“Wow. That was so powerful and well-written!”
A huge grin lit up my face. My friend’s parents—who were visiting for Pomona College’s Family Weekend—complimented my opinions piece on American neocolonialism in TSL's Feb. 17 issue.
“You must have used a really big thesaurus.”
My smile faltered. Of course, I thought to myself. It’s because I’m not from “here,” because my skin doesn’t look like yours, because my name rings foreign to your ears. Apparently, that means words like “ubiquitous”, “neo-colonialist”, and “aquamarine” are no longer mine to use.
Their patronizing comments left a harsh taste in my mouth. Still, I figured that they didn’t intend any malice. In order to prevent a potentially awkward social situation, I forcibly swallowed my discontent, nodded curtly, and plastered on a tight-lipped smile.
For us students of color—especially those who identify as international—backhanded compliments regarding English proficiency are commonplace.
You’d think that at Pomona College, an institution dominated by a 'politically correct' culture, this would not be the case. Yet, some of my classmates are shocked that I’m from the Philippines. Upon further elaboration, they always assume I’m a Filipino-American living in California, primarily because I “speak well in discussions.” Last semester, one of my professors commented on the fact that I “write as well as a lot of the Americans” in my class.
What students, professors, and parents fail to realize is that I spoke both Tagalog and English as a little kid. This stems from the Americanization of the Philippines as a United States colony from 1898 to 1946. On the other hand, some international students acquired English proficiency much later. Considering sociocultural differences across countries, neither narrative is 'superior' to the other.
However, this is a testament to the incredibly diverse linguistic experiences of both international and domestic students of color. In spite of this, many—often, white—Americans make hasty generalizations about our language proficiency through modest expectations disguised as compliments.
Ultimately, this is because many white, middle-to-upper-class Americans speak General American English, an idealized variety that lacks any distinct regional, ethnic, socioeconomic characteristics. Consequently, they possess linguistic privilege, the undue ability to police how 'other' people speak English.
In the United States, English speakers enjoy a variety of advantages: they obtain easier access to mainstream educational institutions, such as intensive preparatory secondary schools and elite college institutions, and English serves as cultural capital—from ordering at a restaurant to communicating with peers in a professional setting.
Consequently, many international students and immigrant families face social, economic, and political pressure to attain English proficiency. For example, my high school Korean classmates spent hours memorizing English vocabulary lists and grammar rules, all to ace their standardized tests and English proficiency exams for selective American universities.
Yet, because of inherent differences in sociocultural upbringing, domestic and international students of color may speak and sound dissimilar to the idealized General American English. This creates a power dynamic, wherein POC-spoken English is belittled by the socio-politically dominant, middle-to-upper-class white Americans. This often manifests in racist, 'comedic' caricatures in television shows and mass media that mock foreign accents.
However, if domestic and international students of color obtain high levels of English proficiency, we still face backlash from middle-to-upper-class white Americans. This is exhibited in backhanded compliments, often abound with qualifying language that trivializes hard work and intelligence. In some cases, the reception may not be complimentary at all.
Tiffany Martinez, a Latinx student at Suffolk University, was accused of plagiarism after using the word “hence” in an essay. To her professor, 'hence' was “not her word.” It belonged to the thesaurus, to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to millions of wealthy white Americans. Just not to her.
Ultimately, this linguistic privilege is grounded on racism, classism and elitism, which undermines the identity of domestic and international students of color.
We domestic and international students of color are tired of swallowing our discontent, nodding curtly, and plastering fake smiles in the face of microaggressions. We deserve to take ownership of our linguistic experience. If English is meant to be a cross-national language, then all individuals, regardless of their race or class, should have equal stake in its usage. In fact, the Western-centric pedestal we place English on must be broken down through increased accessibility for non-English speakers, as well as increased visibility for other languages spoken by ethnic minorities.
In doing so, we can slowly decolonize forms of communication in the United States.
So no, I did not use a thesaurus.
I used “ubiquitous,” “neocolonialist,” and '”aquamarine” because I understood and deliberately chose those words.
Those words are as much mine as they are yours.
Jolo Labio PO '20 is from Manila, Philippines. Catch him every Monday-Thursday at 7:59 AM, furiously sprinting to his 8 a.m. at Mason.