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"Non-Racist" Grammar & Langauge

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.

I am coming to this story late because I followed up with Professor Asao Inoue, the director of the writing center at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

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.

You can find other stories correcting the record in The Olympian, the Tacoma News-Tribune, and on the site of a local tv news station.

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

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A Real American February 26, 2017 um 8:52 pm

The University and the Professor are blatant racists! They are saying that Caucasians are superior because they are the only ones genetically capable of speaking The Queens English. The Professor and the University are saying that Black people are not able to speak standard American English because they are genetically incapable.

This "soft racism" must stop! Everyone is capable of learning standard American English if they want to and are willing to try. The problem is culture. If one’s culture denigrates those who try to speak English, then students will be less motivated to learn English. They’ll continue speaking Ebonic and nobody outside their culture will be able to understand them.

I can refute the University and the Professor very easily.

Barack Hussein Obama
Condoleezza Rice
Colin Powell
Herman Cain.

QED. *mic drop*

Will Entrekin February 27, 2017 um 8:14 am

Except there’s no such thing as "standard English," much less "standard American English" — especially in the US there are at least a dozen dialects, if not hundreds. I’m from a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia and now live in Pittsburgh, and even within my adopted home state I can easily see differences in English.

In Philadelphia, "youse" is a common second-person plural. In Pittsburgh, it’s "yinz."

In Philadephia, carbonated sugar water is "soda." In the Burgh, it’s often "pop."

Just two examples. There are hundreds of differences, and that’s between two cities in one state.

Grammar, like dictionaries, is descriptive, not prescriptive. Seems like that’s what Inoue and the writing center are trying to get at; that there’s no real "standard" English, and often what people try to uphold as such tends to be more about upholding systemic racism and privilege than about good communications.

Darryl February 27, 2017 um 8:09 pm

What sloppy use of language. From a writing centre, no less. The fact that there are regional differences in the use of language does not support the argument you seek to make. Instead it empahsises the need for standardisation. And once again the term rasism is grossly misused. What "race" are people with poor skills in the language of instruction? If I travel to China and take a writing course in Mandarin, I may well be disadvantaged. But not because of my race. I may write superb papers which would justify the highest grades in English, which is beside the point. My instructors cannot and should not be expected to grade my efforts in English, nor should the Chines people who I wish to communicate with have to learn English so they can read my words of wisdom (or moor likely, say, my advertising copy).

the Centres difficulties have arisen from their attempt to frame the issue in terms of idealogy. If they had simply said some otherwise capable students are for various reasons having difficutly with the standards of language used in our courses. We will do our best to help these students overcome these difficulties and meet the standards required. Instead they try to force this square peg into the round hole of racism.

Lemondrop February 26, 2017 um 10:03 pm

Who gives a ****

lemondrop February 27, 2017 um 8:17 am

All this BS about language and racism, blah, blah became absurd. Sure there’s racism, then the liberals got hijacked by BLM and other minority groups have their little private pscho-dramas, ranting about their rights while ignoring others. Then we got Trump. Hmmm. Maybe activists should have been a little less one-sided about morality.

Robin February 28, 2017 um 10:06 am

Yeah, valuing the substance of an argument as opposed to its form and how language can be used to discriminate against others, that seems to be what the original piece is getting at. Too bad people can’t be bothered to comprehend that or even read the original piece to begin with in many of the various comment sections and get immediately triggered when the spectre of antiracism pops up.

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