Helping my Immigrant Mother Write an Email Made me Understand How Women of Color are Uniquely Capable of Revolutionizing the English Language

The shortest way to teleport inside someone’s head is by editing their writing. I realized this was true in January of 9th grade when my mom peered at my laptop on the living room couch.

Dikka*,” she asked me, carefully, “How should I tell your teacher that I am concerned about your grade?”

For most Indian-American children, what she just asked me would have been the sentence that begins all nightmares. But I was safe, for two reasons: 1) the crisp 89 that I had gotten on my English midterm would only merit partial death and 2) the word “how” meant she had no clue how to start. So what was the problem? I had no clue either.

Even as a grammar purist with perfect scores on the English and Reading sections of the ACT, I could not escape the enigma of a run-on sentence or a misplaced apostrophe. Like most teenagers, I had downloaded Grammarly to write my emails for me and was more versed in the art of a really funny text to my crush (that would then be left on read) than the email.

Determined to help my mom, I scoured the internet for tips and tutorials on how to write. Next, I made informal lesson plans for her. We started with “To whom it may concern,” moved on to “Please let me know if you have any questions,” covered the difference a colon or a comma could make, and even advanced to how active vs. passive language can completely change the tone of an email. We’d read it once, twice, eight more times until we’d spotted every incorrectly-placed apostrophe and object pronoun.

Her paranoia was my paranoia, and to us, our paranoia was part of the process, something we needed to overcome to push out a final product. It wasn’t until I edited my mom’s emails that I realized why she was so euphoric when we finally pressed SEND.

[Read Related: Living as a First-Generation Indian Immigrant Who Can’t Speak Her Native Language]

To err is human. But if you’re a woman of color, erring is inconceivable. Women of color can’t afford to make any errors, not just grammatical ones, because the room for error is so small. I’m lucky to grow up in a family that made me feel empowered as I am, but the pressures of grammar still persist: that the people I write to will never take me seriously because of how I write. These pressures are inescapable to those of us who are the only young woman of color in writers’  conferences or board meetings or speaking events, and the persuasion of perfectionism for someone like me (who has been all of those things) is too great to resist.

Grammar is a tool of structural violence that has historically weaponized articulation as a form of institutional power, from slave literacy tests to recent scoring guidelines for the English portion of the U.S. Naturalization Test, marginalizing the intellectualism of women of color in the process.

As a female minority student who has dedicated years to perfecting it, I think there are undoubtedly some things you have to be a woman of color in order to understand. The screaming in supermarkets to speak English, the terror that one misplaced apostrophe or one “who” instead of “whom” labels you as uneducated or incompetent or a diversity hire, the way our names on Word documents forever register as red-squiggle incorrect spellings of something else rather than just existing as what they are. Even within our demographic, women of color are constantly expected to perfect upon their English, and ourselves, in order to fit Eurocentric standards of professionalism. And though we Anglicize our identities to squeeze onto Starbucks cups and restaurant reservations, it is never enough.

I’m not alone, either. Millions of women of color seem to grapple with grammar every day, both in their home countries and America. In her first job as a manager in the United States, my mom watched non-minority women on staff with half her incredible work ethic suddenly double in leadership positions. She even made sure to ingrain in me the impossibility of failure, leading to perfect standardized test scores and glowing parent-teacher conferences at predominantly white schools where teachers meant, “She’s very articulate!” as a compliment, in the way that the other kids in the grade never usually have to be. We have to work twice as hard to stand out in the corporate world, and while our hypervigilance and perfectionism are valued, our articulation of English is often shamed for being unprofessional.

But in researching the art of the email, I observed that women of color are working around that by revolutionizing the rules of language in ways that previously were not available to them. Best Selling poet Rupi Kaur (of Milk & Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers) adjusted perceptions of unconventional lowercase grammar from being unprofessional to being expressive. In a statement on her website, Kaur explains that she did this to pay homage to the Gurmukhi script of her mother tongue, Punjabi, where all letters are the same, but also to represent the equality she wants to see more of within the world. Instead of reacting explosively, the Internet adapted to her massive mainstream success. Kaur may not have been fully responsible for the perception of ingenuity and informality associated with increasing lowercase use, but poets and other creatives today can certainly be seen experimenting with different spaces, shapes, drawings, and upper/lower/toggle cases of writing in conjunction with seeking to express themselves in more honest ways.

