Marta Shaffer teaches English at Oroville High School and uses linguistics to fight “white supremacy in my classes” and be “inclusive of all kinds of ways we use the language,” she said.
The expectation that students should use syntax and proper grammar is based in a deep-rooted white supremacy culture, she argues, according to a report.
“I try to undermine that B.S. in my classroom as much as I can,” she said. “We study linguistics and the rules that we actually use to communicate instead of the made-up rules that white supremacy created for when we write papers and stuff, which is what scholars call the ‘language of power.'”
“As an educator, I constantly worry if I’m the problem. What do I mean by that? Well, public education is an institution that upholds lots of problematic systems in our society like white supremacy and misogyny and colonization, etc.,” she said. “Well, let’s look at how we write essays [in which we] start with an introduction that includes a thesis, always cite your sources, use transition words like ‘however’ and ‘therefore.’ These are all made-up rules. They were created by Westerners in power. Which got me thinking, what if I started my school year with a unit honoring how we talk rather than teaching students how to write properly.”
One example is a prompt in which Shaffer has students examine how they communicate at home.
“Just because your teachers, your professors, and your boss may expect you to write and speak in a certain way that may not be natural to you, does not mean that your more natural … languages are not important,” she said.
“They are just as important, if not more important, than the ‘language of respectability.'”
Despite her efforts, Shaffer wants to make sure she does not become a “white savior.”
“Did I worry I was being a white savior? Absolutely. Was it uncomfortable? Definitely, but a lot of my students come here, and they’re uncomfortable with the white mainstream culture of public school life,” she said.
“So I think it’s good for them to see their teacher deal with linguistic discomfort, too.”