A couple of people I admire recently shared in social media a video that claims that "ax" was once a perfectly acceptable alternative to "ask," until it was co-opted by the (largely White) aristocracy as a way of demeaning the (mostly Black) lower class and elevating the privilege of those in power through an elitist version of our common language. I was surprised that my visceral reaction was one of anger, and a sense of being offended. So, now I struggle to discern the source of that. The following will not be pretty, but it will be honest. Honesty is maybe the last vestige of my voice that is allowed in differentiating myself from other writers.
First of all, I am not opposed to being enlightened on the history of African American Vernacular English (AAVE, the dialect formerly known as "ebonics"). I consider it a travesty that this was not a part of my education back in middle school or high school, akin to the celebration of Christopher Columbus while choosing to overlook his disastrous treatment of indigenous Americans. However, I believe the illumination of AAVE can be achieved with a little more finesse, without implying that the rules of English I grew up with and abide by today are not inherently racist or designed solely for some air of snobbish intellectual prowess.
Please do not confuse my pursuit of literary excellence with a desire for privilege. If grammar, syntax, and spelling do not have a place in informing quality of expression, then what am I left with?
Every heritage deserves a sense of pride, and warrants celebration, not just on holidays. It appears that we have difficulty doing so without taking something away from every other culture, though, or offending in some respect. The backlash then reduces things like Irish immigrant history to leprechauns and shamrocks and green beer, and other demeaning caricatures and stereotypes of St. Patrick's Day. Sigh.
I sense that elucidating AAVE is not without an unspoken desire to take traditional English down a notch, and I think that is unnecessary. There is no way I can write about this dispassionately, without giving the impression that I take these assertions personally because yes, I do feel threatened by them. This is the first time that I have truly felt not just uncomfortable, but under explicit attack by another ethnic group. I am beginning to wonder if certain segments of the activist community will simply not be satisfied until they convince every White person that they are, in fact, racist. No, Eric, not even you can assert that you are above your Caucasian privilege. We will find a way to make it so. We will expose you one way or another. Well, they did it, by coming after my vocabulary.
Maybe Blacks are now projecting their often legitimate fear and hatred of law enforcement officers onto the "grammar police." Maybe they see those who subscribe to traditional English as using words to beat them into submission and irrelevance. I assure you the abuses, if there are any, are unintentional. You want to take language to task? We are on the same side in wanting to banish the n-word and other hateful language, believe me. Were it in my power I would exempt hate speech from protection under the First Amendment. I would also overturn Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission because the truly offensive language of oppression and privilege in this day and age is money.
There is a larger question at play here. Is there any facet of White culture, if there is such a thing, that is acceptable to Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and all other "minorities?" Is all of it contrived to ensure a sense of superiority, elitism, and privilege? We have given you plenty of reasons to hate us, no question, but are we as individuals guilty until proven innocent, or guilty no matter what, just because we are White? Are we guilty by association with the legacy of oppression that has come before us? Where does it stop? Help me out here. Enlighten me more. What are we permitted now? Am I really out of bounds in asking these questions?
Please do not confuse my pursuit of literary excellence with a desire for privilege. If grammar, syntax, and spelling do not have a place in informing quality of expression, then what am I left with? Where does my voice come from if not my own flawed and imperfect education, the dictionary of my own mind, and yes, those rules of language?
Maybe it is, in reality, one of those "just when you thought you had it all down...." moments. Maybe I have a hard time admitting I am out of step, that I haven't kept up. Perhaps it is confronting the fact I am too old to learn any more, or too stubborn, or too lazy. Yeah, that is probably....what....I...am....objecting to. Nope, pretty sure it is the racist thing.