Signs of Misunderstanding
Racial connotations of Teabonics phrase examined.
Posted Sep 17, 2010
Awareness of issues often goes in waves, and over the past few weeks, I've seen a resurgence of "Teabonics" postings on Facebook. I was initially struck by the coined phrase, and wondered how it came to be. It seems to have originated with the Flickr account of Pargon who has a string of photos highlighting errors in the sign of Tea Partiers. There was a wave of publicity about the term earlier in the year but nothing on the origins of the name. What I did learn is that "pargon" comes from the video game Eternal Darkness and is similar to "oomph." But I digress.
Like most, I immediately noticed the play on Ebonics. I had a vague recollection of the Oakland School District's Resolution to recognize the language system as valid. Controversy ensued over whether the move would further marginalize children or help bridge their learning. Despite the true intent of the resolution, the general connotation of Ebonics remained: that it is rooted in ignorance and laziness. That was the mainstream story, and they were sticking to it. So, when I saw these pictures with grammatical, spelling and word choice errors from Tea Party members, I could not help but hear the underlying message: These people are as stupid and lazy as those who speak Ebonics.
I'm not alone in my analysis of the word choice. However the recent call for Ebonics translators at the Drug Enforcement Administration made me revisit my reaction.
In that NPR video, Dr. John McWhorter explains that Ebonics is a dialect of English just as Sicilian is a dialect of Italian. He refers to it as Black English and is quick to point out that contrary to popular belief that it came from West Africa (perpetuated by the Oakland resolution), Ebonics actually has its roots in Great Britain dialects spoken by the indentured servants early slaves often worked alongside. It is a dialect and system with rules. It is not, as many have said, based in ignorance, nor is it a lazy attempt at Standard English.
What the Tea Party signs convey are mistakes. Ebonics is not a series of mistakes. Yet as we learned during the Oakland controversy, Ebonics is not simply about language. It has become a proxy for negative and demeaning stereotypes of African Americans (rather than link to the hate sites, I'll leave it to you and your preferred search engine). With that in mind, it makes sense to link the connotations of Ebonics with the Tea Party signs in an attempt to discredit the group as unintelligent. I get the underlying intention, yet the premise is faulty. To call their grammatical errors Teabonics misconstrues the already murky conception of Ebonics.
I cannot claim to know what Pargon, or whoever originated the phrase, intended when coining the phrase. However, I am left with the work of unpacking the connection that has been made. There was a part of me that thought writing this piece would be futile. I am speaking out against the misappropriation of a connotation rather than a true understanding of a concept.
The other part of me felt strongly that this further misperception of Ebonics should be called out. Research, conducted in the U.S. and Europe, has suggested that using the vernacular from home can help support student learning. Ebonics is not about African American kids being unintelligent. There is much more to the achievement gap than vernacular. Similarly, the critique of the Tea Party movement should be multifaceted and on solid ground rather than a shaky analogy.
In the end, I (clearly) decided to highlight the racial connotation of the Ebonics-Teabonics discussion and the continued misunderstanding of Ebonics. I guess it's like that annoying nickname that sticks. As much as you try to get it to go away, it remains. But you continue to express your dismay in hopes that one day they'll reconsider.