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?


The Liberal Narrative and Black Victimhood

Happy Monday, friends.

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while, and now the time has come.

Over the summer, a young teenager named Mike Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police. That event sparked weeks of protests and protracted violence that was extensively covered by the news. Yesterday a black actress was allegedly mistaken for a prostitute, and, according to her, wrongfully detained. Nearly every week there is a story about a black person being oppressed, or unduly suffering through poverty, police brutality, lack of education, and diminished economic opportunity. A spate of thinkpieces periodically pops up with the expected hand-wringing and the question, what is to be done?

Rarely do I see pieces written by black writers that suggest solutions for the deep-seated problems that plague the black communities in America.

The surface reason for this is somewhat intuitive: blacks are not only a minority in numbers, but also in professions such as journalism. There are exceptions such as superstar Ta-Nehisi Coates, but generally speaking there are few black voices, and even fewer who outline practical solutions. You can’t have a solution to a problem when it’s never your fault.

The second, deeper reason for this, I believe is the mentality of black victimhood. Though oppression of blacks was not perpetrated by blacks, I think that blacks buy into their own perceived helplessness and do not do enough to make waves that cause actual change.

What do I mean by this?

I’ve found black movements, on the Internet and in real life, to be largely reactionary. Every time a young black man gets shot, an outpouring of rage follows, accompanied by sympathetic editorials by white authors, and then everyone gets bored and moves on, until the next shooting. And the next.

But Marjorie, I hear the voices protesting, you just don’t understand black people.

Don’t I? My father is black. I’m from Brooklyn and Washington Heights. I’ve worked for members of Congress in Harlem and I’ve campaigned for black candidates. I’ve also worked low wage jobs in East Harlem where the whitest things in the store were the sweaters we were folding. My perspective doesn’t come from safe within an ivory tower. It comes from living among black people, and living with a black man who practically had a weekly special on How the White Man Tried to Screw Me Over and That’s Why I Can’t Get a Regular Job.

I’ve had black people tell me that they don’t vote in local elections because only the presidential elections are important. I’ve listened to college-educated black Democrats tell me that the reason why they and other blacks voted for Obama is because of the color of his skin. I’ve watched black parents spend money they don’t have on clothes and sneakers and gaming consoles and then complain that their kid can’t get a decent education. I’ve seen black women dress like backup dancers in hip-hop videos to job interviews and wonder why they can’t get an office job. I’ve seen flyers in offices commemorating the death of Biggie Smalls, a rapper who lay down some tracks, rather than for Malcolm X, who laid down his life for his beliefs.

And then when injustice strikes, as it inevitably does, it’s because of racism. No. Black America has its head up its ass. This does not make the tragedies anyone’s fault, but it is why I believe nothing changes.

Racism exists, but so does the power of community and personal responsibility. The immediate generation after slavery saw incredible prosperity in the black community and the establishment of the black middle class. Was there incredible racism? Sure. But somehow, blacks were more dignified and prosperous in spite of it. More on that in another blog post.

Ditch the television. Save the money on the sneakers. Stop complaining. Vote every chance you get. Every school board election, primary race, state senate race, mayoral race. There is strength and solidarity in unity. Don’t beg for justice. Expect it. Demand it. Teach your sons what their rights are when dealing with police. Teach them to behave better than the racist bigots. Help them to finish school and/or get a lucrative skill. Encourage the men to marry the women they have children with. Teach your daughters that they are worthy of a commitment before they bear children.

Oh, there goes another compassionless conservative, blaming the victim, the voices say.

Is that so? In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations“, he quotes the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, a black man, and a Democrat, telling young black men to pull up their pants and stop making babies they can’t afford. Coates dismisses this quote, because it doesn’t fit into the liberal narrative that blacks are being screwed over at every turn.  But the fact remans that three out of every four black children are born out of wedlock. The statistics speak for themselves: children who are born to married parents, regardless of color, have better lives. The parents don’t even have to be educated. As long as the parents have finished high school, are married to each other, and wait until after marriage to have children, the kids have a two percent chance of growing up in poverty.

