Linguistic Hegemony in Academia and the Devaluation of Minority Identity in Higher Education

By Joe Henao
2017, Vol. 9 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

A commonly observed trend among American universities is the relative underperformance of minorities in the academic arena. The usual, often lazily regurgitated explanation for this phenomenon revolves around socioeconomic situations that minority groups find themselves in, contributing to their academic plight. While this deserves some credit, this fails to tell the entire story. Apart from the general socioeconomic status of many social groups, minorities often engage in academic communities that do not even remotely mirror their cultural upbringing, values, or habitus. Institutions of higher education in the United States are hardly agencies of unbiased reason and truth; instead, the curriculum and narratives they maintain are hegemonic products of centuries worth of cultural influence. This white, eurocentric influence affects every aspect of university life: the subtle dress codes, biased curriculum, and even the nuanced language and linguistic characteristics. Apart from academic performance, however, this restricted cultural lens that universities embody can suppress minority cultures and repress minority identity. The eurocentric linguistic hegemony that permeates higher education not only disadvantages minorities in the academic sphere, but quells the cultural value and identity of minority social groups, due to the unorthodox habitus they possess.

Institutions of higher education in the United States are hardly agencies of unbiased reason and truth.

With this paper, I initially define cultural hegemony and habitus, supplementing this with a brief overview of how current hegemony status disadvantages minorities, along with practical examples. I then narrow in on the more specific concept of linguistic hegemony, developing an understanding of how cultural narratives are translated through language, and conveying language’s connection to identity and community.

Having conveyed the mechanisms of hegemony, and the importance of language in culture and community, I intend to merge the two to develop a link between educational hegemony and the devaluation of minority identity in higher education. Hopefully this will provide new critical insight into the oppressive effects and mechanisms of hegemony in the form of language, and contribute to the academic conversation surrounding minority identity in America.

“'Hegemony'… [refers to] the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as 'common sense'. The general 'consensus' is that it is the only sensible way of seeing the world. Any groups who present an alternative view are therefore marginalized…" (Gramsci, 2000)

Each social group perceives the world through their own unique cultural lens, complete with their own unique social and material characteristics. When a dominant social group in a society attains and maintains hegemony, their subjective cultural lens becomes the objective lens of society, imposing itself through various instruments and institutions, manifesting itself in both tangible (architecture, art, commodities) and intangible (social cues, linguistic patterns, taboo perversions) nuances (Gramsci, 2000). Hegemonic dominance is present in all facets of civilization, from the fashion industry to the commonly used metaphors we utilize that carry preconceived notions regarding gender, identity, and heteronormativity.

Conformity to the centralized practices of education systems is the only option for minorities wishing to succeed.

Hegemony determines what is proper and improper, correct and incorrect, and acceptable and unacceptable, all while effectively stifling any ideological opposition. The response to hegemony is difficult- either conform or experience marginalization. In a practical sense, imagine providing a service that does not mirror the dominant culture in your community, dressing in a way that does not reflect the unspoken codes, or socializing in a way that fails to comply with perceived normalcy - you will be ostracized and frowned upon, leading to the inevitable repression of your minority culture.

Applying this concept to education is simple: however, it is important to note that education is a medium by which hegemony traverses uniquely. While cultural hegemony usually functions subtly, through mass media or general social reproduction, it does so differently in regards to higher education. Academia represents the most pure vessel for hegemony to disseminate its worldview, as the goal of education is to provide students with a specific lens to understand their surroundings, and feed them the information by which they can effectively navigate their environment- an environment already constructed around this hegemonic influence. Furthermore, academia represents a cyclical method by which hegemony is maintained, and ideology continues to reproduce and justify itself in a base/superstructure relationship (Gramsci, 2000). From this we can assume that educational hegemony functions as one of the major agents in the marginalization of minority communities.

It is worth noting the function of habitus, for the sake of transparency and clarity. Cultural Habitus, a concept of Pierre Bourdieu, refers to the cultural values that each and every person inevitably carries with them. Habitus may manifest itself in material representations such as clothing and/or cultural artifacts, as well as intangible personal characteristics such as linguistic characteristics or general demeanor. Slovenian Critical theorist, Slavoj Zizek, puts it relatably:

“My notions- of good and evil, of pleasant and unpleasant, of serious and funny, of ugly and beautiful… My taste in books, food and clothes, my sense of honour, my table manners, my turn of phrase, my accent- even the characteristic movements of my body- are all matters of habitus" (Zizek, 2008).

Its inseparability from hegemony is strikingly obvious, and with both these concepts, we can move forward in applying habitus and hegemony towards today’s issues facing marginals and minorities in academic settings.

To quickly demonstrate the more visible effects of cultural hegemony in education in relation to minorities, I’ll briefly discuss a few studies. “Black students obtain college degrees at substantially lower rates than White students (Haycock, Jerald, & Huang, 2001; Hoffman, LIagas, & Snyder, 2003), and many of those students who do earn degrees take longer than the traditional four years,” writes Mervyn J. Wighting in Cultural and Interpersonal Factors Affecting African American Academic Performance in Higher Education: A Review and Synthesis of the Research Literature.

