Texts in Conflict

by Adia Samba-Quee
Photo of Adia Samba-Quee

Adia is a Political Science Major with a Minor in Africana Studies from Springfield, MA. In writing this essay, Adia was able to “reflect on my relation with writing and how I am perceived as an individual through my writing. I consider letting go of my prideful and embarrassing ego a huge factor in my development.” Like many students, Adia felt the remote learning semesters to be “historically bad on my mental health.” Efforts and interest in school fluctuated wildly and “I didn’t think I’d made much of an impact on my professors this year.” But, Adia is “learning a lot about myself as of this moment, and I think one of the passions that has stuck with me is learning, creating, and engaging.” Adia is a dedicated writer who has befriended some active writers who are around the same age, and they have made a conscious effort to “feel comfortable writing things they want to read and not what others want to,” which this essay hopefully reflects. Adia also enjoys engaging with others through work and school: “Whether it is one on one interactions or events for my online community, I enjoy knowing I made someone feel good because I feel good in turn.”

It was the last five minutes of my Fall Semester English 102 Zoom lecture when I implored my professor about the implications of James Gee’s thoughts on “Discourses.” Maybe it is because I have the poor habit of finding issue in between the lines, but I had felt the entire text was firstly, incredibly vague (a characteristic I thought I had to get used to regarding academic text) and secondly, underestimated the role of the secondary discourse, which I had interpreted as dialects Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) use at home to talk to their community members.

My professor, at the time, dismissed my concerns and simply asked me to reread the text to get a better understanding of Gee’s ideas. And although I reread it, and still felt just as slighted as before, it wasn’t until I was introduced to “Should Writers Use They Own English” where I finally could process not only my own feelings about the text but grasp the full extent of Gee’s thoughts on language. The authors butt heads consistently in this discussion, to my own satisfaction. And through Vershawn Ashanti Young’s eloquent blend of Chicago slang and “standard English,” he challenges most, if not all, of James Gee’s theories introduced in “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics Introduction,” as well as questions the cultures and norms we are prioritizing and shutting out of academic writing.

In his introduction, Gee describes what a “Discourse” is to the reader; essentially the practice of speaking, behaving, valuing, and believing through language, helping language come alive (Gee 7). “These combinations I call “Discourses,” with a capital “D” (“discourse,” with a little “d,” to me, means connected stretches of language that make sense, so “discourse” is part of “Discourse.” (6) According to Gee, there are two kinds of Discourses. The first one is a primary Discourse, the one we inherit from the home and are used to all the time. It’s the one closest to our truest selves. Dominant Discourses are Discourses that society at large will use; this kind of Discourse can grant opportunities and help an individual advance in their careers, achieve in academic institutions, and overall climb the social ladder (Gee 8). Gee wants the reader to associate Discourses regarding college academic writing, think graduate school programs or even upper-level undergraduate classes, with Discourses that can uplift an individual and provide them access to prestigious places. He further emphasizes this point when discussing “middle-class mainstream sorts of Discourses” which can bring “power and prestige” (8). By attaching a class to this term, he continues to allude to mastery of a dominant Discourse as something one should strive for in life if they wish to be successful.

However, as proven time and time again by Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) in the writing field, what we know as million-dollar language has a direct correlation to the delayed admittance of marginalized races and ethnic groups in higher level institutions. Even with classmates in my Africana Studies class, when we mock and scorn the expensive vocabularies of some of the history books we have to read, we refer to these explicitly Black texts as texts littered with “white people talk.” Despite our light-hearted remarks, the proliferation of academic language in all kinds of required literature proves society can only show one way of being “smart.” The primary Discourses of young BIPOC in schools, the one’s they’ve spent their entire lives using, winning arguments against their siblings, defending themselves to their parents, entertaining their friends and classmates, allegedly can’t get them ahead in life. But Young rejects this entirely, and instead blames the narrow-minded lens that the academic world looks through when judging what kind of writing is legitimate. “A whole lot of folk could be writin and speaking real, real smart if Fish and others stopped tryna use one prescriptive, foot long ruler to measure the language of peeps who use a yardstick” (Young 112). Young expresses the limits academic elites put on themselves and on those who attempt to “break into” these spheres. He notices not all students, especially students of color who have grown accustomed to their own rules of speaking and thinking, thrive in academic spaces. Young even suspects their plan is to ostracize them, and therefore keep them from advancing. At least the way Gee thinks, they would be able to ditch their own language and adopt others. But Young would wildly disagree with Gee’s claim that dominant Discourses are the only ones that can bring someone places; Young sees the potential for secondary Discourses in a much more flexible point of view than Gee.

The biggest point of contention I have with Gee’s Discourse argument is the capabilities he claims a primary Discourse possesses. “Primary Discourses… can never really be liberating. For a literacy to be liberating it must contain both the Discourse it is going to critique and a set of meta elements … in terms of which an analysis and criticism can be carried out” (Gee 10). From my understanding, Gee tries to outline what is needed in order for a primary Discourse to be analyzed. No one can fully fathom the extent of their own language were it not for access of another language to borrow terminology from; you have to take a step back in order to see the full picture. I am aware of the technical terms he equipped in order to explain this point; and to a certain degree it does make sense how an individual exposed to only one Discourse can only properly critique itself if it had language completely divorced from its own to truly pick itself apart. However, this argument implies that members of a primary Discourse live in their own vacuum hidden from the real world, which isn’t truly how being a minority in the United States works.

