Why White People Grammar Policing Black People is Racist

Exploring the myth of white intellectual superiority

Photo Credit | The author Allison Gaines created and owns this photo | made via Canva

Racism is pervasive. It is in the systems, structures, rules, languages, expectations, and guidelines that make up our classes, school, and society.(Gullo, 2017)

In America, white people have a problematic history of grammar policing. This is because they force-fed the English language into Black and Indigenous people through violent, oppressive means. Black Americans using English is a testament to white colonists’ cruelty. They forced them to abandon their original African dialects. White people's grammar policing Black people is fundamentally racist, mainly because this dynamic assumes white intellectual superiority. This practice is more than tone-deaf; it’s dehumanizing.

It all started with Americas original sin — slavery. White people wanted to maintain control. And they knew good and well that if Black people could freely organize and communicate, they would not stay enslaved for long. White colonists never wanted to read about what life was like for Black people, which included the horrors of slavery and racism.

During the Antebellum South, anti-literacy laws made it illegal for Black people to read or write. These laws helped codify stereotypes about Black people for generations, namely that they were inherently lazy or dumb. White colonists used their power to block access to educational resources and then mocked Black people as if they were intellectually inferior. In many cases, they started to believe the hype. However, Black literacy has always been a fly in the punchbowl for white supremacists because it undermines the racist stereotypes they created.

Anti-literacy laws were a major strategy used by southern plantation owners to dehumanize and control the enslaved Black population. (Literacy and Anti-Literacy Laws)

In modern American society, Black people still bear the brunt of unwarranted ridicule in educational and professional settings for using African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Many code-switch, trying to escape the discrimination associated with Black self-expression. Too often, “sounding intelligent” means speaking standard English proficiently. White people have invested so much time and energy into controlling how Black people use the English Language. They act like they are the “guardians of the English-speaking galaxy.” Grammar policing Black people is an attempt to invalidate Black free-flowing self-expression — that’s racist.

Speech-based prejudice can be an especially insidious form of racism, because people don’t recognize how deeply cultural stereotypes and attitudes inform their views about speech. People may chalk up negative feelings toward a speaker to difficulty of comprehension rather than racial bias. They may think to themselves, “I just don’t understand that person” or “they aren’t speaking clearly” when in fact, racism and linguistic judgments are intertwined. (King & Kinzler, 2020)

Scholars cannot separate race from linguistic expectations because these concepts are intertwined. Standard English and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) variances only exist because enslavement disenfranchised Black people and anti-literacy laws codified the separation between white and Black American English speakers. Throughout American history, white people had a significant role in shaping how Black people expressed themselves and experienced language. When white people grammar police Black people, they show the extent to which they are willing to go to maintain white power and the myth of white supremacy.

While many white Americans accept English variants from Britain, they struggle to embrace linguistic diversity when it comes from Black people within our country — that’s what makes grammar policing Black people racist. The very idea that Black people are wrong when they speak implies they have no right within the society to contribute to the English language’s development, to influence it or help it grow. Grammar policing Black people deprives them of freedom of self-expression, and it’s only because of their race that they endure such ridicule.

Language is an important tool in liberation. In all instances of colonization, the colonizer began by taking away the language of the colonized. They banned native tongues, they called them inferior, and they opened schools where those languages were not taught. (Nichelle, 2018)

The more white people insist on grammar and tone-policing Black speech and writing, the more they lean into their role as colonizers. It is incumbent upon anti-racists from all walks of life to fight against stigmas associated with using AAVE. Instead of banning this language variant in schools and business environments, educators should embrace this homegrown English variant. Black writers and speakers cannot be free within a society that refuses to accept cultural-linguistic diversity. And they certainly should never have to satisfy the white gaze, or in this case, the white ear. No matter how many tickets the grammar police write, Black people do not have to comply — they never have to show up to grammar court and pay.

Many people have (historically and presently) considered AAVE to be bad English. It is not. Nor is it slang. AAVE has its own words, syntax, and rules. More importantly, it is part of a rich Black culture (Nichelle, 2018).

Just because most white people don’t understand the rules that govern AAVE doesn’t give them carte blanche to discriminate against Black people. Similarly, American English speakers do not have to understand regulations that govern Irish English variants to respect that it comes with rhyme and reason. To assume that Black speech is somehow disordered speech is a common refrain within American society. It is under this lens that many white people participate in racist grammar correction.

Grammar policing Black people is an attempt to invalidate Black free-flowing self-expression — that’s racist.

Ironically, white people’s lack of understanding of the AAVE grammar rules also makes them the least qualified to correct Black speech. If they can’t catch the lingo, then they definitely shouldn’t interject. Like we say in the south, “you all in the Koolaid and don’t know the flavor.” Black people are not required to use Standard English, and when white people try to correct them, they do so while insisting that Black people should only speak SE. Racism is the only factor that makes white people doubt Black linguistic legitimacy — it makes them rock the boat.

Where do we go from here?

White people's grammar policing Black people is racist because it implies that white people know best as if their use of English is somehow superior or more legitimate. A contraction like “ain’t,” for example, is no more relevant than “isn’t” in expressing the “be-verb” and “not.” Essentially, language is useful when it allows a person or people to communicate with one another. So, as long as the listener or reader understands the message, there shouldn’t be a valid reason to mock or ridicule the individual. It is especially disparaging to mock someone who speaks an English variant, which ties into their culture.

Instead of offering unsolicited grammar advice, white people should try to understand the rules that govern AAVE. They should also respect that English variants are natural and Black people have every right to use Ebonics in educational, professional, and casual settings.

There’s a difference between understanding standard grammar and demanding it,…ridiculing anyone who steps outside of what you deem ‘acceptable.’ (Fabello, 2014)

Given America’s long history of linguistic discrimination, white people should stop trying to force Black people to abide by Standard English variant grammar rules. Their unwarranted critiques are nothing more than a played-out attempt to control Black people's use of the English language. After hundreds of years, many white folks still consider themselves intellectually superior. White people grammar policing Black people is racist because it attempts to legitimize the fallacy of white intellectual superiority which should have no place in our modern society.

References:

Bouie, J. (2014, October 01). Why black people’s disdain for “proper english” is a myth. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2014/10/talking-white-black-peoples-disdain-for-proper-english-and-academic-achievement-is-a-myth.html

Gullo, J. (2017, February 23). University: Proper grammar can be racist. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from https://www.news10.com/news/university-proper-grammar-can-be-racist/

Fabello, M. (2014, November 14). Why grammar Snobbery has no place in the movement. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/05/grammar-snobbery/

Harris, T. W. (2010, September 17). What’s so wrong With “sounding black?” Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/colorstruck/201009/whats-so-wrong-sounding-black

Khan, S. (2019, August 13). How language purity is a tool to further white supremacy and classism. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://wearyourvoicemag.com/language-purists-white-supremacy-classism/

King, S., & Kinzler, K. D. (2020, July 14). Op-Ed: Bias against African American English speakers is a pillar of systemic racism. Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-07-14/african-american-english-racism-discrimination-speech

Nichelle, J. (2018, January 17). “I’m is talking Right”: How the stigma around black Language holds us back from liberation. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from https://afropunk.com/2018/01/im-talking-right-stigma-around-black-language-holds-us-back-liberation/

Black Womanist — MS Psych 🎓 EIC of Cultured allisonthedailywriter.com Co-Founder of Writers and Editors of Color WEOC I 🤎 ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/allyfromnola

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