Grammar and Whiteness

As part of the widespread, hysterical reactions to perceived social problems, some are attacking basic mathematics, logic, grammar, and virtues as imperialistic and oppressive. It beggars the imagination, boggles the mind, and turns the stomach, but it’s sadly true. Is it “too white” to insist that 2+2=4? Should we no longer practice linear thinking, hard work, and deferred gratification? Should we cease to use standard grammar, which is normative and essential for human flourishing? After all, these concerns are constitutive of Western culture, which is whiteness writ large. Commit them all to the flames!

The impetus for this revisionism is critical theory, the notion that race, class, and gender are determinative of culture and that “privileged” discourse must be overthrown and replaced with the revolutionary vanguard defending the oppressed. Through this, liberation will come! If this sounds like an outgrowth of Marxism, well, it is.

Where to begin? Let us consider grammar. I will use a particular professor as my point of departure. On October 19, 2019, Ball State University sponsored a lecture called “Freeing Our Minds and Innovating Our Pedagogy from White Language Supremacy,” delivered by Asao Inoue, a professor and the associate dean of the College of IntegrativeSciences and Arts at Arizona State University. It reflects the thoughts of many in higher education. Here is some of his heady brew: White language supremacy, he says, is

the condition in classrooms, schools, and society where rewards are given in determined ways to people who can most easily reach them, because those people have more access to the preferred and embodied white language practices, and part of that access is a structural assumption that what is reachable at a given moment for the normative, white, monolingual English user is reachable for all.

Well, that is overinflated prose (grammatical, though)—and bad logic, too. English grammar, with a little effort, is “reachable for all,” since all have God-given linguistic abilities. Yes, some men and women are disadvantaged (of whatever color) in developing basic language skills. They need and deserve remedial instruction. My school has a writing lab for that purpose, as do most colleges and graduate schools. Students can also help each other write better.

[Related: “The Tip of the Racist Spear”]

I teach in a graduate school. I grade every paper as an intellectual and literary unit, using the standards of logic and grammar. There is nothing “white” about this. My Korean colleague does so as well, as does my Haitian colleague. Neither English grammar nor logic is pigmented or bigoted. The norms for English grammar, amazingly enough, are rooted in Western history, which, believe it or not, has included a lot of white people (and a lot of other folks, too). But the mastery of English grammar allows and equips anyone to communicate his ideas clearly and effectively. English grammar is not white, or black, or brown, or yellow, or red, or blue. It is the common currency of American culture and is the most common global language (or lingua franca), whether we like it or not. If one wants to advance in any profession in the United States (and in much of the world), proficiency in English is required.

In a chapter called, “A Grade-less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing,” Inoue claimed that writing teachers should “calculate course grades by labor completed and dispense almost completely with judgments of quality when producing course grades.” This is the “labor theory of value” of economics (of dubious value there) applied to college writing (where it is disastrous). By this rationale, the effort spent running a marathon is more important than finishing first. Or the effort spent by a surgeon performing surgery is more important than a successful operation. And so it goes.

The answer to racial inequality is not to destroy the standard for which the skills strive, but to equip more people to develop the skills to reach the standard. This way, people can more likely attain the ends they want to achieve. I assure Mr. Inoue and his colleagues that spurning grammar and syntax will not help non-whites lead successful lives.

Frederick Douglass proved the slave masters wrong when he learned how to read. When he learned how to write, he wrote books, which left an indelible record of the black man’s ability to transcend circumstance and to excel intellectually. Douglass wrote impeccable English. There was nothing “white” about it. A black man, an ex-slave, wrote eloquent truth that spoke to power about slavery and women’s rights.

[Related: “The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations at Rutgers”]

Nothing I have written here demeans the value of colloquial language and writing. We don’t translate the old “negro spirituals” (as they were called) into the Queen’s English because that would rob them of their power. Consider a negro spiritual I recently quoted in a book I am writing. It sings of Christ’s death on the Cross:

But He ain’t comin’ here t’ die no mo’,

Ain’t comin’ here t’ dies no mo’.

Hallelujah t’ de Lamb

Jesus died for every man.

But He ain’t comin’ here t’ die no mo’.

Ain’t comin’ here t’ die no mo’.

Howard Thurman, notable thinker and civil rights activist, cited and commented on this spiritual in a weighty and wise book called Deep River. That book is written in flawless and sometimes soaring English prose. Thurman was African American. Need I mention the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I invoke Douglass, Thurman, and King against our well-meaning but muddle-headed Professor Inoue, and all those of his ilk. Their proposals do nothing to alleviate racism or advance the cause of African Americans and other minorities. In fact, they do just the opposite, since the implementation of their ideas would encourage further marginalization for those who do not master the common tongue.

Image: Mike Tinnion, Public Domain

Douglas Groothuis

Douglas Groothuis is a Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of "The Soul in Cyberspace."

