Family lore has it that I tried talking at two weeks old. Green eyes locked on my grandma, my mouth moved, and she thought I was trying to talk to her. No one knows exactly when I uttered my first words, only that it was before most of my peers, and since then, I haven’t shut up. There aren’t any adorable mishaps over word pronunciation in my speech history. I’ve always been this, a babbling mess of words– an orator who never knows when the speech is over.
The Prompt was “The Halloween that Almost Wasn’t”. Mrs. Bruehler, my fourth-grade teacher, wrote it across the green chalkboard with yellow chalk. The prompt overtook me. Words poured onto lined pages, and when I shared before my class, I realized I had done the literal most. Each of my peers penned a paragraph. My story was four pages front and back. There were plot twists and character arcs and big words. My propensity for words introduced itself then.
This essay is Thomas Jefferson declaring all men are free while owning people. This essay is Donald Trump calling himself a stable genius. This essay is a white woman using white words to showcase a problem she doesn’t face. Or she does, but only as an observer and never as the affected. I want to acknowledge the blatant contradiction of this essay before moving forward within it.
Someone wiser than I am pointed out that if a concept is not accessible to the poor it is neither revolutionary nor radical. To be clear, I’m not demonizing people for enriching their vocabularies. You should to that. What I’m saying is that these words are taught in classrooms. More are likely taught in wealthier classrooms. So when one group of people articulates in a favorable way, it’s likely a product of a school system that favored them. Our language is the tell of where we come from. Our backgrounds douse our expressions, accents, length of sentences, and choice of words. Our roots have a sound.
It is a sign of obedience, rather than intellect, to speak in the tongue of the oppressor. Good speech is characterized by whiteness, by maleness. This echoes when people call me articulate. I am a woman. My speech should be peppered with “likes” and “ums”– the flavor of uncertainty that only oppression can provide. But it’s not. My words are fire. My tongue is a gun. Each of my fingers is a footsoldier. Nothing about me is passive, and yet, I pass. I am accepted, if not embraced, in so many oppressive systems. I struggle to reconcile that. Additionally, this explains why white people insist on hailing black people who speak without a “blaccient” as articulate. What is intended to be a compliment is racist. It says, “black people don’t speak well”. But I think the real answer is that the language of the marginalized is always rebellion.
I am referring to all the words the marginalized have made from the scraps of the privilege. All the leftovers that became high cuisine in the mouth of another. I’m talking about how hip-hop music has subverted slurs to poetry. I’m talking about the ways people of color affirm each other that fall deaf on white ears because the sentiment is too sacred. I am referencing when an immigrant speaks broken English, it is a way of saying that even after the assimilation, you cannot rip the homeland away from my tongue. It is always there, the native flag on foreign soil. This is gay people creating their own lingo, often reclaiming all the words weaponized against them. The academy would have us believe that the most powerful language is the institutional. It is not. It is all the words that once had sharp edges that have become keys. Powerful is not limited to big words. It is on the impact of them, their arrangement, their context. The best language is not the whitest language, is not the richest tongue, is not the most oppressive of cadences, is not the most institutionalized of voices. The perspective is not better when bleached.
Then, there are the ways that the dominant party co-opts oppressed language for funzies. This is straight women speaking in a kiki voice and using gay terms like “hunty”, “queen”, and “the tea”. While not straight, I am one of those women. I know where those words hail from– trace the ball culture through my speech, remember how these rights came from trans women of color, and that these words are how queer people took their power back. I also recall a shirt saying “White girls talking like gay guys talking like black girls” which is to say that oppressed groups take from each other, and this all moves up the line– closer to privilege. This is white people being vehement about using the N word when reciting rap songs. PSA: White people, don’t do it! I don’t care if it’s with an “a” instead of a hard R. You are not Jay nor Drake. Just, no. Stop. Language is a part of the resistance. When a dominant party has no stake in the resistance and no interest in participating in that activism, co-opting marginalized language trivializes the cause. It becomes a game more than a necessity.
We call “smart” a yardstick when it’s a multidimensional spiderweb. We are all capable. We grow and atrophy, only to grow once more. There are no chosen people. I am not saying that we aren’t inclined to certain disciplines. Rather, that we’re persuaded to believe that prodigy equals potential. No. Additionally, privileged does not equate to talent. Privilege does not mean better, only more resources.
The struggle is when those resources come at the price of your community. I’m talking about when poor people leave their backgrounds, they often exchange their citizenship in their impoverished communities– in vying for societal advancement, they sacrifice their social belonging and affiliation. This is the societal perception: you have to leave to get better. I don’t agree with that, but then again, I’ve never really lived in the rough part of town. You don’t talk in the tongue of the neighborhood anymore. You think you’re better with a fancy paper or two. I’m talking about the grief immigrants experience if/when they dream outside of their native language. How you’ve oscillated from one land to another, and now, you don’t feel belonging to either. How sad it is to have two addresses but no home.
I hail from a middle-class upbringing, and still, the professional workplace is a land of jargon and performance. We’re all insecure about our work product, and it jingles in all the niche phrases we say, as others smile and nod– whether they understand it or not. Jargon is trash. It’s dumb. It is the giant neon sign shouting “HEY I’M A PROFESSIONAL”. But abusing words and phrases like “proactive”, “let’s unpack that”, “bandwidth”, “thought leadership”, and “synergy” does not qualify a competent worker. I think we default to this because in the capitalist landscape, we’re told we are our work. We are our productivity. We are not. We are people, valid based solely upon our existence and not based off of the degree systems can profit off of us. I am a low-level employee, and frankly, I don’t have the clout to critique this. But hell, I roll my eyes every time these phrases are uttered. I cannot help but wonder when we’re hiding in this professional theater. And then, there is academia. If private industry is a glutton for jargon, academia binges on it to the extreme. Again, I’m not a professor, or a dean or a president of a university. But I refuse to believe that anything profound requires overwrought language. I think we’re mangling concepts in convoluting them. Say the thing. Make it easy. Sentences don’t need to be puzzles to be intellectually rigorous. And I should know because (not to brag or anything) but I have a bachelors degree in liberal arts.
I adore words. I gorge myself on books, poems, instaposts, all music genres–whatever I can get my hands on and lick my fingers until the flavor has left. Syllables ring in my head and my mind is a library of concepts I haven’t birthed yet. I am a good writer. I am a good speaker. But complex, dense sentences packed with jargon convey nothing outside of pompousness and exclusivity. Never forget that all of the most powerful phases are the most simple: I am proud of you. I love you. I miss you. Goodbye. I exert so much intellectual labor assembling sentences that are grandiose– for fear they won’t be significant otherwise.
I’m not done with big words. I’m probably a pompous ass for it. But I don’t think you should have to use them that way. Use the words that form your feelings on paper. If that’s “fuck” write that. Make sound of all the electric sensations inside of you, and if “yes” is enough, then it is enough. We do not exist to be prophets or prodigies. Our work here is to be people. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in a pissing contest over who is the smartest– wrangling all the obscure, esoteric phases until my point is lost in all the opulent words.
This essay is all contradictions and no conclusions. I am critiquing society through the same vein I advance within it. After I publish this, I’ll retreat until my pretty words. And yes, I will check people who make fun of accents, who taunt broken English, who mock the many ways people communicate. But this is the essay of a white, middle-class woman. This is the highest of privilege: to illuminate a problem and still be its beneficiary.