F*** the Grammar Police: An Open Letter to 'Proper' English
Dear Grammar Police,
I’m impartial to the proper things. To me, it just feels like I’m being controlled by pointless and typically problematic ideals. With the exception of certain things like wiping, medical procedures, and throwing it back; I have always felt like what is deemed suitable was merely a matter of culture and context. It probably explains the foul sentiment I get when the only other black guy inside the office pats my back and tells me he’s only inviting me to his party because I can, as he puts it, "chill and speak proper English". He didn’t invite the bubbly, larger than life valets most likely because he doesn’t care for the Future they play in the break room as much as their spirited conversations that admittedly make the office vibes a bit tense. I suppose being vibrant and unapologetically black is startling, offensive to some; but they have no problem with him doing it when he talks Panthers with my bosses’ boss. A large part of our existence is expected to be spent making up for the fact that we're 'problematic' and 'intimidating' in existence to people who fail to respect or understand our culture. My inner hipster feels the opposite of proper. My inner kid feels like an endless rebel. It wasn’t even until I pulled an all nighter putting together data for an early presentation that I realized that you didn’t need much proper English at all for statistical analysis. It was one of the valets who reminded me that it was a language to it’s own, and he helped me finish so fast that we took some time talking about his love for coding and the fact that it was the only language he spoke that people respected. Between talk of why he didn’t like Drake singing and why he felt it comfortable to wear sneakers to the beach; I felt myself more than guilty in assuming that he was only a valet for the past six years because he was unmotivated or complacent. I suppose intelligence and education, like everything else in this country, has a model that we all look to; a box that leaves a vast majority of us overlooked. We have been taught that there is proper and improper; completely ignoring how situational the process of education is in a sea of endless personalities and minds. Not only does education push a remember and regurgitate style of learning that only works in teaching some, but it’s completely tied to a child’s economic status and location, things we could never control at birth. That doesn’t mean that learning doesn’t exist for those who couldn’t afford a well funded school or district. It does not mean there wasn’t someone to teach them with a grasp of their culture or dialect at home. We learn from moment to moment, and that should be applauded and expected. It rubs me the wrong way to be surrounded by people who refuse to respect and attempt to understand people from different backgrounds, because when you're not learning you’re most likely judging with no information.
I didn’t go to the party. The comment was off-putting for me the whole weekend. I couldn’t decide why until I ran into one of my coworkers who also ditched that weekend outside a bar and had a quick chat about how Mr. Proper English tended to try too hard on the social front. My friends spent the next twenty minutes in our uber laughing about just how funny my corporate voice was. I realized I didn’t go because I would’ve had to spend two to four more hours with my coworkers code-switching and it wasn’t worth it when I wasn’t getting paid. It was very much a sacrifice and a nuisance.
Sometimes, I feel like I take my work clothes off with a whole other personality attached. Sometimes, I wonder what the real me does when I’m away at work. I know my grandmother grew up in a time where she wasn’t expected to know or learn correct grammar and enunciation. After her, there really were no excuses. If I wanted a certain kind of job, I should speak and carry myself like a certain type of person. I’ve been raised with so much respect for education and what it could do to change lives that I previously never questioned much. But there had to be a flaw in a system that had a self taught tech guru working as a valet because he spoke in a Jamaican patois deemed unprofessional. He applied to the IT position four times before he saved enough to put himself through school and left a month or so before me for work study. When I told my coworkers it wasn’t the same without him, it was just awkward chuckles and silences. I found myself slowly counting down the day before I moved to a job I could be more myself.
I’m good for always being polite, but I didn’t really feel internally comfortable there anymore. I must’ve made the new hire uncomfortable staring at her a few weeks later because I was irked by the fact that her barely distinguishable Australian accent seemed to make her a hit at the office along with her bleached blonde bundles. The difference between her and the valet was the same difference between an Australian dialect and Jamaican patois; the carefully coded othering of a subculture perceived as black and the exaltation of those accepted as white.
It’s a peculiar thing living in a country oversaturated with foreign ideals and concepts. What is proper english when American is nothing but a successful British spin-off? It’s not that there isn’t a time or a place for things, protocols that make things run smoother, or that professionalism is no longer a necessity. However these things have to do with safety and efficiency; not upholding white customs and power structures as the end all, be all; and definitely not suppressing your own sense of self. We must protect proponents of a culture that African Americans have had no choice to create and a long, uphill battle to protect. Officers of the grammar police tend to be nothing but those that wish to protect the idea of whiteness as wellness in the workplace; believing it to be the only culture of achievement and academia. No one should be pigeonholed to an ancient subtext that no one really uses in day to day life. Any valid lexicographer puts words in the dictionary based off of how many people use them, just like any competent linguist would know better to limit themselves to proper dialects that often are only in functional use in some professional spaces and texts. Language is as colorful and nuanced as the many people and subcultures in this country. No one should be made to feel that their culture’s dialect is an indicator of ignorance or lack of education. That’s like saying someone’s home is indicative of those things. These kinds of attitudes are the very type that force everyone except the average white american to push their customs, their cultures, their very identities, to the side just to have a socio-economic advantage. The difference between the forced assimilation of 18th century Native Americans and today is that we self-police. Many times we do the work ourselves. Our hair, our clothes, even our speech all have to be proper (i.e. aligned with whiteness) or we’re asking to be passed up on any opportunity that we’re actually qualified for. If you’re capable of doing a job, and you’re not harming or hurting anyone, then the complaints are personal and unnecessary.
We don’t need someone policing our voice, especially other Black people. Their isn’t a culture without an underbelly. Folks who only know proper english are just as likely to participate in deviant, out of the office behaviors as anyone else. How someone speaks is not indicative of what they know or how they behave. There’s nothing wrong with education, but education doesn’t have a look or aesthetic any more than ignorance does. Knowledge is not hinged to a certain culture or a dialect; even though upward mobility and access to education is. It is important that this distinction is clear and you don’t sacrifice all the things that helped create you. If you feel the need to correct people who talk like where you aren’t from, you should probably try harder to understand that space than to control or typecast them; you’ll get much further. To be honest, most of us who are slightly nervous when we get pulled over know a dialect or two to make things go as smooth as possible. So, as long as english class is not in session, politely put... Fuck the grammar police. My English will always be as proper as my birth certificate is. And honestly no one sent for you.
Nia Tara Byrd is a freelance writer from Charlotte, NC with a passion for science fiction, recreation, womanism, and the many intersectionalities amongst social rights in today’s society. She is a graduate from East Carolina University and is currently in the process of releasing her debut novel. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org