This week, I picked up The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys by Moore, Michael, and Penick-Perks from my library stack and flipped it open to the table of contents. I saw many interesting sections, but the one that stood out to me mentioned “linguistic racism.” Yikes.
So I read about how the preference of using “White Mainstream English,” as the authors refer to it, is based more on the fact that it is just the language that the majority of people use (in America, and maybe the rest of the world as well), but that it is mistakenly treated as a superior language to “Black Language.” According to the authors, Black Language is in fact linguistically a formal language because it is “systematic with regular rules and restrictions at the lexical, phonological, and grammatical level.” They go on to give great examples if you don’t want to take my word for it. If you’re more into fiction, you might accomplish the same by reading Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I’m also in the middle of right now), and you will find plenty of examples of how someone can use a vernacular you may not be familiar with in order to get across very insightful, witty, hilarious thoughts. Anyway, the reason this is so harmful is that people who do not grow up speaking White Mainstream English at home are not only at an academic disadvantage in English class, but they are often told all throughout their early education that the English they use is wrong, or at the very least an “informal” or “slang” version that should only be used in informal situations. How demeaning. On top of that, they are told if they want to be successful and get jobs, they are going to have to change their native tongue, which is a part of their identity. Talk about unfair!
Enter scientific style. A large portion of my work through my business is to edit scientific manuscripts that were written by someone who is not a native English speaker, and the publishers of the journal want their articles to flow as such. They have an audience to appeal to. I have seen the request for “grammatically and syntactically acceptable, idiomatic English” many times when clients forward me the emails from the editors.
Is that not also linguistically racist?
Look, I get it. We can’t all be European and speak all the languages of our neighboring countries (although, I think that’s a noble undertaking). Even if we could do that, there’s no way every scientist can learn all the world’s languages, even if they made a dedicated effort to do it throughout their career. There will probably always be a dominant, widely accepted language. It’s convenient. What if, instead of editors requiring authors to go and find a trusted editor to turn their work over to (another great burden) and also pay for it (usually out of their own pockets), journals offer this service for free for accepted papers? We have another form of inequity on our hands, and I think that’s the least journals could do about it. (Alas, that still wouldn’t do anything to prevent implicit biases from peer reviewers influencing whether the paper gets accepted or not.)
While we may not be willing or able to learn all the different languages and dialects out there, I do think there’s something else that scientists can do to meet halfway. I think, when we come across a paper that doesn’t have this White Mainstream English feel to it, even if it has been translated into English for our convenience, we can be a little more understanding of the researchers and look past the language to the data and conclusions underneath. We can work to abolish the bias that tells us their work isn’t as good as someone’s who can present it in “proper” English. (I am not making this up. I had many professors in grad school who were very biased against papers with unpolished English, and even against entire journals that were based in certain countries.) We can also completely leave English idioms out of the text when writing. I’m pretty sure I was taught to do that anyway, but I still see it all the time.
You might be thinking that this is a little too much to ask. Sure, it’s uncomfortable untangling a paper anyway, and then add the layer of working through an unfamiliar dialect or grammar errors. But seriously take a minute to imagine writing all of your research in a language that isn’t your native tongue. Imagine standing up on a podium and presenting that way, in front of judging eyes and scowling faces. Imagine, right now, you had to start communicating ALL of your business matters in Mandarin. In Mandarin characters. No English anymore except for personal use with family and friends. Are you kidding me? Okay, so you probably actually started learning Mandarin sometime in middle school, so it wouldn’t be that crazy, but still. You’re going to sound like a child to people who have spoken Mandarin their whole lives. But too bad, that’s just the way it is. They were born having it easier than you. Get over it.
My previous thought patterns, which are biased towards White Mainstream English, told me that yeah, idiomatic English is more desirable. But now I see that as unfair. Not to mention that these people who don’t have that native tongue have to pay money to get their work into that format that other scientists don’t have to pay. I’m uncomfortable with this inequity.
In all matters other than science, can we try to see beyond limited capacities in White Mainstream English for the intelligent brain behind the language? When we hear someone talking in “broken” English because it’s not their first language, imagine how eloquent they must sound in their native tongue. Imagine trying to communicate nuanced ideas in a language that’s not your own.
As it turns out, that book is not the only place talking about linguistic racism. Just the other day, Krys Boyd interviewed psychology professor Katherine Kinzler on Think and confirmed what I had read. “My broader hope is that this country is ready for a linguistics revolution, and what I mean by that is the idea of really rethinking the value of linguistic diversity, the value of being able to speak and know and hear different languages…I hope that people’s attitudes and biases and prejudices are going to shift as well.”