Racism Hidden Behind Grammar

Readers often respond to the writer of an article or essay they have read. Recently one such reader wrote to a writer about an article printed in the Washington Post Magazine. Printed below is the email as shared by the writer.

                                    Hi Damon:

I like your pieces in the WP magazine but I really stumbled reading your article in tomorrow’s edition.


…although it ain’s a perfect analogy: ain’t? Really poor choice.

…some of them white boys: them? How about ‘those’?

You do good work; don’t try to  sound like you are still in the street.


            The writer shares the reader’s email in which he or she rails about the use of “ain’t” and whips to death that old horse. That is a choice any of us can make, but I see that specific complaint like a charge against a windmill. However, what I find most distressing in the reader’s email is its tone and subtle racism. 

The reader has some knowledge of grammar and punctuation-the correct use of the semi-colon in the last sentence shows this, but he missed a comma in his opening sentence. However, the condescending tone and subtle racist attitude expressed in the reader’s last sentence is startling. The reader might as well have written, “You do good work, boy; don’t try to sound like you are still in the street.”  For one thing, who is the  reader to pronounce to the writer that, “You do good work;”. The writer knows that his work is good, or he wouldn’t be doing it. This clause is pure arrogance on the part of the reader because he or she assumes a superior position and passes a judgement, not an opinion on the work of the writer. But it is the veiled prejudice that steals the show. The last clause exposes the racist attitude of a reader commenting on the written words of a Black writer. The reader shows that he or she thinks that every Black writer must have, at one time, been “in the street.” In other words, if  you are Black you come from an inferior environment, even if, by now, you do good work. How is a writer to respond to such a tone and words?  Shuffle as he looks down and says, “Thank’ ya, Massa.”

But the writer, like any writer, is free to sound any way he or she wishes. However, in doing so, the writer must be willing to suffer any just and fair consequences—such as having a helpful editor make a change or changes. But a racist attack is  never warranted, and this email demonstrates another way of expressing racism, in a sly and sinister manner.

However, the writer does err in one regard. He writes in his splendid and controlled response this: “If you were better at this than I am, you would know, as I do, that the rules of grammar are mostly suggestions. Guardrails to help us corral and curate the mess in our heads into something cohesive.”

I suggest that rules—grammar or otherwise—are rules, not guidelines. In the usage of them or those, the rule concerns case; the difference between nominative and objective case. However, this rule’s distinction, like so many others in our grammar, is being lost through careless writing or editing or both. However, does it matter if the writer gets his message to the reader? Consider this example of the lowly comma and it use: “Let’s eat Grandma.” Let’s eat, Grandma.” Grammar and its cousin punctuation matter for the sole purpose to facilitate effective communication. They are rules to be followed as closely and respectfully as possible so that all readers will find the writing to be a road map to a destination or conclusion.

But the arrogant tone and subtle racism of the reader’s email far outpace the writer’s misuse of case. The use of case is the type of error which is easy to correct, but the ugly tone derived from privilege and its cousin racism is a choice, not a mistake. But unlike the mistakes we make in grammar, it lives and breathes and hurts us all like COVID.

Now, ain’t that the truth.

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