Willi Heidelbach / CC BY-SA

July 20, 2020; Teen Vogue

A year of pandemic and protest has revitalized calls to address deep, longstanding inequities in US education. The use of coded language in particular reveals how subtle and subversive racism can be when influencing educational systems.

Defined by the National Education Association (NEA) as “substituting terms describing racial identity with seemingly race-neutral terms that disguise explicit and/or implicit racial animus,” Teen Vogue’s Zach Schermele explores the concept of coded language by lifting up the experiences of former North Carolina educator Jess Johnson.

Johnson focuses on the word grit to illustrate terminology used in professional development spaces that emphasizes by-the-bootstraps American exceptionalism without acknowledging the white systems of oppression with which Black, indigenous, and students of color contend.

Johnson tells Schermele, “When professionals glorify grit, they glorify trauma. They erase systems responsible for trauma and put the responsibility on students to navigate these systems despite the fact that these systems were built for their white counterparts to succeed.”

Acknowledging and addressing coded language is one of several education reform efforts taking place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Upon receiving survey responses from students, teachers, alumni, school leaders, and staff regarding its approach to anti-racism, nonprofit public charter school network KIPP decided to retire “Work hard. Be nice.” after leadership realized the 25-year-old national slogan reinforced compliance and submission within an oppressive culture.

Coded language helps maintain power structures that favor white supremacy by influencing how educators and communities perceive—and engage with—students of color. It elicits certain responses from a conditioned public: Terms like grit, achievement gap, or college-ready in an education setting sanitize the consequences of racism for non-white students with a sheen of social benevolence. Likewise, as NEA’s director of human and civil rights Harry Lawson Jr. notes, using violent, aggressive, or disrespectful as criminalizing descriptors reinforces fear and distrust of these same students.

The repercussions can be seen in school disciplinary practices. Students of color experience suspension and expulsion at much higher rates than their white peers, often for minor infractions, a trend Lawson attributes to how they are viewed by their disciplinarians.

But reframing school curriculum, policy, and procedure to eliminate coded language and reflect an anti-racist vision is not a simple ask. It requires investment and advocacy from educators, students, caregivers, community leaders, elected officials, and school boards, among others, to shift the paradigm and create more equitable learning environments. COVID-19 and catalytic protests for racial justice have provided an unprecedented window of opportunity, and education activists are responding by appealing for anti-racist curriculum, cutting ties with police departments, and donating to social justice movements like Campaign Zero and Color of Change.

We can easily apply the problem of coded language to the nonprofit sector as well. Millie Viajerx and Andrea Alakran, founders of Class Trouble, compiled a list of frequently used coded language in education that includes under-represented minority and underserved community, familiar terms within nonprofit communications. Their definition for underserved community identifies nonprofits specifically:

[A] phrase which positions white saviorism, charity, and the nonprofit industrial complex as viable solutions to the destruction settler colonialism, capitalism, and Anti-Blackness have enacted. Their purpose is to assuage white guilt, not to name systemic oppression or to bring about justice. See also: “Low Income” and “Disadvantaged Background.”

As with education, it is time for nonprofits to revisit their vocabulary and ensure language is clear, honest, and cognizant of the corrosive effects of white power structures. Organizations must take this moment of stark sociocultural awareness and frame engagements with one another, the public—especially funders—and those they serve with these realities in mind.

As Viajerx explains, “Power, in part, is the ability to escape accountability for the harm a person causes and or perpetuates. The path to escape is often hidden within coded language.”

Let’s commit to blocking such escape routes now and in the future.—Drew Adams