English Prescriptivism: Being a good writer & its roots in white supremacy

By Patrick Jonathan Derilus

I was often self-demeaning when it came to my writing skills. I believed the only way that I would be understood was if I wrote “intellectually.” I presumed that writing this way would, in turn, lead people to believe that I, too, was an intellectual.

In the process of being a writer and wanting to become a “better” one, I came across the dictionary/thesaurus and started investing a lot of my time in reading the many words contained in them. I concerned myself more with retaining this knowledge to better “legitimize” myself, than I did taking the time to enjoy learning something new. However, I eventually learned that I was dangerously misinformed about what defined intelligence.


Whether for academic purposes or not, I used to never use my computer without those two resources at my disposal. I felt powerless without them. In fact, even in communicating with people via social media, I became comfortable with using words that I did not normally use in person. I did this for one of two reasons: either because I couldn’t think of words to say, or because I wanted to convey that I was unquestionably brilliant.

I didn’t come to truly unpack my own prejudices until post-college. While gradually studying and better understanding Black history from reading excerpts from Malcolm X’s autobiography, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and few excerpts from James Baldwin, I came to the realization that our American school curriculum was specifically constructed and established on white supremacist indoctrination.

Reading several Black authors helped me recognize that even before my time there were Black intellectuals, too, who were subject to having to meet the status quo as a means of validating their humanity. While our teachers have long introduced writing/speaking “proper” English as a fundamental utility, they have, nevertheless, failed to unveil this approach to writing/speaking as an institutional system that is grounded in white supremacy.

Without questioning the very institutions that have indoctrinated me, it would have taken me even longer to understand that the way a lot of our educators, teachers, and professors have educated us on English grammar is derived from prescriptivist thought. Prescriptivism, or English prescriptivism in linguistics, refers to the imposition of rules enforced onto a society on what is supposedly the correct way to utilize grammar.

Strict prescriptivism alone, implies a denunciation of all other dialects as inferior, improper, and wrong. Prescriptivism not only meant that it was a system which justified that the English language and proper grammar was an equivalent to whiteness, but it also racialized the English language. In “Racializing Language: A History of Linguistic Ideologies In the US Census,” Jennifer Leeman advances a claim of the issue of good English and writing becoming an equivalent to being white:

At the same time that language was being used as a measure of race, the relationship between language and national identity was being shored up, solidifying the tripartite ideological clustering of Whiteness, English, and American identity. The Americanization movement—in which civic and business organizations, employers, and local boards of education teamed up to teach English and ‘civics’ to immigrants—reflected and strengthened the ideological unification of language and national identity.

The racialization of linguistics advanced a claim of mythologized white superiority that conflated speaking coherently and intelligently with speaking European, or “white.” For example, a Black person who conformed to speaking so-called standard English, would be met with racially-charged accusations of speaking “white.” For so long I accepted the ideal of intelligent writing being constituted as “good” English.

Good or so-called intelligent writing was deemed the American standard. From our retail bosses, teachers, professors, and educators, we have been reinforced to believe that through strictly speaking/writing “proper” English, we would perpetually and undeniably be guaranteed academic and career-based success.

However, this is false. No amount of speaking “proper” English, would have protected Mike Brown from being killed for the way he looked. State-sanctioned murder is what prevented him from reaching “academic and career-based success.” As a leading repercussion, prescriptivism, unarguably, contains suggestive undertones of elitism, racism, ableism, sexism, queerphobic, and transphobic language, a lot of the same restricting, problematic language our predecessors have long instilled in us to use.

Connecting the dots between goodness & intelligence, intelligence & assimilation, and assimilation with whiteness, helped me better understand my own conditioning. I soon raised doubt about the English I believed to be proper.

Often I used to complain about the decline of the collective intelligence within our society—which I assumed was based on the lack of our ability to utilize proper English grammar. I was disappointed with the “poor” way we utilized grammar. Particularly words of the New York-based Black English lexicon upset me. This meant, for example, that if I was unfamiliar with a word/term within the category of slang, or what was colloquially deemed “slang,” I would immediately dislike it. Now I am committed to unpacking that disdain.

Since what I had learned throughout my academic career was intellectually inaccurate and institutionally racist, this meant that all of what I had thought and expressed about the so-called “decline” of our society, was wrong. After gradually acquainting myself with the readings of Black authors and immersing myself in watching documentaries/interviews regarding Black struggle—I became more aware of the degree in which this implicit bias had festered my mind.

Though beginning to understand the extent of my conditioning worried me, I still managed to find strength in it. I got into the habit of questioning things more. I’m reaching a point where I’m beginning to realize that reinforcing these prejudices that have been ingrained in me since an early age—isn’t something I can immediately stop. But rather it is a behavior that we all must work towards unlearning everyday.

Suggested Reading

Friendship is a root of freedom” – Deterr, joyfulmilitancy  (December 11th, 2017)

We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity” – bell hooks (November 7th, 2003)

The Myth of Sisyphus” – Albert Cumas (May 7th, 1991)


Patrick Jonathan Derilus is an American-Haitian independent writer and a resident of Hudson Valley, New York. He is published in Rabble Lit, NewPoliticsLinden Avenue Lit, and elsewhere. Patrick is currently in his last year as an undergraduate student at SUNY New Paltz with a major in English with a Creative Writing concentration and a minor in Black Studies. He is working toward his Bachelor’s Degree in English. You can find him on his websiteInstagramFacebook, or Twitter (@aBlackliterary_)

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