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Black Skin, White Language: An Open Response to My Dear Friends

By Omar Rachid Zaim
Black Skin, White Language: An Open Response to My Dear Friends

(Photo source: gratuit on
 A continued conversation between language and literacy international educators, Omar Rachid Zaim,  Darnell Fine,  Ceci Gomez-Galvez, and Ying Chu. 

Dear Darnell, Ceci, and Ying:

After having sat with the original letter Darnell sent us last year, I open my response addressed to Ying as well because each of us in our contexts have gone through our own process of clarifying our own values and beliefs when it comes to language and literacy instruction in international schools. In the past year, each time I have been asked, “Where do you stand on this?” I have gained more of an understanding of who I am and what I believe.

While I am in a different context than I was just a few short months ago, I have had more time to sit with myself and listen to my own erased angst and struggles while centering joy and de-centering the hyper-productivity I wrapped myself in over the last few years. I can hear myself and other People of Color in international schools with the self-talk of we need to work twice as hard in order to just show up or be seen as valuable. While focusing on production, it does not allow us to sit, think, and just be. I vow to allow myself and encourage others to just be, and reflect, as an act of resistance.

I pushed myself to open up a reading circle during the Decolonization and Diversity in the French Curriculum (DDFC) conference and went back to my university-aged self to re-read the texts of Fanon and, on the 70th anniversary of his publication, his work and ideas are more relevant than ever in our contexts. I opened up a space for healing, in honor of and as reminded by bell hooks, “rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” And opened up the space to, as you tell us, Darnell, “to fall back in love with my own linguistic history and the rich linguistic histories each of us brings.”

In the majority of our international schools, while English has historically been and is predominantly the medium of instruction, the secondary languages taught have been Eurocentric, with some space for host country language, if the resources have been allocated and the design has been intentional[1]. Even in the world language classroom where English is not the medium of instruction, White Language Supremacy (WLS) elevates the status of English as the medium of translanguaging. Even in the classroom where the language being taught is not English, it is assumed that the students’ linguistic repertoire consists exclusively of English, and therefore erases the full and rich linguistic repertoire of the students that enter these spaces. I share in your wish for something more, a higher priority on translanguaging pedagogy that elevates the status of the linguistic repertoire of the students in front of us, and to be conscious as educators that elevating the status of English, lowers the status of every other language entering the space. This linguistic racism sends the message to our students and educators of who has a place in this world and who does not. In our quest to confront WLS and linguistic oppression, I call on us to model code mixing, rather than code switching. Code mixing sends the message to our students and educators that we can be our full selves at school. Because if we cannot model being our full selves, we are modeling to our students that they, too, cannot be their full selves.

My schooling at an international school in Venezuela was anchored in a community full of love, joy, and linguistic erasure and oppression. These competing feelings are prevalent in many of our international schools, as powerful neo-colonial institutions that seek to alienate locals from their own countries and cultures. Just like Frantz Fanon felt alienated in Martinique, he sympathized with the Algerians he helped treat because their common bond was this feeling of alienation from their own country and culture. He specified in his resignation letter in 1956 that the Arab, “as a permanent alien in their own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalization.” At my international school, this looked like English-only policies, this looked like receiving detention for speaking in Spanish, and this looked like educators of Color reinforcing WLS and linguistic oppression. Within this community full of love and joy, there was also internalized oppression that perpetuated WLS. As an adult, having worked in a school with a reputable language program in Singapore, I recognize these same competing sentiments and have seen them play out as students with both Asian and English-given names, erasing their Asian-given names. I hear educators reinforcing that this is an American school, and I feel the same tensions from families questioning which parts of their identity they should give up in order to succeed in this school and in their futures.

When you talk about the term “mother tongue” and the bonds, the broken and denied connections to some of our mother tongues, and the gendered, classed and racialized concepts of “mother tongue,” it brings me memories of my own mother and the linguistic richness she brought into our family, and the colonial system she grew up in Morocco, and the neo-colonial systems she worked and raised us in Venezuela. I often ask myself, because I saw it firsthand, which parts of her identity was she denying in order to succeed, and which parts of her identity I may never know because of the systems she was operating under. “Mother tongue” is such a charged term because it brings me great love and affection, and also brings up resentment that she did not have as many opportunities as me to be her full and beautiful self. Gracias mai.

