This morning I dropped my son off at school, like I do everyday. On my way out I held the door open for a woman and a young girl. As they walked in I said “Good Morning” like I do to every family I encounter there. Except that, I said it in Spanish “Buenos Dias.” I might have said it in Spanish rather than English because I had just been talking to E in Spanish, but more likely than not I probably said it in Spanish because they had just been talking to each other in Spanish and they looked phenotypically Latinx. In response, the woman said “Thank you. Good Morning.”
E goes to a progressive child-centered school in the next town over. It is a racially and socio-economically integrated school – two of the key factors that led us to enrolling him here. Yet, as I drove away and reflected on what had just happened I realized something: the Latinx representation at the school is a very specific one. Most of the families that are Latinx appear to be Central and South American, definitely not Afro-Latinx. As I drove away the CodeSwitch episode on Amara La Negra (@AmaraLaNegraALN) that I had been listening to resumed playing. In it Amara talks about her struggles to find a place in North American (N.A.) society, a place that acknowledges not just her Latinidad but also her Africanness. However, when Latinxs try to stake claim to their blackness they are often told that they are engaging in instances of cultural appropriation. Yet, when Afrolatinxs walk down the street most people don’t see a Latinx, they see a black person. But what does that have to do with language? Everything. Essentially, what Afro-Latinxs are told is that society views us as Black and in order to be Black than we must silence our Spanish – otherwise we are accused of denying our blackness or culturally appropriating someone else’s.
Drs. Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa use the term raciolinguistics to describe the intersection of race and language. I am certain that what happened at E’s school this morning was an example of how raciolinguistics work in the world. You see, before 2015 I had very long hair. The texture of my hair combined with my features presented me as mixed, Latinx, exotic but definitely not Black. However, I’ve noticed in the last three years that my blackness is intensified by the shortness of my hair. The shorter it is, the Blacker I am perceived to be. So this morning that woman did not see another Latinx saying Buenos Dias, she probably saw a Black woman saying “Buenos Dias” and those two things are very different. I wasn’t another Latinx communicating community or likeness, instead I may have appeared to be a Black woman who questioned the other person’s capacity to speak English. She may have replied in English to enforce that she knew the dominant language; that she could communicate in English, Spanish need not apply.
Who gets to speak Spanish or any language other than English in the USA is a very critical question at this moment in time. In the last few days there has been a video circulating the web about an incident that took place at Fresh Kitchen. In the video a White male customer berates three Latinx individuals (customers and employees) for speaking Spanish. The man recites a common narrative claiming that this is America, his country and in his country/America people should/need to speak English. It was later revealed through social media investigations that the man in the video is a lawyer, a business lawyer who touts his multilingual capacities on his website. On his website he proudly claims that he speaks three languages other than English and can conduct consultations in any of those languages. So the three phenotypical Latinxs in the restaurant can’t speak Spanish, Amara and I – the phenotypically Black Latinx can’t speak Spanish but this man can. It’s not just his claim that he can and we can't, society has in many ways enforced this ideology.
When bilingualism is advertised as a financial and cultural resource within N.A. society, it implicitly also assigns who gets to call upon those resources: White, middle class (wo)men. In a systemically racist society all resources must be used to maintain the existing distributions of power. As such multilingualism can only serve as a tool to further the powerful, not to help elevate the powerless. The solution is not to simply create more bilingual programs as most bilingual education proponents would claim. It is also to promote bilingualism as a means to build and maintain community.
Bilingualism is central in my work, yes but its also critical to how I communicate with my family, to how I integrate myself into spaces while traveling abroad, its how I communicate with the myriad of service people who I encounter. As such any solution to monoglossic ideologies that is taken up must also find ways to address systemic racism in the USA and internalized racism and colorism within minoritized communities. There are several reasons why that woman may not have replied in Spanish: she may not have believed that Spanish is my home language, she may have wanted to exert her linguistic capacities, she may just be accustomed to speaking English to all the adults she encounters at the school, etc. Regardless, none of these reasons are representative of Spanish as a central, or even valuable, language in the lives of Latinx people in NA. That isn’t to say that Latinxs don’t value Spanish but rather that Spanish has become much more of a target on their backs than a target they’re trying to hit.
I walked away from that encounter feeling bad about using Spanish; I felt bad about the idea that someone didn't see me as a “native” Spanish speaker but also that someone would think that I was using Spanish as a way to talk down to them. Minoritized multilinguals are subject to so many types of respectability politics, and this is just another one. One that polices their language use – who can you speak your home language with? When? And for what reasons? Abiding by these rules is one of the ways that minoritized people contribute to linguistic erasure. No one should feel bad or be made to feel bad about using their full linguistic repertoire but the reality is that most minoritized multilinguals do… “only in America.”
 Any language other than English
 Phenotype n. "observable characteristics of an individual," 1911, from German phaenotypus (Wilhelm Johannsen, 1909); see pheno- + type (n.). Related: Phenotypic.