Navigating racialised appellations (part 1)

This blog again emerges from a struggle to make sense of one’s being in context.

Growing up in Nigeria, race was never a question considered. Tribe, yes, as we have hundreds of tribes in the geo-political entity named Nigeria. Although Nigeria, so named by a colonial ‘master’, emanated as a creation of colonisation, this was not a discourse that was vocalised in daily conversations. Ironically, colonialism ubiquitously permeated normalised social realities. Three examples. The only official language in Nigeria is English. Any foreign product is seen to be of a higher quality than local produce, and a mark of discerning taste, seemingly a prerogative of the middle class, and something to be aspired to by all (the shenanigans of the nouveau riche are rife in Nollywood films, as in this one see 0.32,). There is even the perception of ‘lighter-skinned blacks’ as more beautiful (pun intended).

In sum, the systematic colonialised social construction entrenched within the system in Nigeria is implicitly normalised. The implication is blissful ignorance of the negativity associated with colonialism, and dangerous romanticised perception of horrific events.

Crucially, over the decades, the education system reinforced this normalised social order, for example, in my experience, by teachers who force students to only speak in English in school and at home. We were taught in schools that Nigeria gained independence in 1960 (but not the underlying political machinations and tensions among the major ethnic groups), and Mungo Park ‘discovered’ river Niger. Foluke has a few things to say about such teaching about and in Africa.

To the best of my knowledge (and certainly from my experience), schools in Nigeria do not teach students to critically interrogate colonialism and its continuing impact on society. As a result, I have encountered folks who believe that colonisation gave the English language as a common language to foster understanding and peace amongst different tribal groups. There have always been conflicts amongst different tribes. Globally, wars continue to be fought – it’s a human malaise. Language is not a panacea for reconciling warring factions. It never was.

The ground-breaking book in the sociolinguistics field, Linguistic Imperialism, by Robert Phillipson, expounds on how the English language was used to subjugate other languages and cultures for mainly political and economic reasons. As he and other African authors have pointed out, multilingualism is the social reality in former colonies like Nigeria. However, the question remains, why is English language [monolingualism] still the foundation of education in Nigeria?

I am bilingual. To an extent, my ability to speak English and Yoruba helps me to navigate different contexts. But I wish I can speak more than a few phrases in Hausa and Igbo (two other main Nigeria languages). I have a brother-in-law who speaks the three main Nigerian languages flawlessly. He also speaks English fluently. He reminds of the possibilities that could have happened in Nigeria if educational policy and school practice reflected multilingualism as a societal reality. This can be the case in any multilingual society. History should help us to reflect on the past and adopt a different approach now and in the future. Helpfully, writing for the British Council, Nayr Ibrahim busts some of the myths around multilingualism in relation to children’s development.

Despite the yet unresolved articulation of context relevant language education policy in Nigeria, I had no doubt about my identity as a true Ondo girl from the Yoruba tribe located in Nigeria. I grew up in Lagos, a state where different tribes from all over the country converge. There was never a question about our race – we are part of humankind, flaws, and all.

Hence, before moving to the UK, I was blissfully unaware of the different racialised appellations that were attributed to someone like me. Woman of Colour. Person of Colour. Black. Minority. I learned fast enough. The recurring questioning gaze when I was asked about how I spoke good English was alien to me and quite unsettling. Any schooled person in Nigeria is expected to speak the English language, preferably, Queens English. You were flogged, literarily, if you spoke in the vernacular (mother tongue) while I was in school in Nigeria. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has written extensively about the degrading treatment school children in his native Kenya were subjected to when they spoke their native language in school.

Accounts from colonial times until now, from my lived experience and other anecdotal accounts, continue to reveal this perplexity from folks in the UK about the cleverness of black people who can speak the English language. I wondered how the people in former metropoles did not know about their language bequeathed to former colonies. I guess that is a question for policymakers and educators to address. Efforts to decolonise the curriculum in Scotland can contribute to creating awareness about colonialism in postcolonial times.

So what is the way forward?

Interestingly, a British Council Report titled Languages for the Future, list the languages spoken in 29 countries identified as high growth markets. This includes Nigeria, and the languages listed are English, plus Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and others. The economic rationale for the Report is obvious. The report, however, also reiterates the importance of multilingualism. This was reiterated in a recent [rare] joint statement by the British Academy, American Academy of Arts, Sciences, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Australian Academy of the Humanities and The Royal Society of Canada. They stated that:

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified global communications—virtual meetings, streaming cultural content, international news, social media, and so on—but also risks increasing inequalities and heightening racism as well as regional tensions. To solve the problems we face, we must increase our capacity to speak with each other as part of a global community…knowledge of multiple languages, is crucial to creating future ‘global citizens’ who can respond to these challenges.

The quote above suggests a departure from a colonial hegemonic positioning of English language. Albeit well-intentioned, it remains to be seen how the espoused aspirations will translate into policy and reality. There are huge obstacles and challenges to be overcome to redress the pernicious legacies of colonialism. Moreover, one would have thought that a ‘global’ agenda for an inclusive approach to multilingualism will include contributors from a range of cultures. Just thinking out loud. Thoughts, anyone?

Note: my original idea in this blog post was to discuss racialised appellations, such as, women of colour. I wanted to provide a background story as to why this was not a label used in Nigeria and my experience in this regard at an education conference in the US (pre-COVID time) and in the UK. I will discuss these experiences in my next blog.

Photo source: Creative Multilingualism

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