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What happens when you’re forced to be someone you’re not in order to survive? 

Picture this: you’re in a writing class, and you’re excited because it’s your first workshop. You’re looking at your piece of writing, extremely determined to polish it up and make it into something amazing, helped by the opinions of your professor and the classmates whose opinions you’ve come to respect. You’re specifically excited to hear feedback on things like your intricate plot and characterization, and instead, you’re faced with criticism after criticism about the choice of words that you used. 

Things like the fact that they’re spelled wrong. That they’re completely out of place. That they don’t make any sense. 

That they’re improper. 

You walk away from the workshop devastated, but also confused, because when you look at your work again, you don’t see a single misspelled or out-of-place word. You read it again and again, trying to understand the notes that were given, but it isn’t working. You decide to go to your professor after class, and instead of saying, Oh, I’m sorry, you’re totally correct, I just didn’t notice, they give you this sad, pitying little smile. They point to the red marks on the paper, at the sentences trapped underneath that you lovingly crafted. 

Ain’t nobody all said that now, it has one character saying. He funny though; thinking I got this from my daddy. They laugh dismissively, then go, nah, ion’t need to explain myself. Y’all already know I be working. 

We don’t use words like this here, the professor explains. Slowly, as if you’re an idiot. Maybe somewhere else, but… 

And you want to ask questions. You want to ask what words like this means. You want to ask where else they think you should speak like yourself. You want to ask, If you understood the words well enough to critique them, then what exactly is the problem here? 

But you don’t. 

What you do is you go back to your desk to rewrite the whole thing. You take out everything that is marked red, and replace it with words that sound like they would come from your professor’s mouth. Then you come back to class with your new story. Now, after you’ve “cleaned it up,” they all happily, finally, comment on the plot and characters. 

Only now, they’re not even your characters anymore. 

Their voices are gone almost completely; rewritten to be palatable to the people who probably wouldn’t have picked up the story in the first place. 

If this, or something even remotely similar, has happened to you, I’m sorry. I’ve been there. And unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of the news that you have been the victim of something called linguistic racism: the discrimination that happens through the means of language and linguistic resources. 

It may come in many different forms: maybe a classmate correcting your grammar in a group project with a patient, understanding smile; or an academic advisor making a wayward, inappropriate joke at your phrasing; or being forced to sit in a peer review and listen to the way that you’ve been raised to communicate be picked apart and tossed out of your work. 

To fully understand, and therefore combat linguistic racism, we need to understand what it is. Every iteration of linguistic racism, no matter how different the situations are from each other, is made up of two components. One is the presence of judgment at what is considered to be different from the norm. Maybe it is the way you speak, maybe it is your tone of voice, or an accent, or the use of slang terms. It could be whether or not you curse, the way that you gesture when you talk, it could even be such a simple thing as how often you choose to speak up in a conversation setting. Whatever it is, if it isn’t what everyone else is doing, it can and will be subjected to judgment. It will be given a label, or rating, or even dismissed entirely based on an unseen standard. 

The second component to linguistic racism is this unseen standard. This is how everyone is supposed to do things. The “correct” way. The “proper way.” This is how people expect everyone to speak; in a tone that has already been societally agreed upon and using words that have been predetermined. 

Elaborated on in the research paper, “Social‑Cognitive and Affective Antecedents of Code Switching and the Consequences of Linguistic Racism for Black People and People of Color,” by Darin Johnson, Bradley Mattan, Nelson Flores, Nina Lauharatanahirun, and Emily Fal, we know that the standard of language for our Western society is determined by WEIRD attributes. And not weird as in strange, but WEIRD as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. The way that people from these categories are likely to speak is what is accepted, any other language habit or conversation tick is liable to be judged.

The result of said judgment is not to be taken lightly either. The effect of linguistic racism manifests with both emotional and physical symptoms. According to the research by Darin Johnson and colleagues, people of color can have increased levels of stress “in part due to the need for more active vigilance to social cues” and higher levels of emotional exhaustion “through the added burden of decisions related to code switching to avoid discrimination.” Having your way of communication constantly critiqued can affect self-esteem and form a lack of will to create connections, a lack of want to stand out, and deep feelings of despondency at said decreased socialization. 

Another unforeseen result of linguistic racism is that the people that do end up code switching can end up being considered “not black enough” by some of the same people that are emphasizing said standards in the first place. If you have ever heard phrases like you’re so well-spoken, or I didn’t expect you to be so intelligent, or, you’re one of the smart ones, then you understand what I am talking about. What people believe are kind compliments actually hold an underbelly of insult to the entire race as a whole. You’re so well-spoken (for a Black person). I didn’t expect you to be so intelligent (for a Black person). You’re one of the smart ones (I don’t think I have to spell this one out for you, actually). 

Statements like these and thought processes like these only further push the idea that there is a “right way” to be a certain race, which is not only untrue, but also harmful, and engages in the very same stereotyping and generalizing behaviors that we all should be seeking to condemn in the first place. 

Famous author Toni Morrison, in her interview with The New Republic about her novel The Song of Solomon, says this about language in academia: “It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with those books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging.” In AAVE, there are five different present tenses. There are also double negatives (ain’t nobody said all that now), omitted be’s (he funny though) and habitual be’s (y’all already know I be working). This is not the standard WEIRD way of communicating, but it is no less valid or acceptable to use. 

To rectify the issues that linguistic racism impresses upon us, we need to work from the top down in introducing prevention and education about language systems such as AAVE. The easiest way to do this is by hiring professors, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and congress people of color. By hiring crossing guards and mail people and drivers and accountants and pharmacists and hairdressers. By allowing the people that speak AAVE, or any non-WEIRD vernacular, to have these jobs without compromising or assimilating. 

It says something that what Pulitzer award winner Toni Morrison thinks makes her work good, in her own words, is the use of language. “It is the thing that black people love so much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself.” 

To amend the tears that linguistic racism has created, we need to let people hear themselves. Then and only then will the idea of “speaking properly” and all the symptoms of it be eradicated.

Aniya Carrington is a junior double major in psychology and creative writing with a concentration in poetry. She will be graduating with a BA from Goucher College in May 2025. Their writing has been featured in the literary magazine Preface and in the Goucher newspaper The Quindecim. She is currently working as a creative writing mentor to a Carver High School poetry student and writing in her free time.

  1. Outstanding!! The need to call out all forms of racism is essential, whether it is intentional or not. ( I must disclose that the young writer is my grandniece.). Keep educating the world, young people!!!

  2. Pingback:When the Writing Is the Grieving – true.

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