The center is titled RISE Caribbean. Dr. Smith is an associate professor of literacy studies in the College of Education at the University of South Florida, where she was recently awarded the prestigious USF Outstanding Research Achievement Award. Check out her guest page on our website for the resources Dr. Smith mentions in her episode. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. Listeners are invited to respond to an episode learn more about our guests, search past episodes, or request a topic or conversation with a specific person through our website at ClassroomCaffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please be encouraged to talk about what you heard with your colleagues, and subscribe and review this podcast through your podcast provider. As always, I raised my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.