Monday, February 27, 2017

Is Grammar Racist? A Response

After all the negative press in the far right-media and blog sphere recently over my writing center's antiracism and social justice statement at the University of Washington, Tacoma, a center I direct, I thought I'd offer a personal response to some of the most frequent misunderstandings and questions about the statement and my own teaching and work. These are my views and not necessarily those of the university or the writing center.

The Crapstorm 

The hoopla began when my university did a story on me and the center's antiracism statement on Feb 17. It took about three days for the crapstorm to hit the far-right media. Many of the articles open with some kind of statement that suggests the center and I, or the university more generally, promote the idea that English grammar is racist. Here's a few:

Of course, there were many others, most cite or reprint the original Shimshock article or one of the early articles, most of which take from Shimshock.

On Feb 23, I got together with the Advancement office of the university and Jill Purdy, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, to write a response. We did and it was published late on that day. A few days later, KIRO 7 news (a local Seattle TV station) did a short story on it, and the Olympian and the Tacoma News-Tribune did stories on the statement as well, all of which tried to offer our side and intentions for the statement, which hadn't been represented very well in the previous stories online.

My personal favorite references are Emily Zanotti of Heat Street calling me a "writing guru" and Chris Manahan of Information Liberation calling me an "anti-white hate preacher." I may have to put those on my CV.

And then, Nate Hoffelder contacted me and asked for some clarification. After our communications, he wrote a more balanced piece on Feb 26 on his blog, The Digital Reader.

Is Grammar Racist? 

And so, it leads me to this question, the most often one invoked by the far-right media, and for good reason. Our statement begins with our beliefs about U.S. society and language:
The writing center works from several important beliefs that are crucial to helping writers write and succeed in a racist society. The racist conditions of our society are not simply a matter of bias or prejudice that some people hold. In fact, most racism, for instance, is not accomplished through intent. Racism is the normal condition of things. Racism is pervasive. It is in the systems, structures, rules, languages, expectations, and guidelines that make up our classes, school, and society.
Words like "racism" and "antiracist" are trigger words for many white people. They conjure up guilt and assumptions about individual blame. The words seem to speak of white people behaving badly, or being prejudice, or racially biased. As the rest of the statement explains, these are not the definitions we use for this term. Racism is structural. It is in systems and how those systems use grammar and language against some people, while privileging white people and those who have taken on white, middle class ways with language. I'll put aside the complex issues around race as a social construct, and the equally complex ideas about race as a lived experience and whiteness as an invisible set of privileges. Race is not real but it is a lived experience. People are racialized, as are our languages and other social practices. Race tends to be a system of hierarchy.

UWT Antiracism Statement
UWT Antiracism Statement
Now, when I say "white middle class English language," I don't mean that any version of English is inherent to a particular group of people. That is, I don't mean that whites inherently speak a version of English, while Blacks inherently speak another. I mean that language travels with people -- it's the only way language can exist. People use language and learn it from each other, so it is historical and social in nature. At its most basic level, English as a language is a set of linguistic and discursive structures that follow groups of people. This process is historical. Thus "proper" "correct" English is associated with a particular group of people who use it in ways accepted as proper or correct.

Generally speaking, white U.S. citizens historically have used English in ways different from, say, Black Americans, or Latinxs. There are always exceptions, but we're speaking about the trends and patterns, not exceptions. Whites have also historically held most of the positions of power in all the major areas of life, including business, commerce, and education. So white middle class people have dictated what is acceptable English in those spaces in the U.S. Thus white, middle class English has become what most assume to be "proper" English, when really it's just the way those who have power communicate, out of necessity. Ain't nothing wrong with white, middle class English, except when it is considered and used as the ONLY way to communicate properly.

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with the dominant white, middle class English. It is not racist in and of itself, but using it to judge others, to punish or withhold opportunities and privileges, is racist because of the history and politics of the English language. Here's how I explained it to Nate Hoffelder for his blog when he asked for clarification and examples of racist grammar:
We are not saying that dominant “standards” of grammar and English are racist, so there aren’t examples to offer in the regular sense. What we are saying is that how standards of grammar and dominant Englishes are used in classrooms and other spaces in the U.S. are often racist because they are USED AGAINST groups of people. These groups fall too often into racial formations or groups – language travels with people and historically people have been racialized and have formed racialized communities. 
So, if you have a standard, and it privileges a particular racial group of people, say a white, middle class group, and unfairly penalizes other groups, such as Black Americans, and you use that standard to bestow and deny privileges and opportunities, then the use of that standard of English is racist. The racism is in how the standard and its grammar are being USED. So racism is structural. It is structured in how we have to judge and use a particular dominant, white English, because, of course, the dominant Englishes that we use in academia and civic spaces are clear and appropriate to those operating in those spaces, but who exactly are in those spaces, and who has controlled everything up to this point? White racial formations, white groups of U.S. citizens.
The simple answer to the question is: no, English grammar is not racist, but the systems in education and civic society that use a particular version of English grammar against people who don't use that grammar is racist. I don't blame anyone for racist grammar practices, which are really judgment practices. I blame the histories and structures that push us to use a particular English against most of the people in the U.S. -- heck, most of the people who use some form of English in the world.

What this means for teaching writing and writing center practices is that students must be aware of the structures of judgment that oppress them if they are going to be able to make good decisions as communicators. Knowing the way structures of English grammar and discourse (the logics and ways of making knowledge embedded in our language) can be racist when used against some who use different versions of English than the dominant one is vital knowledge in making sound, effective, and ethical decisions as a communicator.

Let me repeat: Understanding where so called proper English comes from and who has used it historically in the U.S. is important to making good and ethical decisions. Good communicators make decisions about their words; they don't follow orders. So it is not a good teaching practice to tell students what to do, or simply and only "correct" their grammar. Knowing the structural reasons why one's language is judged as ineffective or unclear, for instance, can help that person understand that they are not illiterate or dumb. It can help them make their own decisions about their language practices. They can see that they simply use a different code. And if they want to use the dominant code, there are consequences and trade-offs.

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