I’ve written many times about anti-racist work I do (which live in the social justice category on my home page.) Part of that anti-racist work is calling out myself, sitting with it, and moving on:
1. Pause – after you think or say something that doesn’t sit right with you. These thoughts are in all of us — which is not our fault. It’s in the fabric of our nation, a poisonous gas we inhale but don’t realize it’s killing us. It is our responsibility, however, to get it out of us.
2. Reflect – (why does this not sit right with me? Where did this come from? Is it actually me, or is it the racist world we cut our teeth on?)
3. Pivot – (Instead of beating yourself up, pivot. Redirect yourself. It happens. But how will you make changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future? And know that it will happen again in the future as you learn. Learning is non-linear, my friends.)
Something that hit me hard in particular was the idea that English “proper grammar” is another aspect of colonialism, of white supremacy. This led to a combing through of memories that I’ve had about proper grammar and how many people I’ve corrected over the years. Or automatically thought someone was not intelligent or worthy if they didn’t utilize proper grammar. Yikes. That’s racism, y’all.
I was raised, as many of us were, to believe that if people didn’t use proper grammar or speak like a native English speaker, a white native English speaker, they’re not as intelligent as I am. Here’s the huge, racist issue with that: that supports the idea that native English speakers, mostly white people, are inherently correct.
Because there are so many cultures, ethnicities, races, dialects, etc. that exist in America, thinking someone isn’t intelligent because they don’t speak the way white colonialists demanded of other cultures is racist. It’s the idea that white people know better, speak better. If anyone uses improper English grammar (seen as African-American Vernacular English or AAVE, rural dialects, code switching, other languages in general), they should be corrected because that is not the right way. That is not the white way.
Since I’ve discovered this, I’ve done work around letting grammar go and not assuming someone doesn’t know as much as me if they use the wrong form of your/you’re. And HELLO I make those same mistakes sometimes — I’m by no means perfect or the authority on writing. A bit egotistical of me, no?
I’m also working to distance myself from “proper English grammar” because it is simply a belief that the way white people do it is the right way. In other words, that’s white supremacy.
So the next time you have the urge to correct someone on the wrong form of their/they’re or subject-verb agreement, pause, and consider this.
P.S. For more in depth information about racism in language and grammar, listen to the Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, the Linguistics episode. This podcast brought my attention to this subject a few years ago when she interviewed the host from the podcast Code Switch. It’s brilliant, and I highly recommend!
3 thoughts on “Consider This: Colonialism in Grammar Police”
Having a set of rules for how a language is used is part of having a language. Just like if I were learning Spanish or Sign Language, I would need to learn the rules for how those languages are used. If I don’t understand the rules and I misspeak, it’s a grammatical error, not a cultural difference or dialect. This is NOT colonialism. It’s simply a part of learning the language. Once you understand the rules, you’re free to use it any way you wanna…
My opinion is that there is a difference between grammatical errors and using local dialects or deliberately using the language in a way other than what is defined as “proper English” (like I use vernacular like ain’t, gonna, wanna, and text acronyms like WTAF, brb, etc). But misusing your/you’re or there/their/they’re is a grammatical error, NOT a difference in dialect.
I think the larger issue for me is how people are treated for using incorrect grammar by white people and me, a white person, for the majority of my life. I never before considered that with me rolling my eyes at someone — even to the point of naively ending a relationship with someone — when they made an English grammatical error, I was inadvertently saying that people are “less intelligent” when grammar is not an indicator of intelligence. If someone from a different country, a non-native English speaker, makes a grammatical error in English, they are way more intelligent than I because they speak more than one language. I was only seeing it through my white, English is right lens and criticizing them because they couldn’t speak my native language. Which I see a lot of white Americans doing as well. That’s the colonialism.
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