As a child, whenever I raised my hand in class and asked, “Can I sharpen my pencil?” “Can I go to the nurse?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” I was always met with the same dry, sarcastic response followed by an expectant stare from my instructor:
“I don’t know. Can you?”
It’s not that my teachers were denying me permission. They were waiting for me to ask the “right” way. According to what I was taught in all of my primary school English classes, I was supposed to say “May I,” not “Can I,” and I wouldn’t get anywhere in the classroom (or in life) until I learned the difference.
I suppose that my teachers, by staring at me while I held my bladder and my hand in the air, thought they were teaching me a valuable lesson on grammar and communication. What they were really providing was a much more valuable lesson on white supremacy, microaggressions and respectability politics, all before lunchtime.
“Proper English elevates whiteness while reinforcing the inferiority of everyone else.”
We’re all taught “proper” English from the first day we step into the classroom. Our version of words like “betta,” “sayin’” and “turnt” must, we’re told, become the more socially acceptable “better,” “saying” and “turned.”
We’re scolded for using the habitual “be” when we say things like “we be hangin’ out.” We’re assigned books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Orwell and told to start speaking like the majority-white authors we read in school.
Everyone ― black, brown and white ― is taught that one way of speaking is better than the other, and we carry this notion throughout our lives. As an editor, I enforce these rules of speech myself when reading and correcting other people’s work.
But there’s a thin line between the “right” way of speaking and the white way.
Through lessons that stifle slang and praise standard grammar, we’re failing to teach kids anything about the value of diversity in communication styles. Children who grew up speaking Ebonics, Jamaican Patois, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or other cultural dialects are taught their first lessons on code-switching in the classroom. Students aren’t taught to understand the Jamaican or Mexican kids’ accents. Instead, those kids are told to lose the accents or get left behind.
They’re taught the only way to be respected and heard is to stop talking like themselves.
Proper English elevates whiteness while reinforcing the inferiority of everyone else. Anything that deviates from that is wrong and needs to be corrected. This reinforces for privileged white students that they’re the default and that everyone else has to conform. It’s not just about sounding the right (kind of) white; it’s about being as close to whiteness as possible so you can be taken seriously by an overwhelmingly white social power structure.
“When we police the speech of any minority community, we strangle their voices. ... And so diverse voices and ideas die.”
Haitian-American author Ibi Zoboi attempted to deviate from the standard in her latest novel “Pride,” a remix of “Pride and Prejudice” featuring an Afro-Latina main character. In a recent review for The Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote, “Ms. Zoboi doesn’t write with literary formality or what has been called classical tact. … [H]er heavy use of slang will undoubtedly amuse or validate those readers age 13-17 who use it themselves, but it may otherwise limit the book’s appeal.”
Zoboi called out the reviewer’s thinly veiled racist rhetoric on Twitter. What Gurdon labeled “literary formality” and “classical tact,” Zoboi dubbed “delusional intellectual superiority,” and Zoboi was right. The idea that slang is childish and limiting minimizes the intellect of people of color and their value to society.
The literary elite might argue that slang butchers the English language and is difficult to understand. But we laud writers like Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, both of whom were constantly making up words and phrases.
And Twitter, with its former 140-character limit, made shorthand and slang a primary method of communication that today, advocates, journalists and even presidents use to spread ideas. Entire languages have been developed on the site and some of that lingo has been added to the dictionary.
Given all that, could literary perfectionists like Gurdon really have an issue with slang? No, they have an issue with who is using the slang.
Meanwhile, the success of writers and speakers of color who use slang, like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, shows a society-shaking deviation from the white norms that have been so carefully taught in the classroom. When people of color reject the standards prescribed to us and embrace our own cultures, whiteness loses control and whiteness is no longer the reigning norm. And in order for a white supremacist society to survive, whiteness has to be the norm.
“It’s only a few short leaps from “Speak proper English!” ... to “Make America Great Again.””
Some readers may think I’m exaggerating. It’s just words, after all. Our teachers weren’t trying to maintain a superior race in English class; they were just trying to teach us grammar. Isn’t proper speech necessary to streamline communication? If everyone started talking however they wanted and making up words, we’d have utter confusion and anarchy.
Actually, we’d have diversity and dialect. We’d have Southern twang and West Coast slang and whatever it is they’re doing in Boston. We’d have all the descriptive linguistics everyone loves to borrow from people of color like “lit” and “fleek” and “woke.” If everyone were given the freedom to speak how they chose, we’d have language that truly reflects the individuality of the American people, not some whitewashed boringness that sounds like it belongs in the days of petticoats and carriages.
Are there times when we should be careful with the words we use because they may bring harm or trauma to others? Of course. And should we make occasional adjustments to our speech in order to be better understood? Sure. But to educate away someone’s natural communication style just because we’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s “wrong” sets a dangerous precedent. It’s only a few short leaps from “Speak proper English!” to “I can’t understand your accent!” to “Go back to your own country!” to “Make America Great Again.”
When we police the speech of any minority community, we strangle their voices. We silence them into submission to an idea that some words, languages, voices and ideas are superior to others. And so diverse voices and ideas die. The little black girl who asked to go to the bathroom “the wrong way” stops raising her hand in class lest she face another public scolding. The teenage Indian boy who’s been forced to read a bunch of Fitzgerald, Hawthorne and Orwell can’t relate to these authors and decides to stop reading books all together. The grown Latina woman navigating corporate America is too nervous to speak up in the boardroom because her words may come out wrong.
Teachers, book reviewers, bosses and editors (like me) need to think twice before telling black folks and people from other minority communities that they’re wrong for being themselves and expressing themselves as they see fit. It’s not enough to claim we value diverse stories if we’re going to demand they all be told in the same language.
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that if I can figure out what the hell Jane Austen is talking about, everyone else should be able to interpret the meaning when a little black girl asks, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
Jolie A. Doggett is an Opinion editor at HuffPost.