Learn the Rules to Break the Rules: Race, Immigration, and Linguistics

CiDw0NbUgAIJ3FqTo start this off, I am a white, cis-female, bisexual, middle class undergraduate student. In case you didn’t notice, there’s a lot of privilege locked in those identities. The reason I feel the need to point this out is that I don’t often think about my inherent privileges, but I want to become more aware of how these privileges (and lack thereof) play out in my everyday experiences.

In Facing the Center, Harry C. Denny approaches racism from many angles. He tries to get at the complex dynamics that come from facing the question, “Which faces are permitted and tolerated and which ones face scrutiny, challenge or oppression?” (37). While Denny does go into many of these dynamics, and how we need to acknowledge and discuss them, the thing that really blew my mind was Denny’s discussion of immigration and American identity.

Denny discusses the “ethnicity” model, and how the ethnicity-assimilation model has its issues (especially because it offers a very falsely created binary). Then he comments that the “ethnicity model … has its roots in the study of voluntary or forced (slavery) immigration in European and American contexts” (39). Assimilation has led to identities merging together into one basic American identity. bowlandpot-f

When European or Asian immigrants have come into the United States, they have had the opportunity to be seen as fully American while also forming their own ethnic and cultural communities. The dominant majority have accepted these mainly European immigrants, allowed them to live peacefully without suspicion.

Buuuuut… By the 1950s, African immigrants had been living in the United States much longer than these European immigrants, and they’re still looked on with suspicion. “…African Americans, whose arrival predated most immigrants, still struggled to eke out any minimal sense of integration” (40). African Americans are still Othered, still discriminated against, still appropriated/imitated.

As someone coming from a place of privilege, I have never even thought about this fact. I just took it as a fact that because of slavery, racial tensions will never go away. I never thought about the implications of Eurocentric thinking in the sense of immigration in the 1950s.

Even more interesting than this is the idea that students should have a right to their own language (42). Most people develop “multiple literacies” in their life, one at home and one at school. Denny argues that classrooms (and writing centers) should create an awareness that “home and school aren’t in opposition, but are mutually supporting reservoirs” (43).

sharpen-snoopy-writingI have noticed, especially in my writing center work and in my English classrooms, that people are often worried about sounding a different way when they write rather than the way they really speak. Many people I know, including myself, write differently than they speak. I am lucky enough to be someone who speaks and writes extremely similarly because of my background, but others who have only known one vernacular their entire life, essentially have to learn an entirely new language at the college-level. I cannot imagine how frustrating this must be.

“Language use and rhetorical strategies clearly have cultural reference rooted in communities bounded by shared identity” (45), and therefore telling someone they cannot speak a certain way invalidates their identity.

I have always told myself that I want to try to be the least judgmental person I can be. Hkaud7f1However, there’s a joke in my family that I am a “Grammar Nazi” (or “Grammar Queen,” which I prefer because Nazis were/are horrible) because I used to correct everyone’s grammar OUT LOUD. (I know… I was that person. I’ve changed!) In my desire to be nonjudgmental, I forgot that correcting someone’s way of speaking is a way of invalidating them. This is something I NEVER wanted to do, and I’m glad my eyes have been opened.

I have since changed my tune. While I do think that “standard” academic English does have its place (probably just because of the institutions rampant in our society), I now understand the importance of different dialects and languages. The written word has always been beautiful to me, but only when I thought it was up to my own standards. Now, I’ve learned to look at it with an appreciation for everyone’s differences. I especially appreciate when “nonstandard” dialects are used to make a point. (Learn the rules to break them the right way is something I’ve learned from my dad, who was a bit of a rule-breaker. To clarify, I’m a goody two-shoes.)


Denny speaks of “linguistic rights” (53) and “authentic language use” (48), which are both important ideas that I’ve never considered before. I now believe that every use of language is authentic as long as it comes from a place of honesty, but not everyone thinks this way. Minorities’ “linguistic rights” are being threatened daily, especially in the academic world. People invalidate certain linguistic codes, which inherently invalidates identities.

Because this blog post is a lot of me discovering my own thoughts (as they usually are), I feel I should end with the one little question that has been dangling around in my thoughts for a long, long time. It’s only now that I realize how much race, sexuality, and other identity politics complicate the answer. This burning question is:

Why can’t we all just get along?

Works Cited

Denny, Harry C. “Facing Race and Ethnicity in the Writing Center.” Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring, Utah State University Press, 2010, pp. 32-56.

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1 Response to Learn the Rules to Break the Rules: Race, Immigration, and Linguistics

  1. rchasek says:

    Wow! I can tell you put a lot of work into this post! I love that you included a video. I’m coming from nearly the same position as you, and my experience with this book has been similar to yours. I, too, have been a Grammar Queen (although I always doubt my writing ability–I think it’s just an English major thing). I identified with your story about realizing the struggles that immigrant students face in the USA. It’s hard to think about this topic after living a life of relative privilege. For example, I had never thought about how black Americans are reviled more than many “newer” immigrants to our country. Since I’m posting this on Thanksgiving, I’ll say I’m THANKFUL for the opportunity to broaden my horizons. I think an important takeaway from this piece is that we should be conscious of the way we view people of different ethnicities/races/nationalities. At the risk of repeating myself, this class has helped me think critically about my attitudes and assumptions towards others.


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