[Read Related: Living as a First-Generation Indian Immigrant Who Can’t Speak Her Native Language]

While Kaur has revolutionized the written word, other young women are revolutionizing the spoken word. Young women, often mocked for overusing modifiers, quotative ‘like’ and slang, are at the front of language progression. “Young women [dominate] those linguistic changes that periodically sweep through the media’s trend sections, from uptalk to ‘selfie’ to the quotative like to vocal fry,” says an article by The Quartz. “[They are changing] the distinctive /r/ pronunciation of New York City…the /aw/ pronunciation in Toronto and Vancouver, the ‘ch’ pronunciation in Panama…/t/ and /d/ pronunciations in Cairo Arabic, vowel pronunciation in Paris, entire language shifts like that from Hungarian to German in Austria.”

Inspired by some of these incredible women, I created a checklist for how and when to correct English-language grammar, by keeping in mind the following.

First, access to resources impacts good grammar. There’s nothing wrong with speaking or writing in a way that everyone can understand, as standard grammar makes sentences clearer. But not everyone has access to the same tutoring, college education, or grammar-checking software programs, and standardized rules of grammar only advantage those who have had the opportunities to learn them. This means that writers without formal education are disproportionately impacted when pitching their writing to and building connections within a predominantly white publishing industry.

Additionally, the intention is everything. There’s nothing wrong with the intention of correcting someone else’s grammar to better their speech. We native speakers shouldn’t feel ashamed that we know or use correct grammar, but we really should question if we find ourselves wielding it as a benchmark of superiority rather than a bookmark for someone else’s next chapter of learning.

Third, context matters. If you have a job that requires you to correct others’ grammar (editors, librarians, language teachers, English tutors), or if people ask you to correct their grammar, offering a correction is acceptable. But if no one is asking you to correct their grammar but you’re doing it with the purest intention to help, ask yourself: is now the right time? Is what they’re saying more important than the way they’re saying it, and will your correction only amplify that? Do you have difficulties understanding them without using perfect grammar? If you answered YES to all of the above questions, there are several polite and respectful ways to correct their grammar, like modeling what you meant by asking the person in question what they said using the correct sentence.

Lastly, effective communication is about understanding. If you write well but have awful grammar, your writing is able to effectively communicate meaning. Yet if you have good grammar without good writing, your writing is meaningless. And that is arguably the worst thing a writer can do: breathe life into sentences that make people feel…nothing. The words I tell my mom every day—I love you. I am here. I had a dream. I made it happen—would be so much weaker if I said them in their most grammatically correct forms. They would be just words, and words, no matter how perfect, do not give each other meaning. People give words meaning.

In teaching my mom how to write, I searched the internet to become a better writer. But I also searched inside myself to become a better person, because I remember a teacher criticizing a foreign exchange student’s English while complimenting mine, and even earlier, being at a friend’s house when her immigrant mother commented on how I spoke in a more sophisticated way than her daughter. So I’ve also been a part of the system to uphold this impossible standard of grammar perfectionism for other minority women.

I’m still unlearning shame from this. I’m allowing myself to document the narratives of the historically disenfranchised until my fingers hurt, to tell stories of the generational struggle until my throat is sore, to embrace writing everything completely by myself instead of running away from the cultural and grammatical nonconformism my work embodies.

And I’m still figuring out how to teach my mother how to write an email.

There is no remedial solution for this intergenerational struggle which defines countless socioeconomic lives: no spell-check which can substitute the importance of grammar in our lives, no thesaurus search that can suggest alternative explanations for how the articulation of English impacts both confidence and career trajectories of so many bright women of color. In fact, this problem of modern communication exceeding proper English grammar continues to increase as Americans conduct more and more business deals with women and ethnic minorities who articulate differently to them.

But even dissecting a societal problem as small as my email anxieties reflects a dichotomy in our society: about how one chooses to speak, and how one chooses to listen. Through their unique capability to revolutionize grammar, women of color have the revolutionary power of leading and healing this divide.

