“Why are they teaching these kids anything but English? They live in America. They should learn to speak English.”
Tears stung as the words found their unintended mark. I looked across the Thanksgiving dinner table at my then-fiancé, who gave me a sympathetic glance, knowing how much those words hurt. I didn’t have the heart to argue, knowing that my words would fall on deaf ears.
I was raised in a midwest town in a midwest state of monocultural, monolingual Caucasian English speakers. Now, the state I grew up in has changed significantly over the last few years with the influx of refugees and immigrants from Asia and the Americas, but the stigma around anything that is “different” is still deeply entrenched, particularly in rural areas where Donald Trump took a sweeping victory in 2016. These areas are filled with people who see refugees and immigrants as threats to their ways of life. Sitting at that dinner table, I found that the beliefs of my extended family hadn’t changed much, even though, ironically, I am an ELL (English Language Learner) teacher. I worked, and still work, with refugees and immigrants.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area has long been known for its large refugee and immigrant population. To be exact, Minnesota has more refugees per capita than any other state. Walk down what the locals call “Eat Street” (otherwise known as Nicolette Ave.) and you’ll get a sense of the wide variety of ethnicities represented: Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Chinese, German, Ecuadorian, Hmong, Malay, Mexican, Thai, Korean — the list goes on and on. Many of these restaurants are run by first, second, or third-generation immigrants. It’s about as traditional as you can get next to going to each individual country.
Sadly, despite the wide range of cultures, there is a thriving sub-culture of monolingual idealism. In the days and weeks leading up to the election in 2016, the tension in the air in the middle school I taught in at that time was palpable. The school had a significant number of Somali refugee students, many of whom were Muslim. We also had a number of Arabic speaking boys from Iraq, who were also Muslim.
The rhetoric during that time was not reserved to adults. Unfortunately, what is said at home by adults has a way of trickling down into the ears of children. Chants of “Build That Wall!” and shouts of “Go back to where you came from!” echoed throughout the halls. Laughter from white American students and unkind words settled into the hearts of my students, and I was left to pick up the pieces. My kids were scared. I was scared. Deportations were up. While many of my students were legal immigrants (being born here as children), their parents were not. The tension many of my students carried on their backs was visible as they looked to me asking what would happen if Donald Trump won, and the day after the election, they came to school anxious and looking for answers. My Muslim students were harassed and bullied. Everything in me ached.
The monolingual lie says that English is the be-all and end-all. It is the language that dictates the success or failure of an individual or family. It says that if people move to the United States, they must shed all of their former life (their culture and language included). I have heard stories of immigrants being told to “speak English!” when standing at line in the grocery store. I have heard tales of Somali women being called terrorists when they have lived and worked in the United States for over 10 years. Some of the stories aren’t even appropriate to share, even on a platform like this one.
These are not isolated incidents. “Minnesota-nice” is not so nice when it comes to refugees and immigrants. I firmly believe a lot of it has to do with the monolingual lie and the white privilege that comes with it.