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?

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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.