[Read Related: Bijoy Dibosh: The Birth of Bangladesh, its Mother Language, and My Mother]

I want to support the interest in language held by young women of color by equipping them with school supplies and a positive mindset to succeed inside and outside of the classroom. I want to teach more young girls to take risks in a conversation–whether using a dependent clause as a standalone sentence to pitch a new software program, or using modifiers while articulating to their boss why they should be paid the same wage as their male colleagues–so that they can take more risks in life. They are sure to build more relationships that empower and equip them to succeed, and we are sure to benefit from them. I love grammar, and I think there’s something inherently revolutionary about the malleability of grammar, in our infinite possibilities to explore solutions wherein grammar conforms to our everyday dialogue rather than us always conforming to it.

So far, I know two languages. I am practically illiterate in one and a published author in the other. As it happens, I never had a tutor, or a writing coach, or a copy editor in either of those languages, so there is an intercontinental volume of awkward phrasing and untranslatable jokes bridging them.

But I want to empower other people with my duality, not in spite of it. I want to inspire hope with my words so that girls like me will see in themselves the power to create. English may always be the language that houses my tongue, but every day I get to choose how to make it my home.

Some may ask, “What happens if we mess up?” Maybe we should swap that ‘if’ for a ‘when’. Because it’s not about if we mess up, but when we mess up—and we will. It’s about correcting our mistakes and learning from them, while also being forgiving of ourselves and others. Maybe young women of color like me can’t afford to fail right now. But when we do, there should be more space than the laptop space bar for forgiveness. And that’s on the most important grammatical tool of the English language: period.

*Dikka = sweetheart

The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Sarina Patel

Sarina Patel is a 17-year-old writer, speaker, and advocate for youth empowerment through education based in Florida. She is a … Read more ›

Introducing Vaksana: Guyana’s First Sustainable Women’s Retreat

Menakshi Babulall

Sustainable development practices can be utilized as a model for addressing gender inequities worldwide. Empowering women with the resources to gain opportunities, learn skills and collaborate in a safe and welcoming environment is crucial to women’s growth and development as individuals. 

After witnessing the first-hand effects of gender-based violence growing up in Guyana, Menakshi Babulall founded the Canadian nonprofit A Different View Project (ADVP) to promote and implement sustainable development methods across Guyanese communities. Vaksana, which means “nourishing/refreshing” in Sanskrit, is a branch of ADVP exclusively aimed at developing Guyana’s first eco-friendly women’s retreat center.  The retreat will offer wellness activities, training services, regenerative farming and community outreach programs. 

[Read Related: Philanthropist Nirmala Ramprasad Champions Sustainable Development Through Green Dupatta]

Babulall was inspired by Guyana’s rich rugged beauty as a child. Her dual passion for preserving the environment and aiding underserved communities contributed to her studying International Development at Toronto’s York University before launching a public service career.  This eventually led her focus back to Guyana. Babulall talks to BG about her journey as the founder of ADVP, the progress of Vaksana and her perspective on sustainable and ethical charity work.

How and when did you create ADVP? 

“ADVP was founded in 2016 with the vision of empowering communities and fostering sustainable development. The idea stemmed from my desire to create an organization that could address pressing social and environmental issues through innovative and collaborative approaches. One thing that fills me with immense pride is ADVP’s unique ability to bring together diverse stakeholders, including those from the diaspora, to create impactful projects that make a tangible difference in people’s lives while also providing them with an opportunity to connect with their homeland.”

ADVP has worked on projects within Guyana’s fertile Pomeroon-Supenaam region, a vast expanse of hills and villages that dot the Essequibo Coast. Past projects include building a centralized outdoor recreation space for families and facilitating peer tutoring groups for children affected by COVID-related school closures. They also engage with the children of Queenstown Village through storytelling and interactive activities to nurture their passion for the environment. Overall, the focus of ADVP’s projects is geared toward education and sustainability while developing meaningful and positive relationships with the local community. 

Babulall’s remigration to Guyana during the pandemic to oversee Vaksana was a humbling experience. Living in rural Guyana allowed her to witness the benefits that wellness and eco-tourism can bring to a community, but also highlighted entrenched socio-economic struggles. It heightened her senses of resilience, adaptability and empathy; all key facets she believed essential to an effective leader. She soon realized the importance of cementing Vaksana as a catalyst for positive change in the region, particularly as a safe haven for women and gender non-conforming individuals who may face discrimination.

