“Quiet! What do you think you’re all playing at?!”: Marginalization, epistemological racism and unjust stereotyping in Mind Your Language by Jessica Brown EDU 5101 for Perspectives in Education

“Quiet! What do you think you’re all playing at?!”:  Marginalization, epistemological racism and unjust stereotyping in Mind Your Language by Jessica Brown  EDU 5101 for Perspectives in Education

Abstract

Mind Your Language was a British comedy show shown on the ITV network in Britain from 1977-1979. The show centred on Mr. Brown, a white, British, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher and his interactions with his high-beginner EFL students who were from various countries. Humour mainly stemmed from Mr. Brown’s frustration with the students’ misinterpretation of the English language and cultural norms. Although network executives defended Mind Your Language as an attempt to promote diversity on television and positively familiarize a mainly white audience with various ethnicities (Malik, 2002), the portrayal of these various cultures is grossly skewed. The immigrant students are unfairly represented through their attitudes, cultural norms, accents and clothing. Thus, the purpose of this artifact analysis seeks to demonstrate how the migrant characters in Mind Your Language are unjustly stereotyped in order to play up their perceived cultural differences from the dominant culture as represented by the curriculum and the teacher, Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown’s use of Euro-centric materials and concepts during classroom activities marginalizes the students by preventing them from creating their own cultural understanding and developing their language skills to allow them to participate and be accepted into British society. As a result, a power gap is formed between the white dominant group (Mr. Brown) marginalized immigrant students. The program exemplifies an “us” versus “them” mentality that was prevalent and volatile within Britain in the 1970s.

Keywords: marginalization, students, English as a Foreign Language, Euro-centric, dominance

Introduction

As an English as a Second Language teacher, I realize the importance of creating positive and inclusive relationships within the classroom. Students must have ample opportunities to express their lived experiences and identities in order to create their own understanding of course content. However, after learning about various themes of dominance, exploitation and marginalization within curricula and various educational spheres, I became curious as to whether such themes have been portrayed on television within an English as a Second Language learning environment. The Mind Your Language television clip below titled “How’s Your Father?” is from Season 1 and examines Mr. Brown’s interactions with his EFL students and his efforts to prepare them for an upcoming English examination.

The scene opens to a standard classroom filled with various international students who are dressed to reflect their country of origin. Student voices are raised in anger. They point fingers at each other in obvious displays of antagonism. Enter Mr. Brown who rings a hand-held bell and exclaims, “Quiet! What do you think you’re all playing at?!” Puzzled, a student exclaims that they are not playing, they are arguing (laughter from the audience). Brown, clearly frazzled already, asks the students to sit down and declares, “If you all spent half as much energy on learning English as you do on arguing with each other, you’d be perfect by now!” Mr. Brown continues his frustrated speech by reprimanding the students about their lack of progress in preparation for the exam and reminds them of their “atrocious” speaking abilities. To this, one student (Max) declares that the students “need a bit of electrocution” (audience laughter). With a slight smile Brown replies, “elocution.” Max answers “okay”, clearly not understanding the difference between his utterance and Mr. Brown’s correction.

Without further explanation of the aforementioned misinterpretation, Mr. Brown states he is going to ask the students to individually speak for one minute about a topic of his choosing. Throughout the activity, the students are given various topics ranging from the seaside to evolution. During teacher-student interactions, students regularly misuse the English language and misunderstand the topics Mr. Brown has chosen, much to the delight of the studio audience. Brown continuously expresses mild to acute dissatisfaction with the students, as he perceives their responses to be either an inappropriate or inaccurate interpretation of the given topic. For example, when Su-Lee (a Chinese student) is given the topic of philosophy, she eagerly explains the philosophical beliefs of the Democratic Republic of China compared to an oppressive and capitalist Western society. Displeased with Su-Lee’s response, Mr. Brown interrupts by shouting, “That is not true, sit down!” Brown continuously explains misunderstood concepts such as Darwinism and provides students with examples of Western culture as an attempt to foster cultural understanding.

