There are many facets to the intricate link between language and racism in contemporary U.S. culture. This essay examines three publications by John McWhorter, Anjali Pattanayak, and Jennifer M. Cunningham to gain insight into this connection. While they take somewhat different tacks, all three authors disagree that there is one best way to speak English or that certain regional varieties are superior to others. By reading these articles, you will better know how language may be used as a tool for empowerment, resistance, and the celebration of linguistic variety, as well as how it can reflect and perpetuate racist and exclusive practices.
John McWhorter, Anjali Pattanayak, and Jennifer M. Cunningham write on the complex relationship between language and racism in the United States, emphasizing the value of various spoken varieties. While the authors write the three essays with various perspectives, they all challenge the notion that there is one “correct” way to speak English and that certain regional varieties or linguistic traditions are superior. McWhorter’s article, “Blackness and Standard English Can Coexist. Professors, Take Note,” makes the argument that Blackness and Standard English are not mutually exclusive and that Black students should indeed be encouraged to master Standard English as a way to gain access to economic and social opportunities (McWhorter). McWhorter advocates Standard English in the classroom; he disagrees that doing so is a linguistic injustice and that students of color should be permitted to speak their native dialects in school.
“Anti-racist” writing evaluations, according to Asao B. Inoue and the NCTE panel he cites in his paper (which McWhorter dismisses), should be created to honor the wide range of linguistic backgrounds children bring to the classroom (Poe et al. 25). They claim that evaluating pupils’ writing abilities only in terms of how well they write in Standard English is unfair to those whose first language is not English. Inoue, in particular, has been a strong opponent of “language standards,” arguing that teachers should evaluate their pupils based on how well they communicate rather than whether or not they use certain English (McWhorter).
When it comes to combating racism, both McWhorter and Inoue agree that language is a vital site of struggle. They have different views on how language should be taught and assessed in the classroom. McWhorter argues that teaching Black students Standard English is crucial because it will help them advance in society. In contrast, Inoue argues that the term “Standard English” is racist and that teachers should instead evaluate students based on their rhetorical strategies rather than their specific dialect or style.
Pattanayak’s article, “There is One Correct Way of Writing and Speaking,” takes a different approach to language and racism. She shares McWhorter’s view that children who can communicate fluently in Standard English will have more options in life. However, she also contends that there is no “right” manner of speaking or writing and that we should embrace rather than punish the wide variety of languages today. Pattanayak is especially skeptical that one “standard” variety of English is appropriate for scholarly and professional contexts (Pattanayak). She claims this norm disregards the linguistic richness and variety of the English-speaking globe because it is founded on an exclusive, insular conception of what makes “excellent” English. She adds that persons who speak non-standard dialects or languages are frequently stigmatized and barred from positions of power and influence because of the concept of a “proper” style of speaking or writing (Pattanayak).
Unlike McWhorter, who views language as a route to upward mobility, Pattanayak sees it as an instrument of empowerment and resistance. She says that instead of forcing children to adhere to a limited, exclusive concept of “proper” English, schools should celebrate the linguistic variety of American culture and encourage them to discover and embrace their linguistic traditions (Pattanayak).
Perhaps the most immediately confrontational argument is found in “African American Language Is Not Good English,” an essay by Cunningham. The concept that African American Language (AAL) is or should be regarded as a “good” version of English is something that Cunningham strongly disagrees with. He says that AAL is fundamentally distinct from Standard English and should be recognized as such. Cunningham explains that AAL is a language with its history, culture, and language, complete with its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary (Cunningham). She claims that efforts to mainstream AAL into the rest of the English language are foolish because they ignore the richness and complexity of the AAL language.
Moreover, Cunningham disagrees with the assumption that having AAL is a “deficiency” or an indication of inferiority. She points out that AAL has its internal logic and coherence and is a highly expressive dialect influenced by centuries of African American history and culture. According to her, the efforts to marginalize and silence AAL continue a centuries-long pattern of racism and cultural erasure aimed at African Americans (Cunningham). Nevertheless, Cunningham differs from McWhorter and Pattanayak in that he is less preoccupied with issues of the linguistic variety and the link between language and social mobility. Instead, she is committed to safeguarding AAL’s status as a unique and significant mode of expression. She considers AAL fundamental to African American identity and culture and contends that it should be recognized and embraced rather than vilified and eradicated.
Together, these three pieces provide a nuanced and nuanced picture of the tangled web that is the link between language and racism in contemporary America. While McWhorter, Pattanayak, and Cunningham all approach this issue from somewhat different perspectives, they are united in their determination to question the notion that there is one “perfect” form of English and that certain varieties or modes of expression are superior to others. An essential reminder that language is not a zero-sum game, McWhorter claims that Blackness and Standard English coexist, and children should be taught to explore and embrace diverse expression. Pattanayak’s claim that there is no one “right” manner of communication brings attention to the value of linguistic variety and cultural richness while challenging the concept that there is a single, perfect mode of expression. Lastly, Cunningham’s argument that AAL is a significant and meaningful mode of expression challenges the concept that non-standard dialects are intrinsically inadequate or inferior and affirms the significance of cultural and linguistic history (Cunningham).
These three articles provide a scathing assessment of how language has been used to sustain racism and cultural dominance in contemporary American life. They serve as a timely reminder to be aware of the power dynamics at play while assessing and using various kinds of expression and to remember that language is more than simply a means of communication.
Cunningham, Jennifer. “African American Language Is Not Good English.” Humanities LibreTexts, 1 May 2021, human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Composition/Specialized_Composition/Book%3A_Bad_Ideas_About_Writing_(Ball_and_Loewe) /02%3A_Bad_Ideas_About_Who_Good_Writers_are_…/2.07%3A_African_American_Language_is_not_Good_English.
McWhorter, John. “Blackness and Standard English Can Coexist. Professors, Take Note.” The New York Times, 17 May 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/05/03/opinion/black-English-language.html.
Pattanayak, Anjali. There is One Correct Way of Writing and Speaking. Bad Ideas, openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/fywpd/files/2020/02/OneCorrectWay.pdf.
Poe, Mya, Asao B. Inoue, and Norbert Elliot. “The end of isolation.” Writing assessment, social justice, and the advancement of opportunity (2018): 3-38.