When I first started this, joining Margins, I wanted my work to be intersectional above all else. I wanted it to touch base with everyone, for every person to feel like what they had to say was important on issues that are relevant. Especially for people who are often forgotten, whose issues are not spoken about because there are “too many” angles, elements involved, too many issues all at once. I wanted to project these voices, we all do, everyone here does. But once my piece came out on the exclusionary basis of modern language–Oppression in Context–it became apparent that within the discourse I was providing, I was not inclusive in my work. My message was important but my delivery was very poor.
As my friends would say, I was “using my white voice”. I want to jack-knife my white voice, I want to burn it out of me, to let the words fall as they would if I used my voice, not the one that speaks in a job interview or in class, where I fold my hands neatly under the table, praying for an “A”. I want to use the voice that I use to call my mom from a hundred miles away, where my words hiccup but I push them through my trembling teeth anyway. I want to use the voice I speak from at two in the morning at the kitchen table, the lights always too bright or too dim, and my friends seated around me.
I still remember elementary to middle school, my teachers handing me picture books instead of novels because they heard my mother’s staccato words in an uneven flow instead of what she was actually saying. My dad worked and drank too much to come to my defense, and my mother looked at me, asking with tears how I was expected to fight when I was so young. In a small apartment in Queens, there was not much else for me to do but to fight. I was rejected, hardened, and still fighting for my place in these spaces not meant for me. This is the battle people of color are familiar with, it’s a life we know all too well, it’s using our white voices to the point that we lose sense of where our own voice is.
The diaspora people of color face is a very present conflict that still rattles in our language, even within our communities. There are words for distinguishing between members of another ethnicity, nationality, and even physical characteristics, distinctive of communities that are also financially struggling and in cities like New York, facing an onset of gentrification. As Dave Chappelle aptly states, “Every black American is bilingual. All of them. We speak street vernacular and we speak ‘job interview’.” Children are more susceptible to this social pressure to speak “proper english”, and it transforms as they grow older, to microaggressions like “You sound really white”, “Were you born here, I can’t hear an accent”, etc.
What this system of inherent colloquial violence establishes is a never ending cycle of poverty, inequality, and a maintenance of existing social structures against people of color. What I’m trying to say here is that there is a vicious system of keeping people who can’t speak out, and the people who can still don’t get paid the same amount, and they raise children who are taught to either give up who they are, who their parents and grandparents and further were, or accept that they will always be inadequate to their white counterparts. This goes beyond microaggressions, beyond self-destruction for a few individuals. This is outright violence against people who are trying to thrive and live as they should be allowed to, so here’s my point.
Ditch the white voice, ditch the proper eloquence of higher prestige and immaculate grammatical structures, they’re a strict system of gatekeeping for anyone who doesn’t have access to the same educational opportunities, or born to the “right” race, or living in the right zip code. Boldly stand up for those who know the beautiful innovations AAVE takes to improve a language that tends to drag its old feet. Defend those who still speak with a trace of their mother tongue, accents are hard to shake for many people, and there should be no shame in not being able to perfectly enunciate every syllable. If someone’s grammar or spelling is off (even using the wrong ‘you’re’/’your’) lay off, and “grammar nazi” is as inconsiderate as any other anti-semitism joke. We as speakers and users of the English language have an inherent responsibility to protect the people who use this language, as much as we are entitled to our personal natural born right to say what we please.