We are exposed to what society considers “standard English” at or around the same time our primary Discourse is established for us, and I would even argue both are developed as we grow older. Articles like Stanley Fish’s defending the sanctity of the written word to whomever in the New York Times comment section is willing to listen follow us at every turn, and even Young’s main motivation for his writing is to offer the students affirmation in their “broken” English. (Yes, Young interspersed English vocabulary words in his monograph to make points about conventions used in others’ writings.) But Gee fails to recognize a liberating literacy can be liberating for the user in their own head. Not having the language to analyze itself only applies to written analyses. When the nation drills into your head that there is only one correct way of thinking, of acting, of speaking, and of believing, it is highly unlikely kids growing up with this rhetoric are not constantly aware of the space they take up and why the country seems to take issue with it. Before BIPOC children can even realize what is an acceptable way of existing, they have been implicitly or explicitly told the way they do it is wrong. And let’s say one of them manages to write out on paper their own critique of their primary Discourse; Gee makes it very clear there is no benefit of fluent dominant Discourse speakers to attempt to gain knowledge about Discourses that won’t grant them any status or accolades. So who is to say these primary Discourse speakers are being properly understood by the “powers that be”?

One of the views that overlap between Gee and Young’s writings is the concept of combined Discourses: what happens when you are introduced to two languages at the same time, and you fail to master both? For Gee, that result is a “mushfake” Discourse; and for Young, that result is code-meshing. The definition of a mushfake Discourse is a way of speaking, writing, thinking, being that is formed as an adaptation to a secondary Discourse in order to get by when a dominant Discourse couldn’t be grappled with (Gee 13). The intermingling of Black New England vernacular with professional office job language, for a job in the city, is an example of this. While for Young; code-meshing is an accurate alternative to the misconstrued concept of code-switching. Code-meshing is the combination of multiple dialects from all parts of an individual’s life that can and should be used at all times (Young 114). It allows for the speaker to articulate themselves in a way that feels natural and right for them while also encouraging the listener to explore a Discourse that’s unfamiliar to them. Young’s entire piece, and the few more he cites, are prime examples of code-meshing at work. Although similar concepts, Gee and Young still have very different ideas on how the two should be used. The definition of a mushfake lends itself to expressing when he thinks they are appropriate to be used: “do with something less when the real thing is not available” (Gee 13). To Gee, to resort to a mushfake Discourse means you have failed to properly adapt to the demands of a dominant Discourse, and you must craft a makeshift one when true acquisition isn’t an option. He then goes on to describe an example of pointing out the rules of the “game” (corporate etiquette one can assume) in a job interview to throw the interviewer of their rhythm and make use of the hyperawareness a Black job candidate fluent in their respective mushfake Discourse has to secure their position (13).

Although useful and clever, the description Gee provides has an air of shiftiness; to combine multiple Discourses from a variety of sources and therefore connotations mean there’s an intention to trick the elites, trick the outsiders. Can it be used for that purpose? Absolutely. Is that its sole purpose? Not according to Young, who argues this shouldn’t be used for the benefit of one party and the detriment of another; code-meshing should be normalized as time goes on and proves to be advantageous to all parties. As language changes and grows over time, so should our attitudes towards them change and grow. Not only does code-meshing allow for “writers and speakers to bridge multiple codes and modes of expression that Fish say be disparate and unmixable” but gives BIPOC the chance to demonstrate the skills they’ve always had access to but never an audience willing to witness (Young 116).

Overall, while analyzing both articles, I saw a myriad of back-talk happening between the two authors that inspired me to explore their debate in these texts. Gee’s writing was not unimportant as it taught me how to have more critical relationships with the language I use and what it says about the groups I am a part of, but Young’s writing reminded me of the very institutions Gee upholds with his Discourse theory. There was a very specific insidious reason why academia can feel so foreign for me and the people in my community, and every day I urge myself to break those rules. I couldn’t help but go back to Gee’s ideas of letting members in and out of Discourses and wonder if any good could come out of it. Although I indulged myself by reading Young’s colloquial-laced work aloud and getting through it twice as fast as I usually would, the discomfort of nonblack people possibly taking this and running with it sat in the back of my head the entire time. I’m not one to believe in gatekeeping, and what I want most of all is to be understood. I am curious to what extent will letting outsiders into our world, a world that bears the product of years of mistreatment and oppression, come back to hurt us. Young’s enthusiasm assuages much more than concerns, but we know all too well the dangers of offering ourselves way more than we have to.

Works Cited

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse,and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education (Boston, Mass.), vol. 171, no. 1, Boston University School of Education, 1989, pp. 5–176.

Young, Vershawn A. “Should Writers Use They Own English?.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (2010): 110-117.