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The “both-and,” non-binary semiotics of intersectionality

Joshua Babcock and Jay Ke-Schutte

In two recent special issues in Signs and Society and the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, we outlined how we see intersectionality contributing to a raciolinguistic perspective. As we and the special issues’ contributors demonstrated, intersectionality offers two key interventions for linguistic anthropologists and other critical scholars of language: first, a methodological and epistemological reframing that encourages analysts to adopt a stance of “both-and” rather than “either-or.” Second, an intervention in semiotic methods for engaging with the pragmatics and ethnography of raciolinguistic intersectionalities—in other words, in the situated, reflexively group-based lifeways and practical activities in and through which race and language get variously co-naturalized (building on works by Lo 2020; Rosa and Flores 2017; 2020; and Smalls 2020, among others). The necessity of these interventions becomes particularly clear, we suggest, when engaging with locations cast as outside white settler-colonial settings.

Our approach takes inspiration from scholars like the sociocultural linguist deandre miles-hercules (2020), who has critiqued the convergence of anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and the denigration of political praxis that the term “intersectionality” has been subjected to. Disconnected from the Black women&femme theorists, organizers, and doers who developed intersectional methods even before the concept was labeled, the term’s indexical and semantic and bleaching (the drift away from the term’s producers, contexts of production, and meanings) tends to erase even key figures like Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who first articulated intersectionality as an approach in the legal academy. Beyond this, it distracts analysts from paying attention to the ways that multiple, compounding oppressive structures come together to differentially shape oppressed groups’ life opportunities—and from working to dismantle these structures wherever they manifest.

Here, we highlight some of the key arguments that we sought to make across the two issues. We hope interested readers will also engage with the collections’ introductions and articles for themselves.


Our first, seemingly simple point is one that we realized desperately needs to be made: namely, that we don’t need to choose between binary semiotic options in our analyses and when constructing our objects of inquiry. As we and other scholars have repeatedly noticed, there is a prevailing undercurrent—often covert—among scholars who insist that we must choose between ideologically opposed analytic and ethnographic categories while categorically ruling out the alternatives, for instance, by being pressured to choose whether an effect is unidimensionally “caused” by language or race. 

As we argued instead, the raciolinguistic perspective outlined in recent years by Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores offers a starting point for an intersectional semiotics, not a conclusion. It prompts us to look for processes, not products—thus the adverbial or adjectival “raciolinguistic” over the nominal “raciolinguistics”—and for this reason doesn’t require that analysts choose between language or race or class or gender or sexuality or citizenship or religion or dis/ability, etc.


In the second special issue, we set out to take it a step further. If the “both-and” semiotics of intersectionality prompted a reframing of methodologies and epistemologies—that is, discourses on the possibility and right conduct of methods, ways of knowing, and justifications for knowledge (which we paraphrased from Harding 1987)—then the “nonbinary” suggests a method—a concrete technique for generating evidence. Instead of seeing semiotic binaries or oppositions as either empirically necessary or mere fictions that we ought to dismiss (for instance, by showing how things are “actually” blurred or crossed, thus keeping the binary in place by insisting it’s been transcended), we show what else becomes apparent when we refuse the binary altogether. As the contributors show, this method allows us to track how semiosis gets historically overdetermined without falling into the trap of seeing overdetermination as determination or determinacy—as necessarily opposed, in binary fashion, to the open-endedness of semiosis itself.

As we said in each of our introductions’ acknowledgments, we’re grateful first and foremost to the contributing authors (listed below), without whose inspiring scholarship the special issues literally could not exist, let alone exemplify and extend our intended interventions as brilliantly as they have done. We’re also grateful to Asif Agha, the team at Signs and Society, Sonia Das, the team at the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, and the anonymous reviewers at both journals who gave their time to comment on the texts.

Signs and Society. 2023. Vol. 11, Iss. 1.