The author addresses very early on, the “White faculty and administrators who have low-academic expectations of Blacks, [and] Eurocentric curricula and pedagogy” that contributes to this low academic performance- An obvious allusion to eminent cultural hegemony. Moving forward- “Not attending to the use of culturally responsive pedagogies can create stress in African American students who enter predominantly White schools... According to Hale-Benson (1986), education must be relative to the student. She maintains that a student must be able to interpret and transform the information presented in order to make the schooling experience educative.

Moreover, she believes the dominant teaching methods of Whites push students toward competitive classroom relationships, independent work, and reliance on logical-mathematical skills, while using a Eurocentric curriculum... The result is that many Blacks see little congruence between their educational experiences in predominantly White schools and their own cultural upbringing and beliefs about education that center on cooperation, collaboration, and cultural relevancy.” This section clearly displays the dominance of a White narrative in schooling, its contrast from a general black narrative, and the effect this has on students of color (Haycock, Jerald, & Huang, 2001; Hoffman, LIagas, & Snyder, 2003).

Moving beyond general curriculum and educational content, it is important to recognize the effects of a majority white student body on colored students. In Educational Hegemony, Traumatic Stress, and African American and Latino American students (Goodman, R. D., & West-Olatunji, C. A., 2010), Goodman writes about how simply representing a minority in a hegemonic system that does not embody your interests can cause traumatic stress, withdrawment from the community, diminished ambition, and depression as well as compromised emotional agency. She goes on, “Hegemonic educational experiences that hinder achievement can result in disengagement from school, deviant behaviors, fewer opportunities in life, and difficulty earning a living wage.”

Lastly, in Racial Justice, Hegemony, and Bias Incidents in U.S. Higher Education, Hughes discusses the lack of culturally specific academic resources available to minorities, incidents of violence against minorities on campuses, and other spheres of bias on college campuses, and their connection to hegemony (Hughes, 2013).

From these initial accounts on American educational hegemony, we can observe that it manifests itself in two forms: first and foremost, in the narrative and curriculum that universities grade students upon, and secondly in the mental harm minorities face when they represent a minority due to their unorthodox cultural habitus. The goal of the remainder of this paper is to bring specific attention to the linguistic hegemony that pervades higher education, how this isolates minorities from academic communities, and the connection between identity and language.

Though seemingly impartial and value-free, language carries with it preconceived notions reliant upon culture, and has tied people to their communities since the dawn of basic communication. The magnitude of this reality is further compounded when we realize that these subjective values by which people identify are reproduced on a continuous and unconscious basis through all forms of communication, making language a potent vehicle for hegemonic influence.

These linguistic characteristics contribute to an overall feeling of identity within a community, and it is these linguistic characteristics that define a culture and unite its subjects. “It is through language interaction that particular identities are enacted and their relevance to social contexts is uncovered" (Yo-An, 2015). Cultural and “coming of age” experiences common to certain social groups shape the ways in which they discuss topics, and the metaphors/phrases they utilize during day to day conversations. Linguistic identity can be inferred through certain inflections and patterns in one’s speech, as examined by Shanette C. Porter, Michelle Rheinschmidt-Same, and Jennifer A. Richeson in Inferring Identity from Language. Their research has demonstrated that in addition to communicating explicit content through language, one can communicate an implicit message via the linguistic properties of one’s language. They found through examining large, diverse groups of participants, that members of a community share linguistic trends when speaking about “outsiders” and “insiders,” and positive and negative notions.

For example, “one way a communicator conveys an implicit message is via variations in the degree to which that communicator’s language is concrete versus abstract... Descriptive action verbs are at the most concrete end of the continuum, followed by interpretive action verbs, state verbs, and, finally, nouns or adjectives.” They find that certain groups use language in more abstract ways to describe insiders, or concepts of positive connotations, while they use more concrete “hard” language when discussing outsiders or negative concepts. This same trend continues in accordance to sentence structure, vocal pitches, “slang,” and common pantomimes (Porter, S. C., Rheinschmidt-Same, M., & Richeson, J. A., 2016). All of these “indicators” can help distinguish not community members from “insiders,” not necessarily in a hostile sense, but for the purpose of maintaining culture and identity.

Furthermore, simple dialects can provide us information about someone’s culture or identity. Similar to how a village in north west russia pronounces horosho (good, in the russian language) with a hard “o,” in comparison to the more urban Moscow citizens who pronounce it with a soft vowel sound, a predominantly African American community in Inwood, New York City will sustain a much different dialect than those in Park Slope, or Staten Island, despite speaking the same language. Recall the basic functioning of hegemony- only imagine it funneled through the instruments of higher education. Education, like all of society's institutions is subject to hegemonic influence. In this case, higher education has comprised of mainly eurocentric, white americans for centuries, and as a result, espouses a narrative reflecting this past (as identified earlier).

