Does Speaking Standard English Dilute Blackness?

“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?


Of Tainos and “Tragick Mulattoes”

Last night on Twitter some people descended on my timeline to inform me of my colonialist ignorance. It’s not something I haven’t dealt with before, in person, but the Internet with its anonymity has a way of making people feel brave enough to call strangers things they’d only say during bar brawls and prison riots.

So what happened?

In response to an earlier tweet that said one million Tainos are still alive, I pointed out that the Taino died out, but their descendants are still around, mixed with African and Spanish blood.

The reaction was immediate.

She kept going.

And going.

And going.

Others joined in.  

I was shown this picture to show me the error of my ways.

Naturally, this picture was unsourced, and could easily have been a bunch of actors in costume. Attaching a Wikipedia article to my tweets to back up my claim did not go over well.

The response?

This is how you know you’re having an argument on the Internet, when a picture takes precedent over something that has actual fact. Bad Dominicana evidently wasn’t done, though.

Another young lady, who accused me of being illiterate, later tried to engage me in a conversation to get me to admit I was wrong to say I was black when I am in fact mixed.It goes with out saying ze offered no evidence to support hir claims other than to point out I was wrong. Apparently, by saying a historically true fact (descendants of Tainos are mixed) precludes me from saying I’m black. I guess it does, maybe? But who cares? According to Plessy v. Ferguson, it doesn’t matter if I’m even an eighth black (and I’m more than an eighth), I would still be subjected to “separate but equal” laws. Back in the 19th century, I still would have been a slave, bought and sold just like my darker-skinned brothers and sisters. My life would have been no different, (and is no different), except in addition to the remnants of cultural and institutional racialism I deal with, I hear things like “high yella”, “mullatto”, or my personal favorite, “she think just ’cause she light skinned she white.”

None of the earlier vitriol bothered me much, but this comment she made stung:

If you keep reading this girl’s timeline, she talks about the hardship of being mixed. Sigh. Sometimes you can’t win. Really, the argument is simple. Aren’t elephants descendants of wooly mammoths? Do wooly mammoths still exist? The same applies for populations of people who are (all but) extinct. It’s sad. I wish it weren’t the case. But there it is.

The Taino culture isn’t dead, and I never claimed it was. But 90% of Tainos did die as a result of disease and abuse of the Spanish. That’s a fact. Spaniards married Taino women and had mestizo children in an attempt to whitewash the gene pool and establish their dominance in society. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are descended from those mestizos and African slaves. These are all facts. They can be a bit uncomfortable, but if we never confront the things that give us discomfort, we will never learn.

At the end of the day, race does not exist; people exist. I am descended from African slaves, Taino Indians, Spanish colonizers, and German immigrants. But this is not who I am in totality. I am a beautiful human. And so are you.

Peace and love to all of you.

I’m Back (Where I’ve Been)

Hello, everyone.

I had two impacted wisdom teeth removed last week. My dentist was excellent and did an amazing job, but losing two teeth in a week has subjected me to pain that I had never experienced before. I had surgery two years ago, and after a couple of days on Percocet I was fine. But last week, at its worst, the pain extended from my right temple to my chin. It also crawled into my ear, down my throat, and wrapped around the back of my neck. I couldn’t sleep. I ate apple sauce and pureed carrots. I took morphine and codeine (not simultaneously!) and sat in front of the television while writing sentimental messages to my friends on Facebook. I took extensions on my graduate school assignments.

And then, two days ago, the pain subsided. I caught up on my graduate school work, and am now ready to get back to regularly scheduled programming. I’m still in some pain, but I can take Tylenol or Ibuprofen and can function normally, thank goodness.

Now for our Friday Wrap-Up:

Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Kailash Satyarthi. I’m relieved to read good news; the constant Ebola coverage has been a persistent emotional drain. There is speculation that awarding the prize to an Indian man and Pakistani woman will help improve relations between the two countries.

There’s been another shooting in Ferguson. Tensions have been brewing under the surface: protests have continued, and another black teenager was shot sixteen times. Police and eyewitness reports conflict: the police say the suspect had a gun, while others say it was a sandwich.

Unsurprisingly, the Hong Kong government canceled talks with the protesters today. The protests seem to have wound down, but this new development has reignited demonstrations.

Guys, if you’ve been looking of an excuse to save on the engagement ring, here’s your vindication: a study published by two economists at Emory University argues a positive relationship between expensive engagement rings, lavish weddings, and divorce. In other words, if your bride-to-be is materialistic, lose her. Marriage is about commitment and sacrifice, not elaborate floral arrangements. Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative goes into further detail. It’s a terrific article and worth the read.

Have a great weekend, everyone! See you Monday


Dental Pain, Continued

I hate to keep making excuses, but I’m still in pain from yesterday’s tooth pulling. It’s 10:30 and I’m going to sleep. I think the last time that happened I was in high school.

I will mention these few things before I pass out:

I’ve temporarily stopped reading The New York Times because of their refusal to portray blacks as more than mere stereotypes. Two articles in the same weekend–one portraying an angry black woman who can somehow write things, the other detailing the story of a black man being gunned down despite his Yale education–made it clear the Times can’t see beyond the prejudiced perceptions. I won’t patronize a publication that sees me, a young black and Puerto Rican woman who is attempting to make something of herself, as a statistic. My decision has changed my perspective in how I approach journalism and publishing. I’m far more discriminating in the things I read and am less willing to cut slack to publications that are lazy in their portrayal of ethnic minorities. To be fair, many publications cut corners to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible, but that’s not excuse. Whether it’s a tiny blog like this one or a famous rag, you should expect articles to be written with a certain level of ethics and impartiality.

