Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 10: The Double Standard of Language

WEEK 10 – AUGUST 5, 2020

Hi friends!

Can’t believe we’ve hit double digits in newsletters and also can’t believe that means the summer is winding down, the milestones we’d set at the beginning of this expedition have all elapsed (we both moved), and soon enough we’ll both be heading back to school (Ellie to teach high schoolers in Denver; Emily in her third year of law school in SC). We are so thankful to be in this weird chapter alongside all 700 of you and hope that as we adapt to our bi-monthly meetings, you will continue to read, tell your friends about this newsletter, and make anti-racist choices as a part of your daily life. 

Our former professor and truly just the coolest person, Chenjerai, tweeted something Monday morning that made us think about how we frame our conversations this week about racism and double standards. As we’ve talked about from day one, we don’t believe that racism is something we “do” or “are;” we believe it manifests in the systems around us and is something we can both perpetuate and disrupt. Similarly, anti-racism isn’t a destination, it’s a series of choices that chip away at the systems that are steeped in racism. In our journey of adopting anti-racism as a core component of our daily lives, we are trying to interrupt racism whenever we see it, and create new pathways to making the world safer, more accessible, and more just, particularly for people who have been disproportionately excluded and discriminated against since the construction of race in the 17th Century

“When we say “X is racist” I wonder if the most confusing word is “is.” Saying “is racist” seems to invite us into strange convos or about folks’ psychology or their “hearts.” Saying “supports/creates” (laws, policies representations etc.) invites us to consider actions & impact” @catchatweetdown

Over the next few weeks, as we talk about the double standards of racism, we want to hold fast to the idea of racism as something that is supported/created by these double standards, not that the people who perpetuate these double standards simply “are” racists. As we try to think more deeply about what it means to perpetuate racism, rather than to simply be racist, we want to be able to see our words, actions, and ourselves as things that are capable of changing.

This week, we’re talking about the double standard of language: how this double standard shapes our experiences with everything from professionalism to friendship to how we express ourselves in real life and on the internet. However, we are first going to dig into our words of the week sooner in the newsletter than usual to help us unpack the double standard of language.


Word we are learning

What is AAVE?
AAVE (African American Vernacular English) or “Ebonics” (Ebony phonics) is Black English spoken largely in Black communities and it has existed as a language (though it is “patronizingly” called a dialect according to James Baldwin)  since Black people were first enslaved in the United States. Journalist and UVA/USC graduate Joshua Adams explains that Black English came about largely because enslaved Africans were “forced to learn a second language (English) almost exclusively through oral means and without formal instruction,” thus producing a language that “reconciled both the differences between English and the different African mother tongues.” James Baldwin eloquently argued why Black English should be recognized as a language in this essay, saying, “A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.”

Concept we are unlearning
That AAVE/Ebonics is improper English/bad grammar

Why are we unlearning this?This comprehensive study from Stanford refutes the popular notion that AAVE is “Standard English with mistakes,” a widely-held stance that Ellie and Emily have both been guilty of believing. It is often viewed (because of White Supremacy Culture) as “improper English” or “bad grammar” when used by Black People, yet it is co-opted and appropriated by white and non-Black people in the name of “pop culture.” We want to interrupt that bias that we’ve all been taught this week. AAVE/Black slang is a distinct and valid language of its own. 

While the intent isn’t inherently racist (as with many things we are learning about on our journey as anti-racists) to speak, text, or tweet AAVE terms/phrases as a white person, it upholds a system of racism; AAVE is still consistently seen as ignorant when Black people use it in professional or academic settings, while it’s “hip” and “cool” when White people use phrases like, “on fleek,” “go off sis,” or “yeet.” 

This double standard of language has only been heightened with the surge and popularization of meme-culture. Perhaps unwittingly, meme-culture, social media, and hip-hop have all converged in a manner that empowers white people to use terms that derive from AAVE without knowing the terms origins. Additionally, when AAVE originated terms turned meme/social media lingo are considered “outdated” or “no longer cool,” this “ultimately reflects[s] a lack of appreciation for the African American speech community’s language, culture, and art forms by the cultural hegemony.” In other words, as white people, we pick and choose when the language cushions our social status and can discard terms from our lexicon when they no longer serve us.