Explain the concept behind Vaksana

“The idea of Vaksana was born out of extensive research and a deep-rooted passion for creating a transformative space that combines wellness, eco-tourism and community development. The journey began with a vision to create a place where individuals could experience holistic well-being, connect with nature and promote sustainable living.

Vaksana’s foundation is built on three essential elements: tourism, community outreach and regenerative farming/agriculture. These elements were thoughtfully chosen to ensure a holistic approach to personal growth, community empowerment and environmental stewardship. By integrating these pillars, Vaksana becomes a powerful force for positive impact, both within the retreat center and the wider community.”

Vaksana is an ode to Babulall’s Indian heritage that was originally displaced and irrevocably transformed upon arrival to the Caribbean. Like its namesake, individuals have the opportunity to reclaim and reinvigorate themselves. Future plans for Vaksana include a kitchen/restaurant alongside sustainable farming, a workshop/training facility and a multipurpose room offering wellness classes such as meditation and yoga in consultation with a behavioral psychologist and holistic therapist. Collaborations with local businesses and partnership with the University of Guyana ensures that Guyanese citizens are actively involved in every aspect of the project, providing employment opportunities and allowing them to take on leadership roles.

What is the current progress of Vaksana, and where do you hope to see the project in one year? 

“As of now, Vaksana is in an exciting phase of planning and development. We have made significant strides in securing the land and are eagerly awaiting the approval of the lease for our carefully chosen site. Our dedicated team is diligently working on the architectural design and construction plans to bring our vision to life.

In one year, we envision Vaksana having completed its initial construction phase, with the retreat center standing proudly amidst the natural beauty of Guyana. We anticipate being fully prepared to open our doors and welcome our first guests to experience the transformative journey that Vaksana offers.”

Babulall believes in transparency regarding the difficulties faced with running a non-governmental organization. She has overcome several obstacles such as limited resources and bureaucratic hurdles by seeking collaborations, leveraging available resources and engaging in open dialogue with members of the community.

When asked about the misconceptions of running an NGO, she replied, “Many NGOs actually strive for financial independence by implementing income-generating initiatives and fostering partnerships that create long-term sustainability. Another misconception is that NGOs are not as efficient or effective as for-profit organizations. In reality, NGOs often have lower administrative costs and are driven by a strong sense of purpose and commitment.” 

She also disagreed with the belief that NGOs only focus on aid/handouts and says, “Many NGOs prioritize community-driven development approaches, working with local stakeholders to identify their needs/strengths and supporting capacity-building initiatives that enable communities to thrive independently.”

By debunking these perceptions, NGOs such as ADVP can continue to attract like-minded individuals to participate in the diverse work they undertake to address social challenges and advance a more equitable future.

How would you suggest those get involved in ethical public sector/charity work?

“I would recommend starting by identifying your passions and areas of interest. Research and connect with organizations that align with your values and goals. Volunteer your time, skills or resources to make a tangible impact. Stay informed about social and environmental issues and advocate for positive change. Collaboration and learning from others in the field are also crucial for personal and professional growth.”

What is your ultimate goal and future plans for ADVP and Vaksana?

“My ultimate goal is to continue building ADVP as a leading organization in sustainable community development, promoting social and environmental justice. With Vaksana, we aim to establish a renowned wellness and eco-retreat center that serves as a model for sustainable tourism, community empowerment and holistic well-being. We envision expanding our impact, fostering collaborations and creating positive change at both local and global levels.”

Guyana’s raw and authentic lifestyle has left a profound impact on Babullal as an individual and a leader. While embarking on the Vaksana project has not been without roadblocks, she is grateful to have gained the strength to confront difficult realities head-on in hopes of creating a safe place for individuals to learn and flourish. She has found contentment in the beauty of Guyana’s lush surroundings and hopes that others find its premise rejuvenating and inspirational. 

To learn more about ADVP visit their website here or follow them on Instagram.

To donate to the Vaksana project, visit their GoFundMe page.

Featured Image: Menakshi Babulall | Photo Courtesy of Menakshi Babulall

By Priya Deonarine

Priya D. Deonarine, M.S, NCSP, is the quintessential Pisces who has been dramatically shaped by her experiences and emotions. She … Read more ›