“Are you white?”
The enquirer was an eight-year-old boy at my summer day camp fourteen years ago, who had stared at me for a solid minute before launching his query. His question unsettled me. The same week a fellow camper, with whom I did not get along, excluded me from a conversation with the phrase, “This is black people’s talk.” I realized at the tender age of eleven that my blackness (or Hispanic-ness, for that matter) was less defined by the color of my skin than by the way I spoke. In that scenario and many others, speaking standard American English around black people was an affront. It was perceived as both distancing myself from my heritage while attempting to ingratiate myself with a group of people that were responsible for the marginalization of my comrades. Not having African-American argot as a default linguistic setting was both a betrayal and a rejection of my community.
My inability to code switch–speak African-American argot around black people, standard English in formal settings–has been the most salient quality that has brought my blackness into question over the years. I’ve gotten comments ranging from, “your college application reads like a white person’s” to “you talk like a white girl, but you ain’t white.” I can recognize the expression of muted surprise when I open my mouth, but I’m so used to it I barely notice it anymore (it’s also 2014, and there are a lot of articulate brown people, thank goodness.)The piece in Slate today is a belated apology of sorts: we’re sorry that we’ve judged and stigmatized black people for speaking a dialect of English. But the truth is, no matter what the color of your skin is, dialects of English, whether from the South Bronx or Appalachia, aren’t welcome in mainstream America. When it comes to public speaking, job interviews, or career advancement, speaking standard English is a cultural expectation and a professional requirement. That’s not a normative statement; it doesn’t mean that there aren’t working people who speak with accents or that we should discriminate against people who don’t speak standard English at home. That’s a separate issue altogether. I’m talking about whether or not speaking standard English as a black person detracts from your blackness. And if you see blackness as a cultural identity as much as a legal or hereditary one, then it seems to. But this wasn’t always the case.
Both of my parents were raised in working-class homes and spoke standard English in their respective households. I suspect that it is because although none of my grandparents were wealthy, all of them believed speaking standard English was a way of respecting yourself and others. We don’t live in that world anymore. An allegiance to a dialect is now more important that appearing to be a sellout. Speaking standard English is not a measure of my intelligence; it’s a measure of my education. And my education is not a betrayal of my heritage. I don’t lose “blackness” because I speak Standard English. My melanin concentration isn’t contingent on correctly placed modifiers.
But, unfortunately, that’s not how a lot of the black community sees it. If you like Taylor Swift, read “colonialist” history books and “talk like a white girl”, then your blackness card is revoked; at minimum, you’re on probation. It’s sad to see a population that endured so much hatred and exclusivity practicing the similar tactics on members on their own community. Too much of blackness today is dependent on the music you listen to, the clothes you wear, and the way you speak. The same intolerance of non-standard English in the boardroom is practiced in the ghettoes.
There’s a line between celebrating your heritage and championing ignorance. My grandparents moved to New York from the South and Puerto Rico to give their children a better start in life, and that included speaking English well. My allegiance is to them, not fitting in with hip-hop culture that has become synonymous with blackness.
What do you all think? Should we be accepting of other dialects of English in the workplace and other places? Is speaking standard English a betrayal of the black community?