I chanced upon a Twitter feud moments ago, in which a white man wished to register his dissent over the term “woke.” Now, chances are good, if you’re reading this, that you already know to what the term “woke” refers. But for Becky and Brad in the back of the class, “woke” – when used as an adjective – refers to a person who is generally aware of racism and is working to end racial injustice.
It would be easy to dismiss this guy’s objections to the term on grounds of pedantry. He’s a linguistic prescriptionist who fundamentally lacks the intellectual rigor to recognize that language has always, and will always, change to reflect our deepening understanding of our lives. But it isn’t just that he’s feeble-minded: he’s also racist. Attacking a term developed by a marginalized community, to help describe the experiences of marginalization, is a quintessential power-play designed only to shame, further marginalize, and reassert dominance. It is linguistic white supremacy.
Language is hard. It doesn’t have quite the same reputation that math does, where a forgotten rule might render a calculation impossible. In language, comprehension is king, so someone who omits a word or fails to flawlessly execute subject-verb agreement is rarely left curled in a ball on the floor, shaking and cursing Pythagoras. But many people enjoy a position of relative linguistic security. Access to education, to generations of accumulated capital, to communities that mirror and reinforce fluency in formal speech and writing, each contributes to a linguistic rigidity and to a deeply racist perspective that white speech is right speech, and anything else is inferior. Standardized tests, of course, reinforce this by rewarding students who can spot idiomatic phrases common only to white communities.
Of course, it is not enough for white supremacy to merely disadvantage racial minorities. It must simultaneously exalt in non-traditional language that violates standard English conventions – when they are invented by or for a white audience. Subcultural English is reminded of its supposed-inferiority every time we gush over Tolkien’s invention of high fantasy languages, by the fact that it’s possible to learn Klingon through Duolingo (but not Chinese), and when we recognize the alleged brilliance of the dystopian languages of Anthony Burgess and George Orwell in, respectively, “A Clockwork Orange” and “1984.” When a literary effete refers to Trump’s policies as doubleplusungood, but cringes when someone refers to themselves as “woke,” this is racism, plain and simple.
Be careful with your words and your judgment of how others use them. When you refer to yourself as a “Grammar Nazi,” you might be more accurate than you know.