Has this ever happened to you?
You proudly embrace your individuality and freedom of speech, but you work in an environment in which people who neither know you nor agree with your viewpoints are responsible for representing you solely because they look like you. The world treats these “spokespeople” as the de facto experts on what you are all about; when you express a viewpoint that does not align with theirs, they and their listeners see you as an aberration or a misguided soul. Then people start to see you as inauthentic or a cautionary tale of what can happen when someone does not abide by the rules and mandates of the spokespeople.
It is currently happening to me. I’m black, a professor of rhetoric, my environment is academia, and the aforementioned spokespeople are those who insist that they speak for all black academics, if not all blacks, generally. Though such keepers of black authenticity can be found in many places, they present themselves in my field, rhetoric and composition, as proponents of “black linguistic justice.”
What is “black linguistic justice?” It’s the idea that making black students write in standard English is inherently racist. Black students should be allowed to write in “black English.” A manifesto, titled “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a Demand for Black Linguistic Justice!” seeks change that it insists will liberate black students from the tyranny of thesis statements and the third-person point of view. The manifesto declares:
As language and literacy researchers and educators, we acknowledge that the same anti-Black violence toward Black people in the streets across the United States mirrors the anti-Black violence that is going down in these academic streets.
The hyperbolic statements and dramatic metaphors (academic streets?) don’t stop there. In a separate preface, a prominent black scholar in my field writes about black linguistic justice immediately in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd:
For too long, my friends, our field has tolerated and even supported (tacitly or worse) writing programs and literacy teaching, particularly writing instruction, that accede to linguistic racism, to white linguistic supremacy, a supremacy that has kneed the necks of Black speech and Black writing forms through such pedagogies as code-switching or contrastive analysis or write-this-way-here and yo-own-way-there.
To teach “standard” English to all students so that they can acquire a linguistic competency that will be expected in most professional contexts is to “knee the necks” of black speech and writing.
I do not bring this up to discuss the wrongheadedness of deeming standard English as inherently racist, nor to comment on the shameless use of a man’s death as a metaphor for having to write “isn’t” instead of “ain’t.” I bring it up because I take issue with the suggestion that all black people share this sentiment—a suggestion that many non-black academics assume is true. I bring it up because the idea that black people are monolithic pervades academia and beyond.
Shouldn’t scholars know better? When it comes to academia, I have never been the “right” kind of black man. My comfort around whites, my embrace of classical liberal values, and my refusal to embrace victimhood has confused black and white academics alike. I remember talking to a white college president, who considered himself a card-carrying liberal, about black life and telling him that, even within the black community, there is much diversity. He looked at me as if I had three heads.
This is why my colleagues and I have created Free Black Thought, a website that “seeks to represent the rich diversity of black thought beyond the relatively narrow spectrum of views promoted by mainstream outlets as defining ‘the black perspective.’” If you are a black scholar and do not agree that teaching standard English is “spirit murder,” you are unlikely to be seen as “authentically black,” even if you’re just as concerned about the well-being of black students as anyone else. Free Black Thought seeks to help people discover the diversity of views among people of African descent, whether they are academics, politicians, activists, artists, or entrepreneurs.
Recently, someone observed that the “free” in Free Black Thought can serve as both an adjective and a verb. Yes, black thought should be free, in that it should not be trapped in a narrow orthodoxy. But we also need to heed the imperative to liberate black thought from that narrow orthodoxy. I hope both general readers and my academic colleagues will give our website a look.
Erec Smith is a York College of Pennsylvania associate professor of rhetoric, associate director of the Institute for Civic Arts and Humanities, and former chair of the York YWCA Racial and Social Justice Committee.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on City Journal.