Introduction: Toward a “Both-And” Semiotics of Intersectionality: Raciolinguistics beyond White Settler-Colonial Situations (Joshua Babcock and Jay Ke-Schutte)


(De)coupling Positional Whiteness and White Identities through “Good English” in Singapore (Joshua Babcock)

This article shows how a local model for imagining the four official “races” of Singapore—each of which is constructed through its “Mother Tongue”—gets mobilized to interactionally co-naturalize whiteness, class, and “Good English” as opposed to Singaporeans’ raciolinguistic Asianness. In both written and face-to-face encounters, Singaporeans thus get invited to aspire toward and invest in positional whiteness without the hope of inhabiting white identities.

Sticky Raciolinguistics (Vincent Pak and Mie Hiramoto)

Pak and Hiramoto track how debates over “Chinese Privilege” in Singapore enable public commentators to selectively conflate and disavow varied, contextually shifting structures of privilege and oppression. They draw on Sara Ahmed’s “stickiness” to track how Western, settler-colonial racial ideologies continue to “stick” to co-naturalizations of language and race in the postcolony.

A Racial Semiotics of Appropriation: Transnational Performance of Raciogender among Mexican K-Pop Fans (Joyhanna Yoo)

Yoo analyzes the selective co-naturalization of race, gender, and language in identity attributions ascribed to both self and other by K-Pop fans in Mexico. The article proposes “citational embodiment” as a concept to name this strategic—if never fully controllable—management of semiotic resources during fans’ performances.

“Say a Sentence”: Drawing an Interactional Link between Organizations, Language Ideologies, and Coloniality (Jacob Henry)

Henry shows how the mediatized circulation of jokes made by the owners of a Pakistani cafe about one of their staff member’s “poor” English demonstrates the perdurance of colonial regimes of value. He argues that actors’ projection and interpretation of links between linguistic proficiency, class, modernity, wealth, and cosmopolitanism still rely on Anglocentric ideologies in a postcolonial, multilingual setting.

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. 2023. Vol. 33, Iss. 2.

Introduction: Toward a Non-binary Semiotics of Intersectionality: Linguistic Anthropology in the Wake of Coloniality (Jay Ke-Schutte, and Joshua Babcock)


Specters of Excess: Passing and Policing in the Malay-speaking Archipelago (Andrew M. Carruthers)

In this article, Carruthers examines how different groups in the Malay-speaking Archipelago, an area crossing the nation-state territories of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, police the ideological boundaries between locals and outsiders. Carruthers shows how outsiders’ ability to pass as locals organize anxieties that sit at the nexus of race, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, and language.

(Out)Caste Language Ideologies: Intersectional Raciolinguistic Stigma and Assimilation from Denotified Tribal Students’ Perspectives in Rural India (Jessica Chandras)

This article uses policy analysis, interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork among educators and Banjara Tribal youth in rural India to show the workings of persistent co-naturalizations across oppressive structures centered on language, caste, class, and race. Chandras demonstrates how students’ ethnolinguistic assimilation stands as a precondition to their ability to access privilege and mobility because of exclusionary effects that are produced by nominally inclusive educational policies.

“RIP English”: Race, Class and ‘Good English’ in India (Katy Highet)

Highet analyzes the links among race, class, and language-use that get made through online and offline eulogies following the supposed “death” of (“good”) English. The article traces the ways that liberal ideologies of “love” for one’s identity get mobilized through hierarchies of value structured by anti-Blackness, racism, classism, and colonialism.

Voicing Singlish from the “Middle”: Indexical Hybridities of Class, Race, Language, and Singaporeanness (Velda Khoo)

Khoo demonstrates how Singlish—or Singaporean Colloquial English—gets positioned as a distinct variety via reflexively “class-blind” ideological discourses that still rely on the classed, intersectional co-constructions of class, race, language, and national essence. Khoo traces how, within these intersecting structures, the labels “high SES” and “low SES” (socioeconomic status) work to anchor fraught and contested performances of Singaporeanness.