Atomic essay #10 - re-writing my deficit narrative

A few days ago, in a discussion about something else, I used the terms 'culture-poor' and 'language-poor' to describe students I've taught before.

Atomic essay #10 - re-writing my deficit narrative
Photo by The 77 Human Needs System / Unsplash

A few days ago, in a discussion about something else, I used the terms 'culture-poor' and 'language-poor' to describe students I've taught before. I was using the terms to describe students who didn't have a good grasp of what is often called 'Standard English' and didn't have much 'Cultural Capital' – they didn't grow up with books in the home, didn't know much about art, the theatre, history and so on. I was swiftly upbraided – the terms I'd used were part of a 'deficit narrative' that's at best unhelpful and at worst deeply harmful.

Though I, fragile of ego that I am, smarted from the correction, believing myself to have been the innocent victim of received language from elsewhere, I couldn't stop thinking about the language I'd automatically used. It was the language of deficit, of weighing and measuring a person by what they didn't have and what I seemingly did have. However inadvertently, had I positioned myself as superior to these students? Moreover, what made my assessment of what 'cultural capital' is – and what constitutes worthy culture – true, helpful or useful?

Truth told, I'd just heard these two terms bandied about since early in my teaching career, and I hadn't the critical nous to consider why they might not have been the right terms to use. This isn't an excuse; it's just one of the reasons. It is very easy to absorb language, especially when one is young and green, and use it without thinking.

The more I thought about this, the more I began to think about the power language has, but it was only after a few days that I started to get to the root of it. And I realised that at the root of it were my own fears about my own cultural knowledge, experiences and education. If I'm really honest, I've always felt inferior about my background; I envied the cultural experiences of those I'd codified and fetishised as 'better' than mine. It went deep: it was about my perception of my own social class, my upbringing, my feelings that at any point I'll be unmasked as a know-nothing fraud.

That's as personal as I feel comfortable going, for now. I write the above to draw attention to how language is, as far as I can see, an expression of the self, even the bits we didn't realise were there, or didn't want to admit were there.

It's hard to interrogate our own language, because it's so rooted within us; it is entangled within our growth, experiences, beliefs, influences and loves. To interrogate one's language is to examine oneself as one really is. It's deeply uncomfortable. But I have made the decision to be more critically and carefully conscious about the language I use. Rapid-firing these posts every day, word after word, has been tiring. Our internal language, when it comes out, is the wringing out of the self into the external world. I am going to try to be less automatic. Automaticity is one of the pathways to prejudice and poor-thinking.

We must take care with our language. We must ask ourselves why we use the language we do, and evaluate what it’s usage says about us and how we see the world. We’re going to make mistakes, and language is ever-changing. For now, I’m going to start with a question: what does my language, when I use it, say about me, and how I see the world?