Do Writing Teachers Have a Place in the Fight for Social Justice?

I have consistently held the belief that developing student voice is the most critical component to being a good educator. In various contexts and through various means, I have argued that in order for student’s written and rhetorical skills to be truly representative of their thoughts, beliefs, and ideas–and that their skills never limit said representation–students must learn the skills deemed “necessary” to appropriately convey these thoughts. This seems logical; to be a good writer, you need to know how to write. I recently wrote the following:

“When we think of words of power, there are certain traits that come to mind, and have been normalized as the hallmark of someone educated, influential, important, or all three. The individual’s ability to communicate his or her needs, thoughts, wants, and opinions with the surrounding world is marked by nearly flawless diction and “proper” grammar. We take for granted their ability to write full and complete sentences. Obviously their subjects and verbs agree. Technically flawless communication seems to be a given when you’re powerful. Power itself seems to be a given when you are able to deliver technically flawless communication–regardless of what you are saying. If it wasn’t technically flawless, power would take no note, and power would not divide and bestow itself.”

This excerpt is argued from a single perspective: that the language and diction of the ‘powerful’ are a given standard intended to be met if any idea is to come to fruition. It implies that the language developed, refined, and practiced by the powerful has no room for expression that doesn’t adhere to its rules.

I once held firm (and to some degree, still hold) the belief that the grammar and language skills of students of color and of low socioeconomic status limited their ability to express the thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that they held. One cannot not speak in the language of power until he or she is taught the language of power, and until they are taught, they will not practice these skills and be heard.

Ironically, and probably naturally, the voices of the oppressed cannot be heard until they assimilate to the voices of the powerful. And, once they have arrived in positions of power, I have to question whether or not they are truly the voices of the oppressed anymore. There is something fundamentally different between how I–a white educator–speak, and the way that my African American and Hispanic students speak.

There are two different ways to approach the issue of the systemic silencing of minority voices. The first is the route that I am currently on, and questioning: where the individual who wishes for a more just world teaches the under-served how to live in that world. I teach language, diction, and analysis with the end goal that my students will be able to “more fully” participate in society. By “more fully” I mean in such a way that others (and particularly “others” in power) are compelled to listen to the things my students have to say, and perhaps persuaded better the circumstances and of hardship my students convey. As awkward as it is to acknowledge and confront, I teach linguistic assimilation.

I recently read a fascinating article written by James Baldwin in 1979, titled “If Black English isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” where he argued that black language (also “patronizingly called a dialect”) meets all of the criteria for being its own language. He argues that it was developed out of necessity, emerging from a broad array of African people who, coming to the United States, were without a common language. The rules of black language were “dictated by what the language must convey”; for slaves, that meant threat, suffering, and hardship. Black language was subsequently maintained and developed through the black church, and became an alternative to the language that “refuse[d] to recognize [them].”

When I teach that “bogus,” “finna,” “gon,” and other words derived from Black English are inappropriate for argumentative purposes (last year I taught them as “informal” language that should be avoided in settings such as letter-writing and applications), I am teaching my students how to cope with being in a white world, as opposed to finding solutions to changing that world. I am teaching them that Microsoft Word’s red highlights of these three examples—the only indicated misspellings in this entire article—are not words. So, the question is: what am I actually fixing?

Rather than fixing, it seems as though I am directly participating in something I will call a ‘culture of maintenance,’ wherein service and “doing good” (here, actions that result in something more or greater than benefits enjoyed by oneself) are celebrated because they ameliorate the symptoms of a much more deeply ill society. Ostensibly, service and fighting for social justice does good, incredible things. On a much deeper level, however, the root cause is often not eliminated nor is it even addressed; it is by not addressing these issues, and treating their symptoms, that the fundamental sickness is allowed to perpetuate.

What is the natural course of action against such a reality? The most deflating part about recognizing the implications of this train of thought is accepting and acknowledging the fact that these “symptoms” I talk about are no less real simply because I do not think addressing them will solve the root problem. Pain is still pain, injustice is still injustice, hardship is still hardship, and all must be addressed in one way or another. Under this view, most would think I fall into the group addressed by the Edmund Burke quote that “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

I have to wonder if it is not a matter of doing a “little,” of the right thing–but a question of what the “right” thing actually is. It often seems as though the call to serve is the epitome of some sort of temporal acknowledgement; we choose to do good in the world–to make more tolerable the symptoms of a sick society–because there simply isn’t the time or resources in a lifetime to burn down past histories and social structures in order to build a new system. I can teach assimilation and perhaps my students will be heard, or I can teach identity recognition and, as many would see it, “disservice” my students by not prepping them with tools necessary to be in the world.

Here is where I am at a standstill. It is unclear whether or not building the writing skills of my students will ever address the fact that their identity and background are defined and ignored by Standard English. It is unclear if teaching Writing is simply teaching young minds how to cope with being in a society that has yet to recognize them.

Photo courtesy of Rudolf Vicek, Flickr Creative Commons

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