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Growing number of English, writing scholars prioritize social justice, reject ‘standard’ academic English

‘We must teach black students about anti-black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy’

As critical race theory burgeons within higher education, writing centers have taken the cue, with a growing number trading in traditional grammar, spelling and punctuation corrections for a focus on antiracism.

Examples range from subjectively disavowing writing that “denigrates” others to mission statements that prioritize social justice over teaching students how to write well.

“We … must teach black students about anti-black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy,” argues one group of scholars calling for “Black linguistic justice.”

Myriad examples of such efforts can be found on websites from university writing centers and English Departments.

University of Michigan Sweetland’s Center for Writing states in its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement that they “reject rhetoric that denigrates others based on any identity category, such as race, religion, gender expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, national origin, language, ethnicity, sex, ability status, socioeconomic status, age, body type, or political party.”

The University of Michigan English Language and Literature Department confirms that their department is still not “free of [systematic racism’s] damaging habits.” However, their statement of solidarity assures readers they are “approaching a new academic year, to the thoughtful scrutiny and revision of our own entrenched practices, priorities, and assumptions.”

Similar to the Sweetland Center, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Writing Center says in its mission statement they “advocate for writers from historically marginalized or oppressed groups and for writing that counters traditional accounts of ‘standard’ academic English by extending conceptions of audience, purpose, and meaning.”

UNL’s Department of English lists their top core values. The first two on the list are “pursuing social justice” and “affirming diversity.”

Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the Department of English at UNL issued a message saying they commit “to use our own resources to further reflect on systemic inequities that exist in our own processes … we actively invite critique of racism and white supremacy embedded … in our curricular, co-curricular, and professional practices.”

This message was followed by a list of ways the department is committed to changing within their department. Chief among these was the initiation of “listening sessions” during which black faculty, staff, and students would be invited to speak while “the rest of us listen and take notes.”

The books “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo were listed as reading that the UNL English Department asked their members to read and discuss in depth with the vague timeline that this process would be repeated “until racism in this country ends.”

Like the English Department at UNL, the English Department chair at Rutgers University is making an initiative to increase exposure to the #BLM movement within their school. In an email published by The College Fix, Rutgers English Department chair called to deemphasize traditional grammar “in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.”

Additionally, the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences boasts a writing center that is “one of the most multicultural and linguistically-diverse universities in the country.”

In their DEI Statement, the Rutger’s Center acknowledges “that Rutgers University was founded by slaveholding families, and its very existence depended on the sale and labor of Black slaves.”

They claim they are committed to “confronting our past and undoing the systemic racism that continues to shape our academic landscape. We support the ongoing work for racial justice in which so many of our students, faculty, and staff are engaged.”

At St. Olaf College, two professors are calling on their faculty peers and campus writing tutors to prioritize what they call “labor-based grading,” which puts a de-emphasis on calling out and correcting traditional writing errors.

And earlier this year, Central Connecticut State University’s Center for Public Policy and Social Research announced that its “Reflect & Empower: What Black Lives Matter Means to Me” writing and multimedia contest would not judge submissions on “traditional literary or grammatical standards.”

It comes on the heels of an effort called “Black linguistic justice,” in which professors in 2020 began to demand an end to standard English as the norm in the name of antiracism.

Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Writing Center, University of Michigan English Language and Literature Department, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of English chair did not respond to requests for comment from The College Fix.

MORE: University lowers traditional language standards for Black Lives Matter contest

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About the Author
Charlie LeBlanc -- University of Dallas