The second part of the lesson focuses on students reading aloud a poem by William Wordsworth. The students struggle to understand the language used in the poem and often mispronounce words. When Mr. Brown points out their mistakes, the students are left feeling disappointed, apologetic or defensive about their language abilities. Brown offers little encouragement or constructive feedback. His comments are sometimes at the expense of creating a joke from the students’ lack of proficiency. For instance, after a Japanese student (Taro) reads aloud with halting pauses, Mr. Brown responds by stating, “Well done, I’m sure Mr. Wordsworth would have found that a quite uplifting experience.” The classroom scene ends with an interruption from Headmistress Courtney.

During a time of ongoing turmoil surrounding public perceptions and government policies regarding immigration and multiculturalism in Britain in the 1970s, Mind Your Language was cancelled by network director Michael Grade who stated that “Mind Your Language was racist, it was really irresponsible [of us] to put it out,” (Malik, 2012, p.97). Based on poll evidence from various British Election Studies in the 1960s and early 1970s, over 80% of white respondents felt that there were “too many migrants” in Britain (Owen, 2013). In 1978, when Mind Your Language was in its second season of production, enduring negativity and sentiments of racism towards immigrants were further fuelled by Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher’s comments on British television in which she acknowledged British fears of being “swamped by people with a different culture,” (Malik, 2012, p.17). I believe that these comments in addition to the tumultuous historical context of Britain’s immigration policies perpetuated the negative stereotypes and marginalization of the immigrant characters in Mind Your Language.

This paper therefore, examines the ways in which the EFL learners in Mind Your Language are unjustly stereotyped and marginalized through means of exclusion from the dominant culture capital of a white, Western society. There are elements of institutional and epistemological racism within Mr. Brown’s Euro-centric classroom, which essentially bars students from actively participating and making meaning during classroom activities. Inappropriate, Euro-centric materials and concepts are the foundation of Mr. Brown’s classroom activities. As such, students often do not understand these ideas and hence are not given a chance to actively interact with this prevailing culture and express their lived experiences. Aggressive student interactions and frequent misunderstandings depict the students as dehumanized “animals” who could be deemed by the audience to be uneducated and unintelligible.  Humor is often generated from Mr. Brown’s frustration with the EFL students’ misunderstanding of the English language and culture. Thus, jokes are made to appeal to a non-immigrant British audience by highlighting differentiation.

Key Concepts for Analysis

According to Ryuko Kubota (2002), the definition of racism can also be expanded to include institutionalized racism, which can occur through the misrepresentation and exclusion of minorities in classroom materials, teaching practices and organization of curricula within the EFL classroom. Ultimately, this denies students access to acquiring and practicing language skills. In addition, all too often in the classroom, emphasis is placed on standardized assessment and formal evaluative performance. Students are deemed to be “at risk” if they do not adequately perform and conform to what may be unfamiliar, standardized testing practices (Kubota, 2002). Failure may be unjustly based on students “racial, linguistic or socioeconomic attributes” (Kubota, 2002, p. 87). Marginalized students may be further impeded in their learning efforts by the domination of white, Euro-centric knowledge that is integrated into curricula and the classroom environment.

Kubota and Lin define epistemological racism as being “based on the epistemologies, knowledges, and practices that privilege the European modernist white civilization,” (2009, p. 7). In this light, education unfortunately centres on white, Euro-centric concepts, theories and influential male figures that are perceived as all encompassing and in turn, dictate ways of thinking and socializing (Kubota & Lin, 2009). Within ESL education, examples of epistemological racism, which attempt to dictate legitimate knowledge, have been seen within course materials and classroom activities (Kubota & Lin, 2009). These skewed materials often have, as Kubota & Lin makes clear, some sort of hidden cultural agenda. “Whiteness refers to not only skin colour, but also cultural knowledge constructed in Western colonial histories…Whiteness constitutes an invisible taken-for-granted social norm, exercising coercive power of both assimilation and alienation,” (p. 25). Thus, students who do not share in this legitimate knowledge are at risk of being marginalized as they are left outside of the dominant culture and do not have enough opportunities to share a common cultural capital.

