Guardian journalist Mona Chalabi produced a short two-minute video claiming the act of correcting grammar is “patronizing, pretentious and just plain wrong.” I fully expect getting flamed for today’s weekly grammar post. But forge ahead into the dangerous waters…
Nowhere in the video does Chalabi use the word racist.
Um, everyone else does: The Daily Wire, InfoWars, American Thinker, Truth Revolt, D.C. Clothesline. The jump onto the racism train happens because Chalabi’s grammar stance more on the descriptive as opposed to prescriptive side of the debate is fine and well thought out until she says, “the people pointing out the mistakes are more likely to be older, wealthier, whiter, or just plain academic.” I wonder how much of that statement has been built for shock value.
After watching the video several times, trying to wrap my head around exactly what she was saying, why she was saying what she was saying, I have come to the conclusion that I do not believe anyone really understands the meaning of the word racism, and by misusing the word, as racism is often misappropriated, the word slowly reshapes a new meaning within the language, becoming a catch-all definition to be used whenever we simply don’t like something.
The word race has actually quite a few definitions already: a contest of speed or a contest of rivalry involving progress toward a goal, is one such definition according to Merriam Webster. Another definition: a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock or a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits, such as color of skin.
Racism, which derives from the word race, means a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities, and racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. And again, according to Merriam Webster.
The idea behind racism is rather new. Probably, the definite work on race was Christoph Meiners’ The Outline of History of Mankind published in 1785 which categorically divided humans into two distinct groups: the “beautiful White race” and the “ugly Black race.” Who exactly was white versus who exactly was black often crossed blurry lines. An illustration by H. Strickland Constable demonstrates how the Irish were considered a part of the so-called African race. In an age of global expansion and exploration coupled with emerging Darwinian theories, race theory justified subjugation of people groups divided along geographical lines, not skin color. Enacting race was an economic driven land grab, an excuse for one culture to unabashedly steal resources from another culture.
During the 1800s, U.S. styled and institutionalized slavery created a race-based heredity caste system, solidifying the specific status of dark skinned persons to be considered less human. But not until the 1930s with the emergence of the Nazi party in Germany did racism gain popularity in any language, and the Aryan nation murdered approximately six million Jews in the name of racism.
In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement worked to remove the societal effects of racism: Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Little Rock, Greensboro sit-ins, Freedom Rides, Amize Moore, Aaron henry, Medgar Evers, the Birmingham Campaign, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mississippi Freedom Summer, too much to cover in such a singularly short blog post.
Equating Chalabi’s grammar stance with racism removes the power behind the pejorative. Along with the straight-up dictionary definition, racism carries a connotation of unjust subjugation, an ideology that proclaims one group’s supremacy over another. Chalabi isn’t racist; she instead points out racism:
Chalabi points to the power imbalance inherent in strict adherence to prescriptive grammar systems. Grammar snobbery is used to silence people, she says; grammar snobbery is elitist, and creates a sense of supremacy over another. Those claiming Chalabi represents racist attitudes are offended that they have been called out. The Daily Wire, InfoWars, American Thinker, Truth Revolt, D.C. Clothesline, they are all reactionary right-wing conservatives, who if you asked them what they thought of Mark Twain—my guess, at least—would probably say Twain was a great American author, a writer who used grammar to his advantage and wrote horribly incorrect Standard English, sentences such as:
We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels. Dat’s de good ole Cairo atlas’, I jis knows it. I’ll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn’t be, you know.
Or Harper Lee:
Reckon I have. Almost died first year I come to school and et them pecans—folks say he pizened ’em and put ’em over on the school side of the fence.
And maybe you feel those are special cases, but according to Ronald Carter, author of Investigating English Discourse, Standard English is too a “social dialect […] spoken by a restricted social group, by most calculations between 12 and 15 per cent of the population, most of whom occupy positions at the top of the socioeconomic scale” (93).
Maybe Chalabi was a bit harsh when she pointed her finger at white people. And I have to be honest; the white people snark didn’t really offend me as much as when she pointed her finger at academics.
Um, hello, I teach college.
Let’s be clear though, Chalabi doesn’t say not to use correct Standard English grammar. She does not say either one should remain mediocre in their command over the English language. She suggests, however, people have a right to be heard, to use their own voice. There is, as I have argued in the past, a specific time and place for correct Standard English grammar, where the difference between less and few can mean money on the table, when literally literally means literally. The suppression of someone’s legitimate ideas and thoughts is indeed absolute 100 percent racism. The term Grammar Nazi exists for a reason, and the phrase is not a badge of honor.
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