15 thoughts on “Grammar and Whiteness

  1. We can all agree that math is universal and transcends social barriers. But grammar, in fact, is a set of conventions emerging from a community of people. In short: the way high status people talk generally becomes the standard, and the way low status people talk becomes the dialect. Does anyone disagree with this? Is this not what Prof. Inoue meant?

  2. The late Pulitzer prize-winning Arkansas editor Paul Greenberg expressed it well (and I am paraphrasing) –

    Dere’s one way a guy is talkin’ when he’s hangin’ with family and friends.

    There is another way he talks with business associates.

    Finally, there remains another way he addresses our nation and others – friend and foe – as he takes the solemn oath to be inaugurated as President of the United States.

    1. In other words, different manners of speech are markers of different social situations. Isn’t that precisely Prof. Inoue’s point?

  3. Thank you Doug. Here are a few of Michael Brown’s thoughts on the subject –
    Asao Inoue obviously has a foreign name, but I wonder if he studied and speaks a second language (as I do), and a third language (as I do), and studied languages of other non-Indo-European origin (as I did), without a CRT agenda. He is unfortunately promoting a damaging ideology that can only prevent good and intelligent people from reaching high, work hard, and attain success. May this ideology pass on and never return!

    1. Given the Japanese name, one might guess Prof. Inoue speaks Japanese. The verbal etiquette of Japanese has an elaborate system of inflections to represent the relative social status of the speaker and the person spoken to. This might be part of the motivation for his focus on the social class element in language forms.

  4. Professor Groothuis is correct — there is nothing “white” (or any other race) about standard English, mathematics, and other subjects. The attack on them comes from people who are desperate for any excuse to demolish educational standards and teach in ways that might be popular but won’t equip students for success. No matter what ideas you seek to convey, you’ll do so more effectively if you understand English and logic. Leftist writers used to know that.

    1. Consider these two statements an English teacher could potentially tell a student: (1) “The form of English spoken in your community is substandard, ungrammatical, wrong” or (2) “The form of English spoken in your community is associated with low social status.” Which statement is more accurate? Which statement is more useful toward the goal of engaging the student in the study of English?

  5. I have sympathy for Asao Inoue’s view. I struggled with writing in college. In one essay, the professor gave me a C and wrote that he would have given me an F but for my enthusiasm. He also noted that the essay was a series of “brilliant non sequiturs.” That hurt. But that hurt motivated me over the years to write so that I could communicate my thoughts. I imagine that I would experienced the same hurt in whatever language in which I composed. Perhaps Inoue imagines he can do away with the hurt that some would suffer. My roommate, however, had no such hurt. Lucky for him. The world for us was not linear after all even if we were both white.

  6. I find it ironic that the extreme left in academia can say mathematics and English grammar are steeped in white supremacy, even though both disciplines use entirely objective standards for assessment. The integral of a cosine function over one period equals zero. There is no systemic racism, no bigotry, no white supremacy and it does not disadvantage “students of color” by asking the question. But either you get the right answer or you don’t. English grammar rules are purely objective; either you apply them correctly or you don’t. Moreover, all of these rules and all mathematical principles are equally available to everyone. Anyone who cannot (or will not) put in the time and effort to attain these objective standards is either lazy or apathetic.

    Why then do leftists keep saying this garbage? Certainly virtue signaling is one reason but it has more to do with money, power and influence. I recall in the 1970s at the California State University at Fullerton all majors had to take an English course. Some faculty were demanding their black english courses—i.e., Ebonics courses—satisfy the English requirement. (Why anybody would be employed to teach Ebonics is offensive and a waste of money, but I digress.) Their demand was not based on intellectual enquiry or improving the marketability of students upon graduation. The problem was nobody was enrolling in the Ebonics courses and the faculty “teaching” this rubbish had to justify their continued employment. The university, to its credit, rejected the demand.

    All of these claims of whiteness are nothing but red herrings. If you can lower the objective standards, then it is far easier to get more academically unqualified so-called marginalized communities enrolled. That keeps the money rolling in.

    1. I’ll put it in more practical terms: The three-phase AC power lines running across the land are sine curves 120 degrees out of phase with each other, with the sum of the voltages of each line (+ & -) equalling zero at all times.

      And that really bad things can happen if either of the above aren’t true, or if reference to ground is lost. Transformers exploding, houses catching fire, people elecrocuted walking across the lawn. Serious stuff….

      I don’t know the math, let alone the engineering, just that it has to be right. Hence I ask cui bono?

      1. Your argument works for STEM fields, but here we are talking about English, which is a humanities field. You yourself write “Serious stuff…,” a sentence fragment in an informal register. Does this mean a bridge is collapsing somewhere?

    1. Do you believe teaching the historical facts behind the stigmatization of African-American Vernacular English is equivalent to making it illegal for slaves to read? “Cui bono” indeed, a nod to the era when English itself was a vernacular, and Latin was the language of the educated.

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