The original concept of cultural capital was first coined by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, and later expanded upon by Michèle Lamont and Annette Lareau (1988). Specifically, Lamont and Lareau (1988) develop the idea of the power of exclusion. These authors situate cultural capital as “institutionalized, i.e. widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge, behaviours, good and credentials) used for social and cultural exclusion,” (p. 156). Therefore, the idea of what is classified as culturally legitimate and how this legitimacy impacts society is called into question. According to Lamont and Lareau, those belonging to the dominant class establish what is culturally legitimate, while the dominated (marginalized) class’ culture is a seen as a separate, less legitimate entity. As a result, a gap is created, which places the dominant class in a position of power (Lamont & Lareau, 1988). I believe that this gap creates an unfortunate situation in which those who are marginalized are exploited or face difficulty in fully participating in the society at large. They also face difficulties in fostering an equitable intercultural dialogue with the dominant group. Marginalized youth do not have the same level of influence. Moreover, they are at times excluded or misrepresented within political, cultural, and educational spheres.

Here we might turn our attention toward Apple and King’s (1977) concept of curriculum as a means of social control and further expand upon the idea of who has the power to implement legitimate knowledge in education. Legitimate knowledge taught in schools has broader societal implications as it could positively or negatively affect life outside the school environment. Apple and King ask us to scrutinize the source of legitimate knowledge and investigate how this influences who is being (or not being) included in school curricula since not all groups are always appropriately represented. As marginalized students are at risk of being barred from increasing their breadth of knowledge and skills, this in turn contributes to Plato’s and Immanuel Kant’s notion that uneducated students are in a sense dehumanized.

Within “Bewildering Education,” Nathan Snaza references Plato and Kant’s notion that education is the process that makes man human (2013). Thus, based on Plato and Kant’s theories of education, one cannot be defined as human without becoming educated (as cited in Snaza, 2013). Socrates described people who choose to use “brute force” through means of aggression as animals, as opposed to honing and developing their intellectual skills through education (as cited in Snaza, 2013, p. 40). Based on these views of education, one can ascertain that those who are often marginalized are oppressed, and thus are at risk of being seen as dehumanized by the dominant group.

Themes of dominance, exploitation and dehumanization are also illustrated within the historical context of Heather McGregor’s description of Inuit and Qallunaat power relationships within education. Unjustly, the Qallunaat government dictated how the Inuit would adhere to a Eurocentric education as opposed to incorporating traditional Inuit methodologies of knowing, being and doing (McGregor, 2010). Inuit children were forced, as McGregor reminds us, to attend residential schools in which they were required to learn English, practice Catholicism and adhere to the unfamiliar educational standards of their southern counterparts. This resulted, as she illustrates, in catastrophic consequences for the Inuit because their culture, language and ways of life were disrupted. A similar situation is illustrated in The Rabbit Proof Fence as the dominant society uses Anglo-Christian ideals to unjustly preside over those who are not purely Aborigine to provide them with “the benefit to do everything in our culture,” (Noyce & Noyce, 2002). Policy makers from dominant, white societies believed they held cultural legitimacy over marginalized groups, which perpetuated a power gap between these two societies.