I’m very concerned about the Hong Kong protests. So far things are going exactly the way I predicted they would, which is unflinching condemnation* from Beijing, which only reinforces the stoic resilience from the protesters. I don’t think this is going to end quickly or well. There isn’t much analysis to be done here: Hong Kong wants universal suffrage, and Beijing won’t give it to them. It’s going to be a question of who blinks first. I must make it absolutely clear that The Libertarian Latina takes no official position on these protests. I only wish that this disagreement is resolved in a peaceful and orderly manner.

*The Chinese page I linked to calls these protests “illegal gatherings”

Friday Wrap-Up with a Shoutout to Shondaland.

Let me get this out of the way: thank God for Shonda Rhimes, queen of primetime television. Her shows have been my permission slip to be both ambitious and emotionally complicated. No more perfect television women, who are always either perfectly composed or irredeemably crazy. No more stereotyped career women who take every challenge in stride with clear skin and perfect hair. The women in these shows are tough, determined, ruthless, emotional, and brilliant. While some of these characters desperately need either therapy or a tent revival (Grey’s, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder could all be renamed Everybody Needs Jesus and no one would be the wiser) it’s a relief to see complicated characters navigate clever storylines to create entertaining television. So often we see mawkish, tired plots rife with melodrama or cultural stereotypes rehashed in lazy storytelling tropes. My favorite Shondaland character will always be Cristina Yang. She’s unapologetically excellent, and has given me better career advice than any real person ever has.

*collects speech and leaves podium*

Without further ado, here are some of the news stories that were released this week as they relate to the black community:

Attorney General Eric Holder has resigned.

Didn’t we just see Holder in Ferguson, getting everyone’s hopes up by giving the impression that he would take the city’s grievances to the President? According to the HuffPo article I linked to, Holder had been in talks with the President about his departure for several weeks and had settled on a date around Labor Day. That means that when Holder was in Ferguson in the middle of August–ostensibly to offer emotional support and possibly spearhead an investigation–he had already made his mind up to leave. Holder evidently doesn’t respect the office he occupies or the people of Ferguson enough to offer more than a perfunctory visit and scripted condolences.

Things are heating up again in Ferguson with small but intense protests that police are attempting to quash. Accusations of police misconduct continue. No one seems to remember the apology to Mike Brown’s family. It’s time for a strategy. We know there’s a lot of justifiable anger. But what do the people of Ferguson want?

Also, since this week marked television’s return, the sitcom Blackish premiered, and…we’re just not going to dignify this show that paints black culture as an immovable monolith with a response, because a mindless show with such narrow-minded beliefs about blackness deserves silence.

Happy Weekend! See you all on Monday.

Thought Experiment: Privatizing Public Schools?

Sorry about missing Monday’s post, and (almost) missing Wednesday’s. I was dealing with some symptoms last week and had to catch up on graduate school homework. All is now well and attended to.

This weekend I’m going to DC to debate the topic Resolved: Send Your Child to Public School. I’m looking forward to this debate, because most of the attendants are veterans of the public school system, and I want to hear the arguments in its favor. I myself never saw a day of public school; I attended an independent private school from first grade through high school graduation, and I shudder to think how my life would have been different if I had gone to public school for twelve years. I probably would have been fine, but I wouldn’t have had half of the opportunities I’ve had. I’m pretty sure I would never have considered a school like Wesleyan, let alone applied with confidence.

From my limited understanding of it, attending public school is good deal if you live in wealthy suburb in Long Island, Westchester, or in Hudson Valley. If, like me, you’re a black or Hispanic kid from Brooklyn and your parents can’t afford $40,000 a year tuition to private schools, you’re pretty much out of luck. Public schools in New York City are increasingly turning into drop out factories. Leaving school without a high school diploma is essentially signing up for a life of poverty and hardship. Some of the people can manage to lift themselves out of poverty’s rat race, but in many cases, it’s a road that leads to crime, incarceration, violence, and death.

Recent figures show black and Hispanic students are very far behind their white and Asian counterparts: in dozens of schools, not a single black or Hispanic child passed the statewide reading or math exams. This is a condemnation of the public school systems, but it also shows a lack of parental involvement. Are these parents reading to their kids at night, helping them with homework, attending parent teaching conferences? Probably not. Not all of this is the parents’ fault. Some parents don’t speak English and have to work all the time to put food on the table. But it’s also a question of priorities.

But what about charter schools or specialized high schools? Yes, schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science are terrific if you can get in and survive the pressure-cooker competitiveness long enough to graduate and get into a top college. But most black kids don’t get in; Stuyvesant admits fewer than ten black students per class. It may be a question of not applying because of a lack of skills to score well enough on the test, or low self-esteem to not even consider attending a prestigious school such as Stuyvesant. New York City has the most segregated schools in the country.

Here’s a thought experiment: what would happen if we privatized public schools? How would that affect black and Hispanic students?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m not in education policy. I just know America is falling behind in the world, and children of color are falling behind even further and faster. And if you’re a parent with a child in school, regardless if they’re going to public or private school, you must read to your child in order for them to compete on on a global stage.

I’ll do a post-debate blog post to let you know which way the debate turns out.