Last week the University of Washington, Tacoma, caught some flack from the media for its supposed plan to “dismantle the rules of grammar” because “the conventional rules on how to structure sentences and form ideas in written language are perpetuating inequality and white supremacy.”
While quite inflammatory, those stories were a load of hooey.
I first heard about this story on The Passive Voice when it reposted an article from Heat Street. You can also find coverage on Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and other right wing sites, but you would be better off avoiding those stories because they all got the story fundamentally wrong.
Dr Inoue set the record straight in his email:
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.
As I see it, the university is teaching its students not to be grammar nazis. It is teaching its students to value the substance of an argument rather than its form and whether the argument followed all the nitpicky rules of grammar.
The University of Washington, Tacoma, is not going against the prevailing wisdom that one needs to “learn to speak properly” or “talk white” so much as it is pointing out that judging someone on that basis, and rewarding people based on their diction, is inherently racist.
I don’t know that I agree with their position, but they’re not wrong on the point that language can be used to exclude or to discriminate. Shifting to a specialized dialect, whether it is a local vernacular or polysyllabic profession-specific terminology, can ostracize or make members of a group into outsiders.
And when that judgment extends to rewarding one individual over another solely on the basis that the former uses “correct English” while the latter does not, the University of Washington, Tacoma, has concluded that this can perpetuate and reinforce existing racism in our society.
image by o.tacke