The Cosplay Feminist

June 2012 archive

On language dysphoria

In old home movies, I see a shy little girl, following her self-assured brother, and I don’t recognize her voice at all. She hadn’t learned yet that the language she spoke would make everyone judge her—her intelligence, her friendliness, her professionalism, her “place” in life. She had a wildly bizarre accent (the result of living in two different countries while learning to speak) and it didn’t silence her. That accent would transform into a metropolitan North Texan dialect, complete with mild drawling and a whole lotta ain’ts, y’alls, and fixin’ tos.

Somewhere around high school, I realized that the way I spoke was wrong, or at the very least, not the best way to speak. It didn’t occur to me to question this state of affairs, in part because the place I love best, the classroom, was the primary place that I learned this fact. So I slowly, laboriously, and, most tragic of all, successfully changed my language, my speech, my way of knowing. My language didn’t match my life experience or my identity anymore, but I didn’t grieve this for years.

I grew up poor. Not homeless, food pantry poor, but WIC, free lunch at school programs, fairly used to having our water or electricity turned off poor. I went to a good high school, with a lot of upper-middle and middle class students, and so I got a cultural education that allowed me to pass. I could navigate the culturally oppressive education system with ease, and I was smart. But this didn’t change the fact that all my smart friends from high school would be going to private schools or University of Texas, while I applied to a second-rate state school, Stephen F. Austin, because I knew I couldn’t pay for anything better. When a rich relative stepped in and offered to pay for all of my college halfway through, I jumped at the chance and promptly transferred to Southwestern, a prestigious private school in Texas.

At Southwestern, there are very few students with my economic background. Most of those poor students were also transfer students. Southwestern students are primarily white, primarily upper and upper-middle class. One of my best friends there had a multi-million dollar trust fund. These people all had nice cars, their parents had nice homes, and few of them were cowed by the $35,000 sticker price of this school. I remember the transfer students of my class became friends by default, a kind of survival strategy in a completely alien environment. I remember balking as semester after semester, my teachers required $600-700 in books, for all English and philosophy classes! (I shudder to think of the textbook costs for science and math majors there.) I remember having these surreal conversations with friends and fellow students, where they simply didn’t seem to understand life on the other side. Where they would express shock that I didn’t have health insurance, that I hadn’t for much of my life. I remember a fellow student just in awe that I had never had braces despite crooked teeth; that boy just couldn’t comprehend that poor families don’t do shit like that unless the teeth are going to plain fall out of my head unless I got them. I remember visiting friends’ houses and exclaiming at how nice or big they were. And I remember feeling embarrassed for noting it, because it clearly made my friends uncomfortable when I reminded them of their privilege and advantages.

By this time, my Texas dialect was wholly gone. If I didn’t bring it up, no one at Southwestern would know that my identity and my experience was completely different than theirs. And while I was proud that I could pass, because this meant greater opportunities for me, it also ate at me. Like, deep in my soul gnawed at me. I felt a kind of language dysphoria; the language I spoke, even in casual settings, was like this school—it didn’t acknowledge, represent, reflect my experience. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, but I did cling furiously to the one sign of linguistic difference I had: swearing, which was way more normal (as far as I can tell) in my home and the homes of my poor friends than it was in the homes of more privileged Southwestern students.

Classroom spaces at Southwestern were so different than those at Stephen F. Austin; they were liberating, open, discussion-based. They expected students to participate in the learning environment, and contrasted sharply with the authoritarian, teacher-as-authority, behind-the-podium classrooms of my previous institution. So I swore. A lot. I got emotional. For the most part, my teachers encouraged this, because I always brought that emotional, experience-based language and speech to bear on the academic material. But many of my fellow students thought I was being unsophisticated and unintellectual.

A children’s literature class was the most hostile to my language; my teacher encouraged me, but many students were openly dismissive of me because of the way I spoke. I didn’t show proper respect, not only by swearing, but by becoming emotional, by relating the material to my life experiences, by refusing canon its due deference. By swearing, though, I revealed myself to them as trash, and that was the real issue. If I had spoken the way they did, we could have a discussion about our different positions on the literature we were reading without the open hostility. I was letting my background show, and many of these students failed to see that my background wasn’t just something I wanted to overcome. My experiences made me who I am. Even if I don’t want them to prescribe my future, it was futile and harmful to disown them.

In graduate school, I realized that my dialect was gone. I have made efforts to retrieve it, but it feels uncomfortable in my mouth. I can only partially reclaim it, and I grieve that loss. With it, I’ve lost a part of who I am and who I used to be. And with that loss, I am left only with the language of oppression, so-called standard English. And I don’t think I’ll ever feel at home with it.

Further reading:

Conference on College Composition and Communication, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” 1974.

bell hooks, “Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words,” Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994), 167-175.

Job announcement

Normally this is a little mundane for the blog, but since you’ve all helped me so much, I figured you would be interested: I have two adjunct jobs for the fall! They don’t start until September, but I will be teaching 4 sections of freshmen composition, maybe more. That means we’ll be stable after I start getting paid in October, and with Jeremy getting a job, we’ll be able to save enough to survive another summer and move to wherever he’s attending school. It’s very exciting!

I’ve been getting a rash of trolls on this blog telling me that I deserve to die/starve for the extreme crimes of making career decisions they don’t agree with, owning a computer, and having the gall to write and connect with other people. But my readers have donated $500 so far to help me eat and pay my bills, and that kind of generosity and compassion could steel me against anything. Thank you for your support, even if it was just an email, a comment of sympathy, or telling me to keep writing. You all mean a lot to me.

Conversations I have on Twitter

An abbreviated conversation with a random douchebag on Twitter.

Random Asshole @Shadowgbq: *reads my Tumblr post calling Rand Paul a bag of dicks for wanting to cut food stamps, because of one case of fraud*

Random Asshole: But don’t you liberals want money to go to not-corporations?

Me: Haha, fuck off. Not supporting food stamps is evil. I’m not going to fall for any “ooga booga CORPORATIONS” argument that end in eliminating food stamps.

Random Asshole: You’re not being fair to my argument!

Me: Whatever, dude. If Libertarians had their way, I would have starved to death already. Paul wants to get rid of the only reason I can eat right now.

Random Asshole: It’s selfish of you to base your politics on your personal needs and wealth.

Me: My politics here are “everyone deserves to eat.” Just because I’m part of “everyone” doesn’t make my politics selfish.

Me: I don’t buy libertarian arguments about poverty. They’re stupid as fuck, like the Pauls arguing that we can eliminate government assistance and private charities will feed the poors.

Random Asshole: SHOW ME ONE PLACE WHERE THEY SAY THAT. Libertarians don’t say that!

Me: *sends three links* Is your Google broke?

Random Asshole: And what? I’m supposed to send shallow links to argue with you?

Me: The fuck are you talking about? I just answered your demand. I’m not engaging with this moronic argument; I just said they made it.

Random Asshole: You said they said there would be NO poverty because private charities would feed ALL poor people. QED.

Me: Yeah, hyperbole has NO PLACE on Twitter. 140 characters totes lends itself to complexities.

Random Asshole: Well, I think you’re a bully and I always wished that bullies would end up hungry and dependent. Guess I got my wish.

Me: You don’t see how cruel it is to tell a hungry person that you hope they stay that way? Fuck you.

Random Asshole: But I give tax-deductible money to charities! That makes me compassionate!

Me: BLOCK.

And scene.