So often, where it’s risky for Black people to use their own language, non-black people have the privilege of picking and choosing terms, using these terms to sound “cool.” We (Ellie and Emily) have talked to each other and our friends ad nauseum about this; both about how incredible it is to live in a world where the slang used by historically marginalized people (read: Black, and particularly Black-LGBTQIA+ folx) has become mainstream, AND that there is something inherently appropriative about being two white women using these words on a regular basis. We want to unpack this double standard: how using certain words allows young white people to gain “clout,” while these same words and patterns of speaking have been used to discriminate against the very people who coined them for generations. 

As white people, we get to use words derived from AAVE almost as a costume, wearing it when it benefits us in social situations and on the internet, while knowing that using it will not detract from being seen as professional, responsible, or generally remove us from our place of privilege in society. We get to perform Blackness with our language, without ever having to acknowledge societal and institutional barriers that Black people have been up against for centuries. In fact, this double standard leads many Black people to knowingly code-switch so as not to be viewed as “uneducated.” In a world where adhering to whiteness, which is notably expressed through tone and language (read: King’s English), has been rendered the only valid way to express oneself professionally, code-switching is a means of survival. Code-switching is the term used to describe switching between language systems, particularly notable in Black and Latinx communities as young people switch between their native tongue (whether that be AAVE, Spanish, or another language) and “King’s English.” 

We are not taking an “it is inherently bad to use AAVE as a white person” stance here necessarily, but rather encouraging our readers to evaluate the role that language plays – as a tool that allows the elevation of some of us and the discrimination of others. We want to investigate the origins of these terms, making sure to give credit where it’s due and address any racism regarding the use of AAVE when we hear or see it. 


This fall, as some school districts are being forced to go back to in-person instruction in the midst of a global pandemic, teachers and schools are in dire need of supplies to help keep themselves and their students safe and healthy. As we know, Covid-19 disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people, so keeping students safe and healthy IS anti-racist work. ClearTheList supports teachers nationwide by helping clear their back-to-school wishlists for school supply needs. As teachers and students face a very unique back-to-school-season, it’s clear that the supplies teachers need will also be unique (think: an endless supply of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer). 

Clorox, in partnership with ClearTheList Foundation, is donating $1,000,000 to help clear classroom items off teachers’ lists this back-to-school season. Clorox will give up to $500 per list to help equip teachers and students with the right supplies. 

You can help by donating directly to ClearTheList, entering your local school(s) into the Clorox sweepstakes, or encouraging teachers you know (like Ellie!) to apply for a grant with their school-supply needs.  


Before the pandemic, 140 million people were experiencing poverty or were one emergency away from it. Now, millions across the country are faced with unemployment, accompanied by the risk of eviction, hunger, and economic disaster. During the worst public health crisis of our lifetime and an economic recession that rivals the Great Depression, hundreds of millions of Americans lack access to guaranteed healthcare, housing, or any form of economic relief. Since March, “more than 50 million unemployment claims have been filed. At least 27 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance, joining the 87 million who were already uninsured or underinsured. The moratorium on evictions has expired and a wave evictions will hit undocumented people, poor renters and people of color first and worst. The $600 unemployment payments that have kept 30 million people afloat have also expired.” Call Mitch McConnell through the Poor People’s Campaign’s easy resource and tell him that his constituents (particularly if you self-identify as Republican!) demand relief for our communities in this time of such enormous crisis. Talking points will be provided through this resource!


Since we’re sending this out a little later than usual, it feels important to put our readers on alert of a tragedy yesterday. On Tuesday, August 4, an explosion at a warehouse in Beirut, Lebanon killed at least 100 people and injured at least 4000, all still while the country fights its own battle with covid-19. This explosion displaced 300,000 people across the city. If you feel inclined to donate or to learn more, we have linked some resources here. 

  • Impact Lebanon is raising funds to support local NGOs that work in disaster relief in Lebanon (donate + share)
  • HelpLebanon.Carrd has ample resources and places to donate, including the Lebanese Red Cross (donate + share)
  • Thawramap maps all the places where peaceful protests and disasters take place and they are currently posting available beds for displaced persons in Beirut to stay in for the time being (share)
  • @LocateVictimsBeirut is a grassroots local effort to find and identify people who went missing as a result of the blasts (share) 


Beginning Thursday, July 30th at sundown was the Islamic holy celebration of Eid Al-Ahda, the “Feast of the Sacrifice”. This holiday honors the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismael as an act of obedience to God’s command (to compare to Judaism and Christianity, we’re talking about Abraham and Isaac, per Genesis 22:2). Before Ibrahim could sacrifice his son, God provided a lamb to sacrifice on the mountain instead. In commemoration of God’s intervention, an animal (usually a sheep) is sacrificed ritually in accordance with the holiday. One third of its meat is consumed by the family offering the sacrifice, while the rest is distributed to the poor and needy. Families and friends give each other sweets and gifts, and (in non-Covid years) extended families visit each other for the holiday

Why are you telling us about a Muslim holiday in this anti-racist newsletter?

