In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language and Race

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Collections
  • Ethnographies on Race and Language
  • Whiteness
  • Colorblindness, Diversity, and Race Talk
  • Racializing Language
  • Race, Gender, and Sexuality
  • Indigeneity, Language Endangerment, and Revitalization
  • Language, Nation, and Migration
  • Language Contact, Multilingualism, and Codeswitching
  • Race, Language, and Education
  • Hip Hop
  • Representations of Race in the Media

Anthropology Language and Race
Jennifer Roth-Gordon, Jessica Ray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0183


The origins of research on race and language can be traced back to early studies during the US civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which sought to legitimize the linguistic variety of African American English. By the 1990s, influenced by the more well-established subfield of language and gender (and arising alongside research on language and sexuality), scholars of race and language demonstrated a growing interest in identity construction (particularly among youth) and the study of language ideology. Scholarship within this new area expanded to include the study of racialized groups other than African Americans, as well as contexts beyond the United States, rejecting the idea that language practices merely “reflect” already well-bounded racial groups or well-defined racial identities. More current work that takes up this approach seeks to identify and explain the process of racialization through which ideologies are invoked to attach racial meaning to groups, individual speakers, and languages. These studies also explore how speakers embrace linguistic features to situate themselves within local, national, and global racial hierarchies. As one example of this shift, earlier work on African American English began by comparing this stigmatized variety to the “standard” mainstream English associated with white speakers—sketching out phonological rules and morphosyntactic “differences” that were associated with quintessential black speakers (most often young urban African American men). More recent research asks questions that trouble this direct connection, investigating how African American women, African migrants, Asian Americans, white suburban youth, and even the white mainstream media take up these features to engage in a range of social goals, from marking racial solidarity with African Americans to reifying stereotypes about blackness. Based on ethnographic research with speakers, linguistic anthropologists also ask how migrants disrupt presumed connections between race, language, and national belonging; how latinas/os creatively mix Spanish and English in defiance of English-Only monolingualism; and how indigenous people respond to situations of linguistic shift and language loss caused by a long history of racial oppression and subordination. Researchers pay careful attention to when race is discussed, indexed, or carefully avoided in sociopolitical contexts ranging from classrooms and schools, to courtrooms, popular culture and the media, and in everyday interactions. Well attuned to the production of ideology and social hierarchy, linguistic anthropologists explore explicit and implicit comparisons to the imagined ideals of whiteness on which the concept of race depends. Together, this body of research suggests that an awareness of linguistic difference is crucial to our understanding of race, racism, and the construction of racial difference.

Overviews and Collections

Critical to the understanding that race is a social construction is the recognition that language must play a strong role in assigning racial meaning to bodies (Alim, Rickford, and Ball 2016). This realization has inspired studies of language ideologies that pay careful attention to race (as discussed in the review by Chun and Lo 2016). Research has also explored how this occurs through “covert racializing discourses” that do not explicitly mention race (Dick and Wirtz 2011) but work to produce whiteness and the privileged place of whites within racial hierarchies (Hill 2008). Scholars have foregrounded the topics of racial identity construction and the negotiation of racial stereotypes (Reyes and Lo 2009) and addressed themes of colonialism, nationalism, and the production of linguistic “style” (Harris and Rampton 2003). An explicit orientation toward social and racial justice has positioned the field of race and language as committed to the goal of reducing linguistic discrimination (Lippi-Green 1997) and prompted a call to linguists to more carefully consider the implications of reifying fixed racial categories through our studies (Hudley 2016).

  • Alim, H. Samy, John R. Rickford, and Arnetha F. Ball, eds. 2016. Raciolinguistics: How language shapes our ideas about race. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This volume represents a comprehensive collection of scholars who work in the field of race and language and features shorter pieces that are geared toward undergraduates and general readers. The editors rename the field “raciolinguistics” and promote the related ideas that race cannot be understood without attention to language and linguistic practice while the field of linguistics has much to learn from the study of race and ethnicity.

  • Chun, Elaine W., and Adrienne Lo. 2016. Language and racialization. In The Routledge handbook of linguistic anthropology. Edited by Nancy Bonvillain, 220–233. New York: Routledge.

    This chapter offers a historical and thematic review of research on linguistic racialization, or the ways that race is imagined and naturalized through language practices. Areas covered include the definition of “ethnoracial” language, research on race and identity, and studies of how racialization works through language ideology.

  • Dick, Hilary Parsons, and Kristina Wirtz. 2011. Racializing discourses. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 21.1: E2–E10.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1395.2011.01094.x

    This special issue is dedicated to the study of “covert racializing discourses,” which assign racial meaning and build racial hierarchies without talking about race explicitly. In this introduction to the collection, Dick and Wirtz helpfully explain how racial imaginaries are mobilized and naturalized through language, contributing to the racialization process.

  • Harris, Roxy, and Ben Rampton. 2003. The language, ethnicity and race reader. New York: Routledge.

    Harris and Rampton offer a wide-ranging collection of abbreviated classic studies (from 1921–2003) that have contributed to our understanding of language in relation to the study of race and ethnicity. Among other topics, the chapters cover cross-cultural communication, nationalism, language planning, language use in the classroom, language ideologies, interracial language “crossing,” and linguistic style. Non-US contexts are well represented.

  • Hill, Jane H. 2008. The everyday language of white racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444304732

    Hill has written an excellent introductory text on how language implicitly produces and reproduces racial hierarchy in the United States. The introductory chapter argues against the “folk theory of racism,” providing numerous examples of how racism persists, while later chapters analyze how various forms of covert racist discourse circulate through politician’s speech and seemingly benign common expressions. The book offers a reader-friendly discussion of her previous work on “Mock Spanish” (Hill 1993, cited under Mock Language).

  • Hudley, Anne H. Charity. 2016. Language and racialization. In The Oxford handbook of language and society. Edited by Ofelia García, Nelson Flores, and Massimiliano Spotti, 381–402. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Hudley’s overview sheds light on the way that linguists have racialized languages and speakers as they adopt prescribed racial groups in their research. Drawing on historical studies within sociolinguistics and anthropology, Hudley argues that researchers must more carefully consider local conceptualizations (through ethnographic research and attention to community-based practices) in the process of assigning racial categories. She concludes with a call for more diverse perspectives within the field.

  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

    This is a go-to textbook that covers an impressive range of material while introducing readers to linguistics basics and foundational concepts in race theory without assuming prior knowledge in either field. Lippi-Green advocates for the relevance of language in the pursuit of racial justice as she takes readers through the topics of speaking with an “accent,” standard language ideology, stigmatized language varieties, multilingualism, and the impact of linguistic discrimination on different racial groups in the United States.

  • Reyes, Angela, and Adrienne Lo, eds. 2009. Beyond yellow English: Toward a linguistic anthropology of Asian Pacific America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    In a collection dedicated to the study of the linguistic experiences of the Asian Pacific American (APA) community, contributors examine narratives, representations of “Asians” in the media, and also daily practices of codeswitching and language “crossing.” Through a shared focus on spoken discourse, this book illustrates how a wide range of APAs—who differ in age, generation, and regional background—linguistically negotiate their identities and the stereotypes through which they continue to be racialized.

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