As I opened up the reading circle during the DDFC conference, we discussed both Fanon and your letter, Darnell. Educators of the French language started sharing their own experiences and it was filled with these same complex and contradictory feelings. I share some of these thoughts with their permission since the goal of the reading circle was to openly respond to both texts. Here is a glimpse of what was shared from this group that ranged from Martinique to North Africa to Lao and everything in between:

  • To stop perpetuating the idea of One Language, One Culture.
  • To employ the verb languaging rather than the noun language to communicate that language is not fixed.
  • That while colonization was seen as a civilizing mission, there is no wider distance than the distance between colonization and civilization.
  • What is the function of school and schooling?
  • What is in our hidden language curriculum?
  • The function of paternalism in WLS and accentism.
  • Critiquing the notion of linguistic diversity as it only includes white accent diversity.
  • Loving our own accents, however far they may be from white accents.
  • Fall back in love with our home languages and mother tongues.
  • Re-learning and reviving and reloving erased languages that our parents’ generation may have erased out of survival.
  • Our linguistic repertoires have a place in the language classroom.
  • Bringing in our full selves by code-mixing, as opposed to code-switching.
  • Recognizing the internalized racism and oppression within us to heal and disrupt.

I have so many educators to thank for their reflections above, and for having pushed me to gain more of an understanding of who I am and what I believe. Thank you to Siham Bouamer as co-organizer of the conference and for sharing her thoughts, as well as to the members who attended and shared these pearls of wisdom: Julia Spiegelman, Gloria Kwok, Hasheem Hakeem, Thome, Nelly Ossia, Corine Labridy, Johanna Montlouis-Gabriel, and Irene Ivantcheva-Merjanska. You all created this space, one for healing and for hope for more equitable and inclusive language classrooms.

I echo your call, Darnell, “to reimagine and revolutionize how we see the diverse variations of English and to revolutionize how we teach, whether in foreign language courses or through translanguaging pedagogy or in whatever discipline using English as the medium of instruction.” I vow to elevate our students’ linguistic repertoires and to decolonize our ways of communicating and connecting with fellow students and educators, whether we do so with interpersonal language, presentational language, or interpretive language.

...also with love and critical hope,


For more information on these educators, I referenced in my article, and continually draw inspiration from, below is a short bio and where to find them online. They are a huge source of educational and linguistic wealth and continue to inspire many educators and learners in their field locally, regionally, and internationally. 

Ceci Gomez-Galvez is a collaborator, coach, and advocate who empowers educators to create learning opportunities to suit all language learners’ needs. She is the leader of a support program for multilingual learners based on practices which ensure culturally responsive teaching and equitable access at Saigon South International School. She can be found on Twitter: @cecigomez_g and on her website at

Ying Chu is an experienced facilitator of adult learning, focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is one of the strongest education professionals who brings a lens toward racial, linguistic, and cultural equity. Ying is the department chair of the Dual Language Chinese Immersion program at Singapore American School.
She can be found on Twitter: @YingChuSG

Darnell Fine is an experienced facilitative leader and coach, working with professional learning communities locally, regionally, and internationally focusing on curriculum and assessment, diversity, equity, inclusion, and culturally responsive teaching. He is currently a middle school deputy principal and chairs the faculty Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) planning team at Singapore American School. 
He can be found on Twitter: @de_fine and on his website at



Omar Rachid Zaim is an experienced educator, coach, and leader and is currently a middle school French teacher at Lakeside School in Seattle, Washington. A native of Venezuela, he grew up in a multicultural Moroccan and Syrian household, studied in the U.S. and France, and has been based in Singapore for the past seven years. Please visit: to learn more about his educational beliefs.

Twitter: @rachidotweets


Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


01/23/2023 - Omar
Hi Ross and thanks for your comment! Would be happy to continue the conversation, you can schedule some time using this link:
01/23/2023 - Ross
Please tell me more about "Critiquing the notion of linguistic diversity as it only includes white accent diversity."



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