Language plays a significant role in racism and the exclusion of marginalised people. It excludes people from being part of a particular conversation, from academic and social contexts, and even just everyday work and social interactions where language unconsciously defines an in-group and outgroup.

Any language can exclude people who are not exposed to it. If a certain language is used to the advantage of the speaker or communicator and excludes other individuals, it becomes a disadvantage to the latter. In many instances we hear responses from these communicators saying; individuals who do not understand the language do not belong in that particular space. This becomes exclusionary and it is direct racism.

We have this conception called Language Identity which also excludes some individuals in certain contexts. People tend to construct their identities in powerful languages. According to Djite (2006) it is language that plays a vital role in establishing identity. Being identified as an English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa speaker or Zulu speaker etc., is a means of associating a certain identity to an individual. Each context and whatever language an individual speaks has a different identity that is attached to it, and, a different identity that we in society ascribe to it.

Universities in South Africa, for the most part, have a standard language which is used; English. Schools also have a standard language for teaching but here it depends in which province they are situated in. It then becomes difficult to enrol or attend a school in a certain province, where one is not familiar with a particular language that is offered. We find that parents are asked to find a school, where their child will ‘fit in’ and be taught in a language they would be able to understand. This is at once not about language but also about so much more than language. Language is a significant part of culture, of meaning, of understanding. It is a means through which we engage with each other, especially between in-groups. And even just learning a new language later in life doesn’t always mean we will ‘fit in’.

This becomes difficult as it doesn’t accommodate everyone and in the extreme case it excludes others. Finding a school for your child should be a choice and not an option that depends on language, especially given the ideals noted in our Constitution. However, many parents send their children to schools that do not necessarily offer their home languages out of choice. In this way it enables their children to be multiple speakers. However, it becomes an issue when you send a child to these schools and rules are broken, when they speak their home language. A lot of people become offended and feel excluded, and they shout racism, because now these pupils or students broke the rules. When, a teacher or lecturer has done the same thing and speaks their own home language, it does not get the same reaction.

Now, we find it’s not called racism, it’s a matter of these pupils or students do not belong. All this happens in classes, where the pupil/student or educator/lecturer crosses these boundaries. In spaces where certain languages are allowed and some forbidden. Then, we ask why some rules apply to certain people and not to others? Are they even rules or just norms that were formulated with only one type of population in mind? Should these kinds of rules still define and who makes them?

It is difficult to understand rules and regulations, when you have to constantly fight or argue for what is right, and, for who you are – the very identity you have – to be not just acknowledged but to have it be NOT a ‘violation’. Where the one in authority has freedom of choice to speak in their own language, which excludes and marginalise other people whom are not in power. And it is also very difficult to deal with and understand language and its barriers. The way language works with racism is inherently  exclusionary.

We need to find ways that don’t strip people off their language identities. We need to find ways that don’t discriminate or exclude the other, just because they are said to not belong in certain spaces. Language identities and practices of language are important. Language in itself is important as it plays a powerful role in how we conduct and present ourselves in the world. While it divides us language is one of the things that has the potential to create inclusive societies. Maybe, if systems could change to accommodate all the different language identities, we would be one step away from dismantling racism.

The ways we teach and how we teach in schools and universities shape society. And we teach using the tool which is language. We need to come to a realisation and an understanding that all languages are important. I shouldn’t feel that I am not able to participate, learn, contribute and fit in because I don’t understand a certain language. Why should I try to fit in anyway? I should be able to push boundaries and create spaces, without excluding anyone.

Caroline Hlekiso is an intern within the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She holds a BA Honours graduate from the University of the Western Cape in Development studies and calls herself a social scientist in the making.