As a child, whenever I raised my hand in class and asked, “Can I sharpen my pencil?” “Can I go to the nurse?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” I was always met with the same dry, sarcastic response followed by an expectant stare from my instructor:
“I don’t know. Can you?”
It’s not that my teachers were denying me permission. They were waiting for me to ask the “right” way. According to what I was taught in all of my primary school English classes, I was supposed to say “May I,” not “Can I,” and I wouldn’t get anywhere in the classroom (or in life) until I learned the difference.
I suppose that my teachers, by staring at me while I held my bladder and my hand in the air, thought they were teaching me a valuable lesson on grammar and communication. What they were really providing was a much more valuable lesson on white supremacy, microaggressions and respectability politics, all before lunchtime.
We’re all taught “proper” English from the first day we step into the classroom. Our version of words like “betta,” “sayin’” and “turnt” must, we’re told, become the more socially acceptable “better,” “saying” and “turned.”
We’re scolded for using the habitual “be” when we say things like “we be hangin’ out.” We’re assigned books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Orwell and told to start speaking like the majority-white authors we read in school.
Everyone ― black, brown and white ― is taught that one way of speaking is better than the other, and we carry this notion throughout our lives. As an editor, I enforce these rules of speech myself when reading and correcting other people’s work.
But there’s a thin line between the “right” way of speaking and the white way.
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