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  • Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students and the Power of Labels
  • N. Dede A. Addy

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” - or so the old saying goes. And yet, throughout history particular words and labels have been linked to manifestations of power and domination. Some labels may be highly charged, controversial, or derogatory, such as slut, Octaroon, or illegal immigrant. Others may be more mundane, but still associated with material consequences, such as sir, ma’am, boy, criminal, or blue collar. The mere categorization of words as politically correct or incorrect is an indication of their social power.

In the realm of education, references to culturally and linguistically diverse students are now in vogue. In recent years this phrase has been the label of choice to describe the growing diversity in the U.S student population, often used to refer to students who are immigrants, who are not White or who speak languages other than, standardized English. A basic database search on JSTOR for material related to culturally and linguistically diverse students alone yielded 3,788 papers.

It is noteworthy that educational scholars, practitioners, and policymakers are taking students from marginalized cultural and linguistic backgrounds into greater consideration, because historically, the U.S. educational system has not been sensitive to the needs of these students (Crawford, 2004; Flores, 2005; Santa Ana, 2004). According to many states’ current professional standards, teachers are expected to examine how students’ diverse cultural backgrounds are involved in teaching and learning (Gay, 2000). So, in many ways, greater attention given to culturally and linguistically diverse students is a step towards greater inclusion and equity for all students.

Ironically though, the effect of this language, purportedly intended to be inclusive, is to reinforce the position of White, monolingual, English-speaking students as the norm. Again cultural and linguistic diversity in classrooms is used to indicate students who are not White or who are not native monolingual speakers of English. This stance equates whiteness with a lack of diversity, a generalization which masks the diversity among White students and which critical race and whiteness scholars have already identified as problematic (Giroux, 1997; Hytten & Warren, 2003).

The term “diverse” should not be used as a euphemism for immigrants, students of color, or students who speak languages other than English. If a classroom contains students who are all Spanish speakers, this does not automatically qualify it as culturally and linguistically diverse, in the same way that a class of monolingual English speakers is not linguistically diverse (unless perhaps a variety of English dialects are spoken). Nevertheless, a variety of cultural backgrounds may exist in a classroom of White students. For instance, there may be students from rural, urban, and suburban neighborhoods as well as both native-born and immigrant White students. A classroom or school can only be said to be culturally and linguistically diverse if students represent a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. [End Page 205]

Students in the United States today certainly represent a wealth of cultural and linguistic backgrounds (Gay, 2000; Sleeter & Milner, 2011). White students and monolingual English speakers contribute to, and are a part of, the diversity in schools. Because of the increasing diversity in the student population, today’s educators must be prepared to teach, and interact with students from a range of backgrounds. Culturally and linguistically diverse is an entirely appropriate label when used to refer collectively to groups of students who vary from one another in their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. However, it is highly misleading to refer to a single student as culturally and linguistically diverse.

At one extreme, the search for more appropriate terminology could be dismissed as a futile or overzealous quest for political correctness and a superficial acknowledgment for individuals and their backgrounds. But it is worth noting that debate over terminology such as this is not simply a matter of political correctness. Bourdieu (1977, 1991) offers a strong theoretical framework for understanding many of the ways in which language and symbolic power are related. He suggests, for instance that words operate within a linguistic marketplace in which particular terms, associated with various groups of people, hold varying levels of currency...


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