Unlearning Linguistic Trauma: Identifying Broken Perceptions in the Composition Classroom

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From left to right, Walt Wolfram, the executive producer of Talking Black in America, Assistant Professor Tosha Sampson-Choma, graduate student Chelsea Osademe (MA ’19), and KU Ph.D. student Charlesia McKinney (BA ’13) discuss the film after a showing at Kansas State University on February 26.

“They call it broken language but we say broken to who? — Dye Scott-Rhodan

One Sunday after church, my Aunt Peach was wearing a new dress and my mama said, “Peach! Girl, that dress is bad!” My eyes widened as I squeezed her hand and said, “Mama!” I was about six years old and quickly learned that “bad,” in certain contexts, can take on the opposite meaning to operate as a compliment. The film Talking Black in America, which was shown at Kansas State on February 26, affirmed many of my linguistic experiences as the film portrayed everyday scenarios as meaningful and deliberate rather than random and purposeless; similarly,  my anecdote disrupts the myth that Black English* is innate to all Black people. Just as I learned diverse variations of Black English from various Black communities, I learned that those experiences were no longer the norm within predominantly white academic spheres, which has meant internalizing feelings of incompetence since the third grade.

I recall the white male teacher from high school who mocked my attempt to “aks” instead of “ask” him something. My freshman year of college, I had a “problem with fragments,” so, naturally my sophomore year I had a “problem with run-on sentences,” in which another white male professor proclaimed, “that I will never get a job if I continue to write with run-on sentences.” These are just two examples that confirmed that I not only struggled with “effective communication” but also “correctness,” which never felt accessible in my Black female body since my identities have never been affirmed as “correct” in academic (read: white) spaces. The culmination of my non-standard linguistic habits as a first generation Ph.D. student and composition instructor has fostered intense imposter syndrome, which creates perpetual feelings of self-doubt and anxiety even while composing seemingly simple material, such as this blog post. I have since learned to identify lies created from toxic and/or traumatic academic experiences for the sake of replacing them with more encouraging and accurate truths.

In the film, Keith Cross asked, “What does standard English accomplish that these so-called versions of substandard English don’t accomplish in terms of communication … nothing.” This premise creates opportunities to discuss linguistic justice in the classroom; each semester, my students and I discuss the right to use their own/home language and I’m always asked, “but what about the real world?” which reveals the real issue. I agree with Cross that we must reckon with the various systemic oppressions that impede speakers of Black English, to be specific, from being themselves particularly in “professional” environments — the primary issue does not regard access to effective communication but rather the perception that there is only one variation of English that is effective, which has always been informed by racism and other isms.

Instructor effectiveness relies on our willingness to identify the ways that language is influenced by oppressive systems and, therefore, collectively constructed within each of our classrooms. We cannot resist and recreate when we do not understand what is at stake. Understanding that language and identity are deeply intertwined, I have/can use the writing classroom to expose traditional notions of error and proclaim that there are no bad or broken languages but rather bad and broken perceptions. Speakers of Black Englishes, in particular, need access to this information to effectively resist linguistic stigmas, which can, thereby, reduce the internalization, and eventual unlearning, of linguistic related trauma.

* There are many versions of this term and as a person who identifies as a Black American, I use Black English as the most accurate term for my uses and purposes.

— Charlesia McKinney (BA ’13)

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