Linguistic prejudice: (don’t) Say it in Black English

Linguistic prejudice: (don’t) Say it in Black English

No dialect is more disparaged in the U.S. than African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. In fact, for a long time, it was just openly called bad English or broken English. Even within the Black community there was a disdain for it despite the often amplified and unreliably narrated personal essay cliché of “I was bullied for talking like a white girl.”

Speaking like a Black girl has always had far more dire consequences. Linguistic prejudice

I have never been denied an opportunity in the Black community for sounding like what many describe as “white.” 

Generally, regional dialects that white people speak in the U.S. are not pathologized, at least not within their regions or communities. For example, if you are white with a N.J. accent, there is no assumption of your intelligence or deviance within the N.J. area. Dialects do not prevent you from understanding rules and patterns. Dialects have rules and patterns. A dialect is to summarize— a way that you speak. 

There is no study that connects skill level or propensity with criminality owing to speaking in AAVE. While some studies have shown that Black people who are able switch back and forth (code-switch) —have more advanced communication skills than those who do not have to or do not know how to, this code-switching paradigm still puts forth the idea that Black language is unprofessional and unacademic, which translates to inferior. 

“[The] code-switching [narrative] does not improve [societal] attitudes…it perpetuates feelings of linguistic and cultural shame.”

2013, April Baker-Bell, “Moving Beyond Code-Switching Pedagogies” Equity & Excellence in Education. 

In the United States, Blackness connected to anything is pathologized. If an activity or action becomes associated with Black people, it is framed as illegal or dishonest. From voting to working at the Post Office, to rap music, and marijuana, regardless of what it is, if it’s painted Black, white supremacists will use it as a tool to dismantle and to divide the public.

And while linguistic prejudice and bias is coming to the forefront again, most recently owing to the work of Baker-Bell, the language of the African American is still put in an exceptional category. An exception of not being real, yet still being a problem. 

“Some deny its existence (like the [B]lack Chicagoan whose words “Ain’t nobody here talkin’ no Ebonics” belied his claim). Others deprecate it (like Maya Angelou, who found the Oakland School Board’s 1996 Ebonics resolutions “very threatening” although she uses Ebonics herself in her poems, e.g. “The Pusher”).”

2002, John Rickford, “What is Ebonics (African American English)?” Linguistic Society of America.

Despite the fact that manymany essays have been written on phrases like axe vs. ask and linguistic conventions such as double negatives, Black English remains suspicious within the larger U.S. culture. It is often used as a costume to denote economic affliction or coolness by non-black people, but to many the language of Black English should NOT be used in professional or academic life, especially by a Black person.  

“Black speech has historically been maligned as just a broken form of English, but this is as unfair as it is wrong—many of its core grammatical structures can be found in many other languages.”

2020, Chi Luu, “Black English Matters,” Jstor Daily.

It is currency and fodder that can be spent and remixed by virtually anyone but Black people. Like God, Blackness is everywhere, but the U.S. is godless, and Jesus is a strawberry blonde. linguistic prejudice

When Rachel Jeantel testified during the tragic Trayvon Martin trial, many people pointed to her testimony given in AAVE as having been detrimental to the case. An incredulous assertion, and even more outrageous, was the attempted defense of Jeantel. The claim that she didn’t speak AAVE, because she is the child of a Haitian mother. They tried to save Jeantel by pulling her away from AAVE and closer to the immigrant’s story, which occupies a different space in the unimagination of white supremacist framed U.S. racism.  

As the child of an African American mother and an African descendent father with immigrant parents, I guarantee you the issue with Rachel was her African Americanness. Her verbal and nonverbal communications were pure Black English, a dialect that has always been inclusive of influences from Mother Africa, the Caribbean, and the U.S. South. 

“Me and you, us never part. Makidada (Swahili for little sister). Me and you, us have one heart. Makidada. Ain’t no ocean, ain’t no sea. Makidada. Keep my sister away from me.”

1982, Alice Walker, “Color Purple

Black English’s problem is not its syntax, word choice, or accent. The problem white supremacy has with Black English is that it is coming out of Black people’s mouths. The situation regarding Black English is that the U.S. fields of linguistics, literature, and speech have shared histories of being used to exclude people by class, nationality, ethnicity, and race. We must begin to recognize that the problem is racism and, more specifically, anti-black racism. The framing of language needs to cease being let us include Black English and instead become we need to stop viewing Anglo English of all dialects and English as superior, simply because that is how and what most white people in the U.S. speak.


Teka Lo, Public Intellectuals

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