Teaching Standard English is Racist
Since I co-authored a number of articles and chapters in the early 2000s–including the most popular “Why Revitalize Grammar?” (2003, English Journal), “Grammar Rant Analysis” (2006, English Journal), and Grammar Rants (Heinemann, 2011)–I have been exploring the ways in which grammar instruction in the USA is based on bigotry.
In the years since, I have learned that the very concept of Standard English (SE) and all the many, many mechanisms that enforce it, are flat-out white supremacy in action. This includes all my own instruction in SE over the decades since I became a teacher in 1988.
When the concept of SE was invented (centuries ago) it was done so by wealthy white elitists, and it was based on their language habits. When education in the United States moved from oral recitation to written assignments, the role of Standard English (which I will now call Wealthy White English, WWE) took on an hugely outsized role across all education in this country. By now, that role is so dominant that it is now a form of domination, a form of brainwashing.
Anyone who wants to gain wealth, power, and even a bit of autonomy, has been tricked into believing that they must use WWE to get it. That’s not true, as many, many, many examples throughout the world can easily show. But many of us still believe the myth of WWE and too many of us continue to indoctrinate our students into it.
Here are some of the most important problems that result from teaching WWE as if it is the only form of correct English or as if it is even just the only required form of English:
- It teaches native writers of WWE that they are born better and more correct than everyone else. Their wealth and access to power serve as evidence that this is true.
- It teaches non-native writers of WWE that they are born worse and that they must correct themselves and divorce their language-practices from the ones used by everyone they love, if they wish to be considered worthy of anything more than contempt from everyone else.
- It is teaching based on bigotry that has over the course of a few centuries evolved into a very powerful myth that is now taught as Truth.
- It shows that at the very basic level, teachers who teach WWE are tools for oppression. Despite my own attempts to understand this situation, I realize I am still one of those teachers.
A Serious Problem: Good Intentions Performed in Ignorance
Virtually all of us have been tricked into believing that WWE is correct language because we have been told this message again and again by institutions we believe in and by people we love and respect. This misunderstanding is not restricted to white people. All people have been tricked into these beliefs about what is usually called Standard English, a name that hides its racist, classist version of truth. There may be people who are exceptions, but I don’t know any.
Some people have already begun to see these problems of racism in the teaching of communication, but even among those, most of us have not understood the depth of this trickery. It is bred into the DNA of our thinking. It is cemented into the schema we have been taught to use to make sense of the world around us. It would be tantamount to learning that gravity has always been optional, although not as easily proven.
This is not about blame. This is about justice. Most of us have been complicit. We must now acknowledge that complicity and reverse it. We have to acknowledge that even though we may teach WWE because we believe it is the best way to help all our students get ahead, it is wrong. Our good intentions–because our ways of thinking have been warped by centuries of misinformation–are misleading us.
We cannot teach people that there is one right way to communicate without also teaching them that wealthy white people are better than everyone else. These are two sides of the same racist, classist coin. It’s time for us to build a new currency for teaching writing and communication.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We educators have a long way to go. I think of myself as a very progressive educator, but I am not. I still champion WWE by teaching it as the language of power. I take pains to demystify it and to show how it is not inherently better than any other form of English. But, since I train students in WWE, I am also training them in the racist, classist underpinning that comes with WWE. Calling out those racist, classist underpinnings DOES NOT UNDO THEM. In fact, it may well strengthen them. If we have learned anything from the Trump era, we should learn that an action that masquerades as progress can actually function as retrograde and fasicist as the most oppressive laws imaginable.
We have educators who have gone beyond most of us in understanding and thinking about WWE and its impact on students. It makes perfect sense that those educators would be Black educators, as they see more readily than the rest of us how this oppression works because they have been more starkly subject to it than the rest of us.
One fantastic example of exactly these educators may be found responsible for this brave and intelligent list of demands for Black Linguistic Justice of The Conference on College Composition and Communication. I have read these demands many times. I was initially resistant, thinking they go too far. But as I have read more critical race theory and teaching–from authors like Layla F. Saad, Crystal Fleming, Matthew R. Kay, Geneva Gay, Geneva Smitherman, Keith Gilyard, Ali Michael, the #DisruptTexts leaders, and so many more–I have realized this list is exactly right. By continuing to teach what I now call Wealthy White English, I have been stripping my students of all colors of their humanity and dignity and innate intelligence.
Yeah, I’m a progressive educator who grew up in modest financial circumstances and with a heavy working-class background and accent. But I transformed myself in many ways, including by reducing my accent (almost completely, according to most) and by learning to use an academic, WWE-based vocabulary with ease. I have “passed” in enough ways that I am now financially secure (and then some) and quite autonomous in my work and my life. This is the height of white privilege.
I believed in the past that my circumstances improved because of my education and hard work, but that’s not true or at least it’s not most of the truth. The real truth is that the color of my white skin allowed my education and hard work to WORK. I am enjoying the privilege I hold now BECAUSE I AM WHITE. (Straightness, cisgender malenees, and lack of visible disability help too, of course.) None of my privilege has been earned. I worked hard, yes, but having my hard work pay off IS the real privilege. Those who don’t have that white skin are held down with exactly the same amount of pressure with which I am held up. I am only just beginning to understand that.
Recently, I have become much less sure about what the answers are for us teachers, but I feel like I am finally beginning to get some clarity about what really needs to be done. I will continue to read read read, to listen listen listen, to teach, and to publish. But I have a new motto: Teaching It Like It Is.
Many, many young people are smarter and savvier and they understand themselves and each other better than older folks do–especially the older, whiter, maler, straighter, and more financially secure among us. I am going to ask my students more often what THEY want in the classes I teach, and I am going to help them find it and learn it, as I let them guide me in my works as an educator.
My students are now my Learning Partners–for real this time.