The silencing and misrepresentation of marginalized voices

Within Mind Your Language there are several examples of how the cultures of Whiteness set out to legitimate its knowledge and cultural capital through the State’s apparatus like public schools and its government employed teachers like Mr. Brown. He makes several references to famous Western artists and cultural icons to try and foster cultural understanding. What is missing in creating this cultural understanding is the voice of the students. Mr. Brown never asks the students about famous cultural icons in their culture or even what famous cultural icons they do know. As such, these students do not have an opportunity to make meaning or create their own understanding of culture by incorporating it into their own cultural identity. Ng-A-Fook, Radford and Ausman (2012) found that ESL students who had an appropriate platform to illustrate all parts of their cultural identity increased their chances of success because they felt they were not being culturally pigeonholed. Students felt they were being listened to rather than ignored, which created a freer environment to express their own understanding of course content (Ng-A-Fook, Radford & Ausman, 2012). The students in Mind Your Language do not have an opportunity to express and create their own cultural understanding because this opportunity is never given to them. Mr. Brown represents the dominant class by peppering his lecture with examples of white, Western, male cultural icons (Da Vinci, Joseph Millord William Turner, Henri Matisse, William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin). Since students express they do not know these Western cultural icons, this demonstrates their exclusion from the dominant class. At times, Mr. Brown even jokes at students’ misunderstanding when they attempt to create their own connections to course content. Thus, Mr. Brown holds power over the immigrant students as he is seen as the holder of legitimate knowledge. In this respect, it is possible that audience members may have deemed the students to be unintelligent due to a perceived difference of legitimate knowledge and cultural capital.    Another issue of contention with the character of Mr. Brown lies within his method of conducting the class and what he perceives as appropriate classroom behaviour. Mr. Brown enforces classroom rules and reprimands students when they fall outside of his expectations of cultural norms within his Euro-centric classroom. What Brown fails to recognize and acknowledge is that students may not be entirely aware of Western classroom norms because they have come from various countries with various forms of educational expectations. For example, when Mr. Brown walks into the classroom, he has to ring a bell in order to get the students’ attention to stop arguing and sit down.  Mr. Brown perceives that the students are not conforming to his expectations of behaviour by not being silent and sitting at their desks ready to learn upon his arrival. The students’ aggressive behaviour when arguing during classroom activities relates back to Socrates’ notion that those who exemplify “brute force” are classified as “animals” (Snaza, 2013, p. 40). Thus, the students could be labeled as “animals” in the eyes of the audience, as they are perceived as not being capable of civilly interacting within the norms of a Euro-centric classroom.

The students often try to liven up the classroom environment by using humour. For example, when given the topic of “British birds” for discussion, Max who is Greek, describes his admiration for blonde girls. Frustrated with his misinterpretation (or intended joke), Mr. Brown asks Max to be more serious. Mr. Brown often appears to be annoyed by the students’ jokes, as he perceives this as indifference towards academia. What he fails to realize that students are not always trying to be funny and spit in the face of academic learning. This relates to Duranti’s idea of tensions between centripetal versus centrifugal language forces in the classroom (as cited in Barwell, 2014). Mr. Brown attempts to impose Euro-centric ideals and concepts onto the students, while the students push back using humour and attempt to enact their own identities and experiences to create their own understanding of course content. Thus, a power gap between Mr. Brown and his students is perpetuated by what he perceives to be as ignorance towards classroom norms when students are actually trying to make meaning. The audience could have wrongly observed that the students were not capable of “fitting into” the dominant culture due to their apparent reluctance to respect academia.