Islamophobia and racism are closely connected (see: the post-911 spike in hate crimes, specifically toward Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, or people presumed to be Arab or Muslim). As we unpack and unlearn racism, it is important that we unlearn xenophobia related to the intersections of race and religion as well. By learning about holidays and customs in other cultures, we build a deeper appreciation for our shared humanity (and some of you are employers, neighbors, coworkers, fellow gym-members, etc. with people who practice Islam. It is simply the kind thing to do to acknowledge (and allow vacation days for) someone else’s sacred holiday or day to gather with loved ones). 

What can we do to acknowledge these holidays in the future?

Our friend Rachel (of the White People Weekly email that we’ve linked here before) often reminds her employers and coworkers that she is Jewish and she would like them to simply peek at a calendar of Jewish holidays before they schedule major events so that she does not have to choose between a holy day in her belief system and an important event for work.  We’re not going to know it all, but there is nothing to lose in doing your coworkers, neighbors and friends the very small kindness of knowing that today might be a holy day for them and their loved ones. You can look up and mark your calendars with Jewish holidays here, Muslim holidays here, Buddhist holidays here, Sikh holidays here, Hindu holidays here, and Google any others that we have missed. 

Disclaimer: It’s Still NOT About You!!!

This isn’t about “knowing” about other religions so much as it is about a small (but big) kindness of acknowledging that someone else’s holy celebration is just as valid and important as your own. It’s great to know other religions’ holidays and it’s great to send your friends a quick “Eid Mubarak, I am thankful for you!” message on those days. However, resist the urge to make someone’s holy day a day you are asking for them to educate you. Google is your friend! We can honor and celebrate the cultures around us without demanding more labor from our friends who have grown up existing within them and without appropriating them (a fine line, but a really beautiful one to figure out as you go, coming from a Christian gal who grew up having Passover Seders at my church each year – Emily).


Primary Resource

Supplemental Resources

  • 12 Words Black People Invented and White People Killed – Obviously this is an opinion piece with a click-baity title but it’s got some good insights about knowing the origins of words before we use them. – “As a general rule, if you have to ask whether or not it’s OK to use a word, if there’s any hesitation, then don’t. But also, we should all be aware of where these words come from and what they mean without attributing arbitrary definitions to them.
  • The Double Standards of Cultural Appropriation – There are countless examples of cultural appropriation we can point to in pop culture (boxer braids seen as “edgy” on white women and “unprofessional” on Black women, for example) and this article hones in on how Danielle Bregori (“cash me outside” girl) capitalized on a language + culture that was not hers in order to capitalize. 

Other Resources We Loved

  • I think naturally Black booksellers are going to be more focused on the community than the dollars and cents. I also recognize that Black bookselling is a different beast. We’re just making our own way.” — DL Mullen, owner of Semicolon Bookstore, profiled in the Chicago Reader this week (thank you Bridget Gamble for putting this in the Be Whelmed newsletter this week – Emily loved it!)
  • And if you haven’t watched John Lewis: Good Trouble yet, you can check out this sweet clip of Rep. Lewis dancing when he thought others weren’t watching


We wanted to clue you in on another really helpful opportunity that’s aligned with last week’s theme of anti-racism being political. Furman University has a series of lectures called Straight Talk and this September, you can attend any of three Zoom seminars about voting: fighting for the right to vote, when politicians choose the voters, and election integrity. We both plan to jump on as many as possible so if you are interested, too, you can register here! (And afterwards, we’d love to chat about it – if you register, reply to this email so we can all circle up later!). 

Well, that’s all for now, folks! No dialogue this Sunday, but we’ll circle up again next week, on Sunday, August 16. As always, here’s our anonymous question form for anyone who isn’t quite comfortable asking a question in a dialogue or to us directly, and here’s our website with an archive of all our newsletters to make it easier to share with friends. And if someone forwarded you this newsletter and you want to sign up to get newsletters directly, you can do so here

Stay safe out there. We are rooting for you!

In Solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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