Recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a call for translators fluent in Ebonics. Cue the hair pulling and rending of garments. Some folks worried that such a move by a government agency would encourage "hip hop" speak. Others confused Ebonics with "jive." Still, others fretted about coddling ignorance. Some insisted that a person who can accurately understand and mimic "urban" speech patterns is surely not worthy of employment by the DEA. I wondered why a linguistic pattern should cause such a panic. Then I remembered that black speech patterns are too often seen as markers of poor education and undesirability.
What is "Ebonics"? On The American Prospect "Tapped" blog, Adam Serwer wrote about some of the unique characteristics of Ebonics, more appropriately called African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
On the syntactic front, AAVE speakers have a more granular tense-marking system. In standard English, for instance, "James is happy" can mean either that James is happy at the moment or that he is habitually happy. AAVE uses the verb "to be" to mark the habitual form, but omits it otherwise:
James happy = James is happy right now
James be happy = James is usually happy/a happy person
Linguists like James McWhorter caution against viewing AAVE as "bad English." In reality, it is just another English linguistic form, no different than, say, Cockney, and it deserves no special derision. There are many others, often those who have not studied language, who disagree. I worry that the disdain engendered by AAVE may go deeper than a desire for grammatical consistency. I suspect there is racial bias involved in the resistance to view AAVE as anything more than ignorance.
It is telling that it is not just black speakers of a more vernacular language that are criticized for their speech patterns. So, too, are those that speak Standard American English with tones, cadences, and pronunciations associated with blackness.
... Just as there is a vernacular dialect known as African-American English, spoken by many African-Americans across the country, there is also a standard variety of African-American English. This variety combines a standard English grammar with phonological features, intonation patterns and lexical items associated with African-American communities. Standard African-American English is used by many middle-class African-American speakers and indicates their social class or educational background without obscuring ethnic identity in their speech (so that they still "sound black"). The relationship between language and identity can be quite complicated!
During the 2008 presidential election, both Barack Obama and his some of his high-profile black supporters were criticized for what some viewed as nefarious use of a black accent or the cynical unleashing of a "hidden" black accent when among other African Americans. I recall listening to a caller on a national political talk show express her mistrust of then-candidate Obama. Sometimes he speaks "Ebonics" when he talks to black people, she fretted. He should speak "regular." The caller's implication was that white pronunciation, cadence, and tonality are "regular," and all else is substandard and suspect.
I am a black woman with fairly race-neutral diction, meaning if you can't see me, you may not be able to pinpoint my race from my speech. Many black people do, however, have some degree of accent that is recognizable as African American. I stress that, in this case, I am talking about an accent, not poor diction and not slang, but a distinct cadence and way of pronouncing words.
I was born and raised in the upper Midwest. Due to the Great Migration, a lot of Midwestern black speech is influenced by Southern pronunciations and cadence. For example, some black Midwesterners will extend the word "five" into a drawled "fahve." I grew up around this speech pattern. And though the speech I use out in the world is perfectly natural, when I am alone with family or black friends, I drawl a little more, add in a few more colloquialisms. The change is largely unconscious mimicry, much like how a New Yorker who now lives in California might find her Brooklyn accent gets a little stronger when she goes back home; or how my coworker says her English husband's accent gets stronger when they visit across the pond.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a black accent, except that in a society where whiteness is normative, a black accent is judged as less desirable. Making a call without your "white" voice on could mean the loss of a job, an apartment, any number of opportunities. As a matter of survival, upwardly mobile blacks learn to effortlessly code switch, that is unconsciously modify speech to slip from one culture to another. Many of us reserve speech with ethnic markers for conversations with other people of our ethnicity.
Consider this excerpt from Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America:
Given their desire to fit in both with black and non-blacks, many women often "code-switch" by shifting between dialects, languages, and styles of communication. Code switching is a result of what we call the "yo-yo paradox," the pressure black women feel to shift back and forth in order to meet the conflicting codes, demands, and expectations of different groups. They shift "white" at the office, in the classroom, when addressing the community board during a public forum; and they shift "black" at church, during book club meetings, among family and friends. Many African American women learn how to code-switch from an early age. The lessons on which voice to use and when to use it are often as much a part of their tutelage as good manners and the ABCs. They learn that what is acceptable on the playground is not always acceptable at home, that what is required in the classroom could cause them problems with their teenage cousins. For some black woman, code switching is relatively effortless; sometimes it's even an opportunity to use voices that reflect different aspects of their selves.
But for others, code switching is a more arduous exercise. The multilingualism required to speak one way to a Southern grandmother, another way to youths raised on MTV, and still another way in a corporate boardroom can be as challenging as learning to juggle three balls without dropping one. It can lead to the painful "yo-yo effect," as a woman feels conflicted about shifting between two distinct voices, self-conscious about using the "wrong" voice in the wrong situation. Women who have difficulty switching may be mocked or unfairly criticized by blacks and whites alike. "She thinks she's white." "She tries too hard to sound black." "She's a ghetto girl." "She's not very bright."
African Americans face a conundrum, then. Black vernacular English is unacceptable. Standard English spoken with an accent common to black Americans is unacceptable. And being able to move smoothly between the speech patterns of the black community and those of the broader white community is suspicious.
What is so wrong about "sounding black?" The answer should be "nothing at all." And so, it is well worth exploring why typically black speech patterns, no matter how close they are to the standard, can provoke such strong and often negative responses.