The course content and choice of facilitation of classroom activities also illustrates epistemological and institutional racism by perpetuating a gap between classes, which does not follow the critical democratic ideal of participation in education as outlined by Laura Pinto. Instead, the choice of classroom resources illustrates that Mr. Brown is enacting the curricula as a means of social control of legitimate knowledge as outlined by Apple and King. Mr. Brown facilitates classroom activities by choosing materials and dictating how activities will be carried out. While this may appear to be congruent with a “normal” classroom environment in which the instructor facilitates understanding and cultivates student participation, Brown fails to choose level appropriate materials and facilitate activities in a way that will help students to acquire language. For example, Brown does not let students choose topics for their one-minute oral presentation. This does not help to foster understanding or promote language acquisition since the students are often confused by unfamiliar topics such as evolution, fine art and life after death. This concept of “alienation” of was also seen in Barwell’s study when Cree students had difficulty understanding the connotation of a tulip festival and related vocabulary during mathematical word problem exercises (2014). Thus, the students are seen as outsiders due to their perceived lack of legitimate knowledge that the dominant culture believes should already be known. As a result, they do not have an opportunity to fully participate in classroom discussions. This is against Pinto’s ideas of equitable participation in education because Brown did not consider student needs or abilities by choosing materials and facilitating activities that were not level appropriate. As a language instructor, I gauge that this group of students is at a high-beginner ESL level. If I were Mr. Brown, I would never give such difficult discussion topics or readings to these students. This is a grave disservice to the students. It is no wonder that Mr. Brown states that the students’ speaking abilities are atrocious. He has not given them a fighting chance at passing their forthcoming examination. As outlined by Kubota, the students are unjustly blamed for not making enough effort because they are depicted as “alien” through their various racial, linguistic and sociocultural identities. The blame should be placed on Mr. Brown because he uses the curricula as a means of social control of legitimate knowledge. One can presume that course content for Mr. Brown’s class was solely developed without contribution from oppressed groups because it promotes epistemological and institutional racist ideals of legitimate knowledge, which the immigrant students in Mind Your Language frequently misinterpret.

Both The Rabbit Proof Fence and McGregor’s depiction of Qallunaat and Inuit power relationships illustrate how the dominant class unjustly forced cultural assimilation onto marginalized students. Any displays of cultural indifference to the dominant culture such as students speaking in their mother tongue, displaying traditional cultural dress and enacting cultural habits were seen as savage acts of defiance and therefore were punishable. In Mind Your Language, the students are not punished for their enacting their own culture. However, they are presented as overtly stereotyped, which I believe contributed to creating comical reactions when students misinterpret language cues or English culture. Students’ attitudes, dress and language mistakes are stereotypically presented based on their country of origin. For example, German student Anna is quite stern, direct and overly confident during classroom interactions. She is plainly dressed, blond, and wears her hair braided like Princess Leia. She is the epitome of a misrepresented, cliché German, far from the actuality of my own German family members who are extremely warmhearted. These illusions of cultural differences further distance the immigrants from the dominant culture. It prejudicially paints the students as “others” or “uncivilized, uneducated brutes” who a mainly British audience could have perceived as never truly “fitting into” British society. Unfair stereotypical representation of the students enables an “us” versus “them” mentality, which must be avoided at all costs in public policy.

Concluding Remarks

As television was one of the main media sources in the 1970s, Mind Your Language could have provided a platform in which to celebrate cultural differences and show how an intercultural dialogue could be created. Instead, this show focused on highlighting difference by presenting immigrant characters who may have been perceived to not care about understanding English culture and studying the English language. In my opinion, the stereotypical representation of the immigrant students made it “acceptable” for the audience to laugh at trials and tribulations of these EFL students as they struggle within an epistemologically racist curriculum to create an intercultural understanding with the prevailing cultural capital. At a time in Britain when immigration policies and attitudes toward migrants were hotly debated, Mind Your Language only exemplified these issues by further illustrating the perceived differences between the dominant and marginalized classes. Even though this TV show is placed within the historical context of its time, the presented issues of exclusion and marginalization within the classroom and policy processes are still relevant today. When creating policy documents, policy actors and government officials must ensure that the development process is critically democratic by incorporating marginalized voices. Based on my experience as an ESL teacher, the ESL classroom and curriculum policies have come a long way from what is presented as in Mind Your Language. However, one can deduce that there is still much work to be done to ensure that all student needs and abilities are appropriately addressed in curricula. Although it may be an uncomfortable experience, instructors, policy makers and administrators need to examine the root causes of epistemological and institutional racism in curricula and in turn, examine how it can be confronted in the ESL classroom. It is simply not enough to voice respect for various cultures and passively identify the potential differences that our students may have within curricula and educational spheres.

References

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