Linguistically, this holds true. Language is first and foremost an agreement, an agreement among its users regarding what means what, and ultimately in a more abstract sense, what is improper and proper, correct and incorrect. To the average American today, it is generally agreed upon that minority cultures, namely the asian, black, and hispanic communities, speak an improper dialect, tell stories incorrectly, and communicate in a more primitive english. As a result, Higher education, as well as elementary, strives to instruct these social groups the “correct” way to speak.

The extent of this phenomenon is massive. If you speak in this “primitive” dialect to a university, you will most likely be denied. If your admission essays reflect an unorthodox method of storytelling, or contain unrelatable linguistic nuances, you will most likely be denied. By chance you are accepted to this university, professors as well as students, will unconsciously relate your accent, dialect, or sentence structure with lack of intelligence and incorrectness, through implicit bias. In the theoretical terms discussed earlier, if your linguistic habitus does not fit in line cleanly with cultural hegemony, you will be at a severe disadvantage. But this is old news. Many will say, “Why not learn? Why not conform? Why not abandon your dialect and adopt one that will benefit your academic and life endeavors?”

As addressed earlier, language is inextricably tied to identity. The effects of drastically, and coercively altering one’s language, or linguistic characteristics, may affect the subject’s identity and community relations. Pinky Makoe, a professor of the University of South Africa discusses linguistic identity, as well as hegemony in her scholarly article, Constructing Identities in a Linguistically Diverse Learning Context. The article focuses on 6 and 7 year old black students assimilating into what was formerly a segregated, all white institution. In doing so, they are forced to adapt to the dominant cultural, educational, and linguistic values (hegemony) that the school maintains. The article further explores the intersectionality between language, culture, and identity:

“The issue of language in the [South African] education context remains a complicated matter because many desegregated schools are determined to retain English as the language of learning and teaching (LoLT), and the main language of socialisation, despite the change in the profile of learners. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that the medium through which learners receive their education is often linked to dynamics of access, power, opportunity, aspirations and identity” (Makoe, 2014).

The study shows the complexity and variability of social relations and the critical role they play in constructing identities that a learner could negotiate, access or participate in. Researchers have taken note of the ever changing ideological landscape across the developing world, and attribute this to the Western world’s increased promotion of ESL programs (Borden, R. S., 2014). In addition, the identities of subculture’s throughout South Africa are slowly homogenizing towards more western narratives. The language, and furthermore the dialectic and linguistic pattern people speak in ties them to their communities as well as their cultural history. We can borrow the effects of ESL teaching in these foreign countries, but apply the same theoretical logic in a more familiar setting.

In relation to American Universities, it is evident that many types of “improper” speech, are simply dialectics or cultural ways of speaking that are deemed unintelligent. It is a common cultural trope, as well as a serious topic breached in television and film- the overachieving minority student who speaks too “white” for the black peers at his university or high school. To fully assimilate into western university culture and adopt this white narrative, would mean to adopt the language as well, and abandon your identity as a minority with ties to your original community, family, and past experiences.

The ultimate conclusion is, then, that conformity to the centralized practices of education systems is the only option for minorities wishing to succeed. Extending this, bearing in mind the connection between identity and language, does forcibly altering the dialect of the budding African American poet distance her from her tightly knit community in Jackson Heights, forever creating a rift between her learned culture and her experiential culture? Will the aspiring hispanic speechwriter find himself suspended between his formal education and his community, stuck in a cultural limbo, unable to channel his ethnic roots? Will this identity crisis of sorts bar minorities from their original communities, family, and friends, and will the lineage of their history depreciate into obscurity?


Borden, R. S. (2014). The English Only Movement: Revisiting Cultural Hegemony. Multicultural Perspectives, 16(4), 229-233. doi:10.1080/15210960.2014.956607.

Goodman, R. D., & West-Olatunji, C. A. (2010). Educational Hegemony, Traumatic Stress, and African American and Latino American Students. Journal Of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 38(3), 176-186.

Gramsci, A., & Forgacs, D. (1988). An Antonio Gramsci reader: Selected writings, 1916-1935. New York: Schocken Books.

Hughes, G. (2013). Racial Justice, Hegemony, and Bias Incidents in U.S. Higher Education. Multicultural Perspectives, 15(3), 126-132. doi:10.1080/15210960.2013.809301

Makoe, P. (2014). Constructing identities in a linguistically diverse learning context. International Journal Of Bilingual Education & Bilingualism, 17(6), 654-667. doi:10.1080/13670050.2014.953773.

Porter, S. C., Rheinschmidt-Same, M., & Richeson, J. A. (2016). Inferring Identity From Language. Psychological Science (Sage Publications Inc.), 27(1), 94-102. doi:10.1177/0956797615612202.

Rovai, A. P., Gallien Jr., L. B., & Wighting, M. J. (2005). Cultural and Interpersonal Factors Affecting African American Academic Performance in Higher Education: A Review and Synthesis of the Research Literature. Journal Of Negro Education, 74(4), 359-370.

Yo-An, L. (2015). Negotiating knowledge bases in pedagogical discourse: relevance of identities to language classroom interactions. Text & Talk, 35(5), 621-642. doi:10.1515/text-2015-0014.

Žižek, S. (2008). Violence: Six sideways reflections. New York: Picador

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