Jonathan Rosa on his new book, Looking Like a Language and Sounding Like a Race

Interview by Jessica López-Espino

Jessica López-Espino: Let’s start with your title, what does it mean to Look Like a Language and Sound like a Race?

Jonathan Rosa: The title reflects my long-standing obsession with processes of overdetermination—how categories of identity and expressive practices become ideologically co-constituted, and how perceived boundaries between such categories are enacted interactionally, institutionally, and historically. Looking like a language and sounding like a race is about historical and contemporary forms of governance through which one is expected to fit into categories that don’t correspond to lived experience in straightforward ways. What this means is that, in everyday interactions and encounters with the state, whether in education, housing, employment, or criminal justice, one’s legibility as a subject is anchored in this dynamic of looking like a language and sounding like a race. I’m suggesting that a seemingly casual kind of interplay between people’s recognitions of race and language can also be understood an existential dilemma that is historically inherited and reproduced—and profoundly institutionally consequential.

Jessica López-Espino: You made significant efforts to examine the “contortions” that students at New Northwest High School, a key ethnographic focus of the book, believe in and enact as “emblems” of Mexicanness and Puerto Ricanness, but also show how students’ own ancestry, families, friends, relationships, and desires are often intertwined more than they may initially admit. Can you say more about what analytic tools you developed to avoid reifying or exaggerating intra- and inter-Latinx difference?  

Jonathan Rosa: I developed the notion of ethnoracial contortions because on the one hand I wanted to figure out how people were strategically enacting and constructing identities, and on the other I was interested in the ways that their strategic constructions and enactments were overdetermined. You can strategically use language in a particular way or wear particular clothing or have a particular hairstyle and that does not necessarily mean that your project of the self is going to be rendered legible within a given interactional or institutional context.

I analyze the relationship between denotational texts and interaction texts—transcripts and that which is enacted through discourse—to show how kids say all the time that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are separate races while also regularly engaging in practices that defy that assertion. This was important for me in terms of schematizing stereotypical models of Puerto Ricanness and Mexicanness, but not reducing the analysis to particular stereotypes or presentations of self. By attending both to immediate contexts of interaction and broader historical and institutional conditions of possibility for those interactions, I attempt to avoid ethnographic essentialism, empiricism, and exceptionalism. The tendency toward privileging the pragmatic realm is particularly concerning in ethnographic analyses of race, gender, and class­ because these phenomena do not reduce to embodiment or interaction in straightforward ways.

Jessica López-Espino: In your discussion of outlaw(ed) literacies, you argue that perceptions of Latinx students as not reading are based on raciolinguistic ideologies positioning students as gangbangers and hoes who are unable to produce standardized linguistic forms. What do you think administrators, teachers, and the general public loses by maintaining these raciolinguistic ideologies about Latinx youth?

Jonathan Rosa: A major problem with discussions of language and literacy in educational contexts is the assumption that the nature of the challenge that we are facing is one of deficiency or mismatch. The deficiency narrative is that these kids lack skills all together, they have not learned academic language, they have not been exposed to particular forms of communication early enough in life to then be able to succeed later on in school and other institutional contexts. The alternative is a narrative of mismatch, where it’s not that the kids are deficient altogether, but that they are using different practices. From this perspective, the goal is to build a bridge between home and school practices, which will facilitate mainstream educational success.

In contrast, I wanted to demonstrate that the very practices these kids allegedly lack—that is, standardized language and literacy—can be recognized in their existing repertoires. If these students already demonstrate skills that we are saying they need to learn, then perhaps the problem is that various aspects of their communicative practices are illegible, distorted, or erased from mainstream institutional perspectives. I’m trying to expand the nature of the antagonism to say that this is not simply about building a bridge or scaffolding, it is about the modes of legibility and illegibility that are cultivated within and fundamental to mainstream institutions. Where’s the burden in terms of change? Is it modifying the practices of marginalized youth and communities, or is it transforming institutions that are tied to endemic histories of inequity? I want to argue that it’s about transforming institutions.

Jessica López-Espino: Not “seeing race” in this book is not an option, as racial ideologies center how these students are understood as achieving a presumably upwardly mobile pan-ethnic category as Young Latino Professionals, or negatively as “at risk youth.” Have you faced push back from scholars interested in maintaining a “race-blind” analysis? What advice do you have for anthropologists seeking to challenge the normalization of Whiteness within their work?

Jonathan Rosa: I’ve seen different kinds of pushback. In some moments I was grappling with people who didn’t want to talk about race and figuring out how to communicate with them; in other situations, I’ve encountered people who want to talk about race but in ahistorical, essentializing ways I find troublesome. With people who didn’t want to talk about race, I had to ask what kinds of analyses and insights are made (im)possible by engaging or not engaging with race. Not attending to race allows us to imagine that contemporary societal challenges are merely pragmatic in nature such that diversifying demographics within existing institutions would somehow fundamentally transform them; if you do not attend to race then you will misunderstand the nature of inequality and exclusion. Race is central to the creation of the nation-state, mainstream institutions, and academic disciplines. If one understands the modern world as profoundly anchored in colonialism, then race must be central to one’s analysis of historical and contemporary societies. After all, race and racism emerged as justifications for the globalization of European colonialism.

With those who are interested in studying race but define it in terms of essentialized categories that are understood to be embodied in self-evident ways, it’s important to remember that central to the project of understanding race and rejecting biological racism is a conceptualization of the body as one among many sites for the articulation of race, and a very deceptive one at that. Embodied experiences must be analyzed in relation to colonial histories, so that when we take for granted the recognizability of Whiteness, Indigeneity, and Blackness, for example, that’s often based on a body-oriented mode of analysis. If these contemporary demographics as articulated within a particular societal setting are the primary focus, then I worry that the histories out of which they emerged will escape careful consideration.

Jessica López-Espino: Is there anything else you hope other anthropologists take away from your book?

Jonathan Rosa: I hope that what people take away from this book is a set of questions about governance, about how boundaries are inherited, experienced, and transgressed; I’m interested in contributing to conversations about the broader worlds these boundaries constitute, as well as the existence of alternative worlds that are not often recognized as such. To the extent that the book invites readers to entertain and recognize the possibility and ubiquity of such otherwise worlds, that’s exciting to me.