Changing the Definition of Writing: Moving Away from the White Standard

When we don’t value non-standard English in school, we perpetuate achievement gaps, discourage marginalized groups from writing, and enforce whiteness as the standard.

By: Gigi Shipp (’20)
First-Year Tutor

What may be absent on the radar of my peers, is often blatantly obvious to me, whether it’s lack of representation in media and advertisements, coded hateful rhetoric,  or prevailing racial stereotypes. Growing up in Ann Arbor, I’ve always felt pressured to conform to the norm, which has always been inherently white. Walking on eggshells around my peers, making sure to not make white people feel uncomfortable by my blackness. Only in recent years have I come to recognize and acknowledge the value in my authentic personal voice.

I definitely think that traditional academic institutions perpetuate this standard of conformity to a white default. The oppressive nature of this standard manifests through standardized curriculum and strict rubrics. Focusing on “formal” grammar and mechanics neglects the cultural significance of “informal” or “street” language for marginalized groups. The Writing Center is a different space. An inclusive space.

When tutoring, I like to focus on substance and not get too caught up on grammar and mechanics. I recently received an online writing lab (OWL) submission that had already received feedback from someone else. As I read the comments, I was disheartened by what I saw. While I found that their use of personal voice- things like “ain’t” and unconventional sentence structure- strengthened their piece, the other tutor didn’t agree, advising them to use “writing-English compared to speaking-English.” I feared that the writer would internalize this, and begin to fortify the wall between their personal life and academic life, which creates barriers to writing. The other tutor’s aggressive focus on traditional grammar and mechanics was more harmful than helpful, as it prioritized “form over substance.” As Kynard asserts in New Life in this Dormant Creature, traditional academic institutions measure intellectual capability based off of the presentation of oneself which is influenced by inherent privilege (or lack thereof).

This issue isn’t anything new. I would be remiss to not mention the dark cultural history that has shaped these attitudes. People were ripped from their homes and stripped of their native languages. When they arrived in America, they all spoke different languages and were forced to assimilate, subsequently creating their own unified dialect, known today as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). What many dismiss simply as slang is actually a legitimate language with conventions, rules, and structures. From this it’s easy to see why it’s no coincidence that black students who speak AAVE are perceived as grammatically defective–this is a deeply embedded form of discrimination.

In 1979, this issue was brought to court here in our own community. The judge ruled that the Ann Arbor Public School district needed to educate their teachers on AAVE and how to be conscious of it while teaching. However, many teachers found this “consciousness training” to be a waste of time and funding. When people perceive black students as defective, it creates “psychological barrier[s] to learning” that lead to outbursts, withdrawn interest in learning, and ultimately, illiteracy. When teachers ignore the existence of the primary language in their students’ lives, they leave behind an entire portion of their student body.

So what’s at stake when we, as tutors, don’t value colloquial language in our school?

  • We perpetuate achievement gaps.
  • We shut off an entire group of people from being encouraged to write.
  • We enforce conformity to a white default.

As tutors, let’s be mindful of unintentional paternalistic attitudes and the dire racial implications that they have. Let’s value different funds of knowledge without pity and instead with admiration.

Works Cited

Fiske, Edward. “Black English Debate Fades in Ann Arbor Where It Began.” The New York Times. 5 May 1981.

Kynard, Carmen. “New Life in this Dormant Creature: Notes on Social Consciousness, Language, and Learning in a College Classroom.  ALT DIS: Alternative Discourses in the Academy. Eds. Christopher Schroeder, Helen Fox, and Patricia Bizzell. Heinemann, 2002.

One thought on “Changing the Definition of Writing: Moving Away from the White Standard”

  1. A very beautifully written piece! Standard conventions and strict rubrics fail in that they don’t allow writers, typically from marginalized groups, express themselves through true authenticity. It is about time we make aware, especially in writing center spaces, how certain instruction is fundamentally underpinned by discriminatory and racist logic. In addition to this, I also think it is important to recognize and rebel against our complacency in a system that is taught to assimilate to what academia holds to highly: work by the middle class white majority, Overall, I want to thank you for this written piece because I think very similarly in terms of accepting different dialects and ways of speaking. I would invite you to read the following. “The “standard English” fairy tale: A rhetorical analysis of racist pedagogies and commonplace assumptions about language diversity. 33-60.” – Best, Amado.

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