White Fears of Dispossession: Dreyer's English, The Elements of Style, and the Racial Mapping of English Discourse

How to Cite

Lisabeth, L. (2019). White Fears of Dispossession: Dreyer’s English, The Elements of Style, and the Racial Mapping of English Discourse. Radical Teacher, 115, 21–26. https://doi.org/10.5195/rt.2019.673


Dreyer's English, by Benjamin Dreyer, the Senior Copy Editor for Random House, and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style are two extraordinarily popular and commercially successful guides to English language usage that belong to a genre best described as discursive maps for language as racialized, classed and gendered territory. This review traces the history of these books to the nineteenth century "conversation handbooks" and etiquette guides that became popular in a time of shifting class boundaries Precise prescriptives for behavior and for polite conversation helped the aspirational middle-class groom themselves for genteel company. Many of these guides were published during the Reconstruction Era, and were filled with dispositions toward correct language that communicate a kind of outrage from fear of social, cultural and economic dispossession, a telltale mark of White Supremacy. These dispositions still exist in the rhetoric of both Dreyer and E.B. White and are carried through the structural racism of standardized English into educational spaces. 

Discourses of meritocracy are found in both the classroom and the global neoliberal workplace where "English has been turned into a product (in all senses of the word)..."Though the promotion of English is presented as a way of expanding one’s multilingual resources, it reduces one’s repertoire, as it is often learned/taught at the cost of local languages” (Canagarajah 13). As Canagarajah sees "multilingual communities [finding] spaces for voice, renegotiation, and resistance” (Translingual Practices 56), so can we make students aware of the gatekeeping and power of English by sharing its historical context.





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