Guide to Coded Language in Education
Subversive Thread, a group of artists and educators, shared Volume I of their Guide to Coded Language in Education in a series of images on instagram. In the post caption, they write:
“Academia has an aversion to language that precisely names oppression. Maybe it’s because it is largely controlled by wealthy, conservative white men (84 percent of full-time college professors are white and 60 percent of those are men). The stats for elementary and high school #teachers isn’t better ― 80 percent white.
Where white people don’t dominate totally, #academia is still full of liberals who too often trade accurately naming oppression for institutional clout. In this Eurocentric, male, and capitalist education system, radical BI&POC are left in a constant cycle of #learning “new” language to describe problems we’ve lived through and named for generation.
But we think it is important to push back against the palatable renaming of our oppression. So today, we wanted to cut through the bullshit. In the traditions of Black, Brown, and Indigenous radical thought, we will say aloud the names of our oppression when we see it or experience it: We will say this is white supremacy; this is anti-Blackness; this is cishetero patriarchy; this is ableism; this is empire.
We start with Vol. I of our “Guide to Coded Language in Education.” This series is meant to sift through some of the jargon we hear in education spaces. It is a work in progress. If any of these slides feel unclear, if you would like to see more writing on a topic, please post below and tell us. There is only so much we can convey in a single slide on Instragram and we welcome the need to bring more nuance to this discussion.
We also invite you to share below some words or phrases that you’ve experienced which decenter naming how a system of oppression shows up in education.
As always, thank you for reading. Love and power.”
Similarly, as I caption the images below, I invite you to consider how these words might be coded for our comfort in working within oppressive systems, and how to instead name these systems.
In the image above: “Grit” is a coded term for saying a child survived the conditions of white supremacy, anti-blackness & capitalism without having to name those systems of oppression directly— or their correlative effects of young people of color. “Black, brown [& indigenous] [students] don’t need to learn grit, they need schools to stop being racist.” -Andre Perry.
In the image above: “Under-Represented Minority” BI&POC are not minorities—we are the world’s global majority, we are only “minorities” within the borders of europe’s colonial projects, and we are only under-represented to the extent that those projects must continue legacies of genocde, slavery, theft & empire to maintain control of their borders. White settlers must ask themselves who would they be without their borders?
In the image above: “Academic Rigor” rigor itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing—but when combined with grading it becomes a tool to create classroom meritocracy. In this way rigor is wielded as an extension of the carceral state, to punish struggling students by creating failure where growth might otherwise exist. This cycle of stratifying students into successes and failures is necessary to maintain classist and racist institutions like the school to prison pipeline.
In the image above: “College Ready” The Bar for “college readiness” centers white students’ educational experiences because it requires access to institutional support that most majority BI&POC districts have been systematically cut off from (racist zoning laws, redistricting, & education policy that ties school funding to property taxes). Here “college readiness” becomes a means to trap predominantly poor BI&POC students into remediation and exhaust their financial aid before they can graduate.
In the image above: “Achievement Gap” There is no “achievement gap.” There is a predictable dispartiy in learning outcomes between well and poorly resourced communities. Calling it an achievement gap obfuscates the generational wealth and access afforded to white students, creating an equitable education system means decentering racist outcomes like test scores & grades and shifting resources to meet historically exploited communities’ material and socio-emotional needs.
In the image above: “Under Resourced” is a way of describing the historical exploitation of BI&POC communities as happenstance rather than as coordinated campaigns of disenfranchisement, marginalization, and terror. It also positions the current distribution of resources and access as something that can be fixed with some simple policy realignment in an otherwise well-intentioned system. It does not name the intentions of white supremacy, capitalism, or empire.
In the image above: “Growth Mindset” If educators teaching “growth mindset” do not take young people’s environment into account, particularly, youth experiencing white supremacy, anti-blackness poverty, patriarchy, and ableism, then they are engaged in glorified victim blaming. Educators should remember that BI&POC experience systemic oppression and are more likely to develop a “fixed mindset” because they are far more likely to be punished for their mistakes.
In the image above: “Perfect Attendance” is the normalized pressure for students to operate as machines rather than human beings who get sick, who navigate trauma, who experience fear, loss and precarity, or who require support navigating access needs like nutrition and transportation. Perfect attendance is how schools begin to coerce students into internalized ableism and model capitalist work ethic.
In the image above: “Adversity Score” The “Adversity Score” was College Board’s attempt to account for inequity in students’ educational experiences without having seriously question the efficacy of its test, the SAT—or how the SAT itself perpetuates racial inequity. But attempts to quantify BI&POC students’ experiences with systemic oppression into a single, numerical value is utilitarian, positivist, and the institutionalization of oppression olympics.
By Christelle Rocha (@Maestra_Rocha)