Coates is a truly gifted writer. There is no disputing that. I do, however, dispute Coates’ ability to run a city. My guess is that Coates is not willing to consider that the long history of black underachievement has not only to do with racist policies, but also the ignorance and defeatist attitude that plagues the black community.

Personal responsibility knows no party. If black Americans want change, we have to fight for it. Is it fair that we have to fight? No. But the alternative is living as we are now: blaming everyone else, and watching helplessly as black men ages 16 to 40 are killed and imprisoned, further destroying the black family and unraveling the fabric of black society.

Identity Politics, The Patriarchy, and Love


Happy Holidays from the Libertarian Latina!  I hope everyone is enjoying time home with loved ones.

Last night I saw the film “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” with my family, and it was great, but it’s not the black film I want to talk about.  The upcoming film “Belle” tells the story of an illegitimate biracial woman who is raised with her father’s aristocratic English family.  She develops a relationships with a young lawyer with abolitionist ideals and the two begin to pressure the powers that be to end slavery in England.  The film is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was the product of an affair between an African slave and and English sea captain.  She was raised in the house of her great uncle and was allowed certain household privileges (managing correspondence) but not others (eating with the family).  I cannot wait until this film comes out.  I will be first in line to see it.

My time as a liberal was uncomfortable for me, particularly when it came to racial and identity politics.  I’m a biracial woman who was fortunate enough to attend private school her whole life, and had parents who spoke Standard Mid-Atlantic English at home.  I learned African-American Vernacular English but never used it.  I don’t code switch.  I never have.  This created a rift between me and my fellow classmates of color and within the black and Hispanic communities writ large.  To belong to these communities meant speaking two languages: one in “polite company”, and the vernacular with friends and neighbors.  To speak only the former meant forfeiting your street cred.  It meant you were a sellout, an Uncle Tom.  And yet, to speak English “properly” drew raised eyebrows and intrigue: the unspoken conclusion was that I was not like the “others”, and was therefore a trusted ambassador of communities to which I did not culturally belong.  I have a sneaking suspicion that “Belle” is going to explore the theme of not fitting into a world of privilege and the struggle to find a place in society which has no blueprint for those of your “kind”.

So much of being a liberal in this country as a person of color seems to be centered around hating white people, especially white men, which I guess has some merit, given that black slaves were owned by white masters, and the Jim Crow South was framed by white people in positions of power.  But hating white men goes against my experience and was something I refused to do, further damaging my already negligible credibility with prominent liberals of color.  My second family is composed of my teachers, many of whom were white and male.  They taught me, but they also raised me.  They believed in my potential, recognized my talent, and interacted with me as a thinking person first, a woman of color second.  They validated my beauty and challenged me to think critically.  My intellectual identity and emotional independence is largely due to their positive influence.  Perhaps this is why I’m interested in political science, philosophy, and history instead of sociology, intersectionality, and diaspora studies.  This is not to say that I don’t believe in oppression and injustice.  It just means that I believe these issues are more complex than “Us vs. Them”.  Hating someone who doesn’t look like you, whether you’re the cultural hegemon or not, only perpetuates ignorance and intolerance.

Racism and ignorance exist, but they’re not limited to white people.  Some of the most open-minded people I know are white; some of the most racist bigots I have ever met have had colored skin.  I refuse to dislike a group of people to gain admission to a community because of our matching skin pigmentations.  My community is one with whom I share interests, and ideals, and goals.  We are brought together by respect and bound by love.  Those things transcend skin color, race, ethnicity, culture, and even language.  No political agenda should trump being human.  It often does, and that’s a shame.  It means different interest groups make conflicting sets of demands and fighting to the death to advance their agendas by one inch, which is petty and counterproductive.  Working together is the only way we can achieve anything worth having, not by protecting our bean patches from people who don’t look like us.

That’s all for now.  See you again soon.