Who Gets To Police Language?

I was in an uncomfortable situation a few weeks ago, and every time I think about it, all of these hurt and upset feelings come up.

I was in a group chat with my partner and his friends. This group chat is predominantly white; I was one of two people of colour in it. We were having a conversation while my partner was asleep and I mentioned I disliked someone for using the word “ratchet”. And then someone, a white person, helpfully shared this definition from Urban Dictionary.


I’m uncomfortable. I can feel the racist undertones in the erasure of black slang and culture. I can feel the white supremacist and elitist undertones of mocking the language and vernacular of a marginalized population. But I’m in a chat with people whose only connection to me is my partner, and he’s asleep and I don’t know what the consequences of my anger would have on his friendships. I don’t want to alienate him, I just don’t think it should be left unsaid.

My compromise: “Well, it’s AAVE so none of us should use it. And she is definitely way too white to be using it.

I figured it would be subtle enough. One of them is an editor so I assume they’re familiar with the terminology since it’s used in those academic circles. And if not, the acronym has been around for years and there’s enough resources a Google search away on it for it to be effective.

Boy, did it backfire.

I was scolded for using an acronym that people in the group may not understand. I explained that it stood for African American Vernacular English. Then they proceeded to call me elitist. I countered that erasing the roots of black slang was elitist (although what I wanted to say was racist). Apparently this made me seem defensive, which seemed strange to me considering how defensive they were over not knowing something. This is also two white people who consider themselves educated and intellectuals.

At this point another of my partner’s friends, the only other non-white person in the group, and points out that they could understand my meaning just by using Google and that it would have been faster to just ask or search it than to create a big fuss.

They then proceeded to say how it wasn’t the point and how I should have just answered them or explained in the first place.

Except, I already had. I had done exactly what they were yelling at me for. There wasn’t any reason for it to have been drawn out the way it was. And it was clear I was uncomfortable in the situation. I hadn’t spoken for the majority of their scolding. I waited until my partner woke up and could discuss the situation. We agreed that if I felt uncomfortable I could just leave the group quietly. I was too tired to educate, and enough time had passed that I didn’t want him to bring it up again. I wouldn’t be comfortable in that group again. It was more important for me to be out of that space than to educate. It was enough for me to see that I wasn’t going to be respected by these individuals and I wasn’t going to be heard.

There was a clear dynamic that was playing out in this group where I was the only one who didn’t have years of intimate friendships connecting me to anyone in the conversation, and there was also a dynamic that the two people of colour weren’t allowed to express opinions or disagreement.

And what bothered me most was that they probably left that conversation smug in the belief that they were more socially conscious. But really all they had done was create an uncomfortable – if not unsafe – space for a person of colour. They created a space in which they claimed moral superiority. And then they demanded that I produce the intellectual labour, since they may not be able to figure out what is reliable information on the internet and what’s not.

This is almost funny to me, considering the individual is a university-educated editor, who when I had previously asked for advice said that I wouldn’t get work in the field without a degree and basically spouted off the advice you can get from the top search results on Google. To me that says they lack the basic critical thinking skills that are essential as an editor. Especially when they were given context clues (like bringing up that a white person, or that anyone not black, shouldn’t be using AAVE) to guide them to the correct results.

So not only were they going to define what elitism is in this conversation, but they’re also not going to put in any of the work. It shouldn’t be up to me to educate in that kind of setting. And if you want to ask, go ahead and ask politely. I’ll respond in turn. I respect questions that come from genuine places of learning.

But if you have the ability to search and you have had access to postsecondary education, maybe put in the work. Think to yourself, what is my privilege in this situation? Why do I feel that I can define how oppression works? Asking someone who has had this conversation for the umpteenth time shouldn’t be your first move.

You may not think that you have racial bias – but it’s there. It shows in your actions and in the ways you justify them. You may not consciously realize it, but you’re participating in discrimination. You are silencing us. Undermining our voices. We notice when our voices are silenced in favor of white voices. And we definitely notice your condescension.

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