Widgets Magazine


Cultural domination in language: Why you talk like that?

Recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore have drawn attention to the political and economic inequalities in black and minority communities. However, in addition to this, another often-ignored dimension of American race relations is the continued mindset that paints African Americans as deviant, criminal non-citizens and results in internalization of such beliefs in the black community. To illustrate this point, this article will focus on one particular instance of this cultural narrative: African American vernacular, or Ebonics. In particular, the devaluation of Ebonics represents a colonial process that diminishes the cultural confidence within African American communities.

The devaluation of Ebonics can best be analyzed by example. In 1996, the Oakland School Board passed a resolution acknowledging Ebonics as a legitimate form of language to incorporate into school systems. Specifically, the board believed in “maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language” and creating “environments where…African-American pupils shall not, because of their race, be subtly dehumanized.” Rather than demonize Ebonics, this resolution accepted it as a legitimate language in itself just as British English and American English are.

However, the resolution immediately erupted into a national controversy questioning the legitimacy of Ebonics as a real language. Mainstream media construed the actions of the Oakland School Board as an attempt to gain bilingual funding and treated Ebonics merely as an accent. The New York Times, even, referred to Ebonics as “black slang” and “street language.” The reactions to the resolution demonstrate that the broader American society acknowledges a Standard English, namely the English spoken by the white American majority, and establishes this English as the normatively correct version because it is considered proper, respectful and polite. However, establishing a “standard” English comes at the cost of marginalizing other forms of English spoken by minorities in America. In this case, Ebonics was devalued as something criminal, subversive and uneducated.

Many theorists argue that the association of Anglo-American English as the “correct” and “standard” version of English in the US is a result of power and wealth dynamics in America. According to linguist Noam Chomsky, “If the distribution of power and wealth were to shift from southern Manhattan to East Oakland, ‘Ebonics’ would be the prestige variety of English and [those on Wall Street] would be denounced by the language police.” Chomsky illustrates the relationship between power and language control. For centuries, white Americans have had exclusive ownership over the institutions that produce social norms. White Americans have controlled the job market as employers, have controlled governmental policy over English education and have owned national media and entertainment outlets. With such power, traits and characteristics associated with white Americans were instilled as the normatively correct versions. As a consequence, Ebonics was disregarded as inappropriate for mainstream American society, resulting in the outrage over events such as the Oakland board resolution.

Perhaps one of the most insidious consequences of creating a Standard English is that the assimilation process can produce a sense of psychological inferiority of individual and cultural worth in black communities. African Americans, coerced by concerns in the job market and by education policy, assimilate to Standard English and, in the process, must buy into a language that represents a cultural hierarchy with white America at the top. In Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin, White Masks, he makes the observation, “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” Black Americans assume the culture of white America when assimilating into Standard English and, in doing so, become “civilized.” Becoming white in manner of speaking and conduct allows black individuals to reap economic rewards in the job market and psychological rewards of social acceptance and appreciation by dominant cultural norms.

However, the process of language assimilation to Standard English is essentially a process of colonial domination. The colonizer creates the economic and social incentives for assimilation; meanwhile, the colonized strive to speak the colonizer’s language and develop an inferiority complex, to the extent that they fail. This process of assimilation partially extends membership for African Americans into American society; however, it requires that African Americans buy into an ideology that marginalizes Ebonics and, symbolically, larger African American cultural differences. As a consequence, even as assimilated African Americans can look down upon Ebonics-speaking African Americans, they are concomitantly self-berating themselves for their own black characteristics, such as physical traits or cultural traditions, that are devalued by dominant white norms. The process of language assimilation acknowledges the humanity of white America; however, it is unable to recognize Ebonics as a legitimate language of the oppressed and, therefore, fails to recognize the humanity of black America.

Ebonics is an instance of how cultural norms and beliefs have been shaped in America to devalue black bodies and black lives. Shedding light on this topic is crucial because, as the nation continues to mobilize around racial politics, it should also acknowledge and support black and minority cultural pride efforts to resist this colonial mindset.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • Derwood Kirby

    Yo, I be down wid dat.

  • ’17

    How ironic that you wrote this in standard English. And yet you’re not white. Now my brain hurts. I thought language was inherently part of race? Me no understand. Me confused.

  • Senior

    Yeah either that or it just makes a lot more sense to build a society where people can all talk to each other. American English is the obvious language to teach in an American public school because it will enable a child to communicate with 300 million Americans and 1.2 billion people worldwide thereby dramatically increasing his or her ability to function in society.

    English would only be the ancestral language of Anglo-Saxon Americans, which is less than 10% of today’s US population. This country has taught English to people of all colors and creeds from all over the world. Ancestrally, it has taught English to most of its white people. That might feel offensive to you, but a society with as diverse a language ancestry as the US wouldn’t function if no one could communicate with anyone outside their ancestral group.

    Nationalism and colonialism are two very different things. It’s not like the government ruled that Ebonics is illegal to speak, just that our public schools should teach English, which through happenstance of history is the official language of the country. The idea that English = white = colonialism is incredibly narrow-minded.

    You could argue that the history that led to English being the official language of the US is colonialist, but that’s obvious. We only live and make decisions in the present day and educating children to not be able to communicate with the rest of society is a bad decision both for those children and for society. It’s also vastly different from forcing people to abandon their cultures and speak English in their homes, as occurred in colonialism.

  • Eric

    There is a substantial difference between written English and the various styles of spoken English. That’s why Ebonics is called African American Vernacular – vernacular refers specifically to the spoken word, not the written.

  • Eric

    The problem isn’t that what we consider standard English is what is being taught in schools. The problem is that non-standard variants of spoken English are held as improper, as deviant, in much of society.

    Colonialism and nationalism cannot be separated so easily. Oftentimes nationalism was (and in many cases still is) the fuel for colonialism. For example, we have pretty much all of American expansion, particularly former territories such as the Philippines.

  • Senior

    “The problem is that non-standard variants of spoken English are held as improper, as deviant, in much of society.”

    That is a completely separate issue than teaching English in public schools. This article is arguing that not allowing Ebonics to be taught in public schools is driving Ebonics to be considered deviant in society, which is clearly not true given the counterexamples of every other language spoken in the US. It’s being treated the same as every language that isn’t the official language of the country.

    See this piece for debunking your argumentative tactic: http://www.stanforddaily.com/2015/05/07/disguising-extremism-as-common-sense/

    This article is arguing for Ebonics to be treated as a second official language of the country, but it’s pretending to be arguing for it not to be held deviant in society, a point almost everyone would agree with.

  • Eric

    Although the article mentioned when Oakland considered having Ebonics officially incorporated into school curricula, not teaching Ebonics in schools does not appear to be the focus of the article.

    Your argument of how every other language spoken in the US working as a counterexample fails as well – many schools require a foreign language (i.e. any language that is not the official language of the country) to be taught as a graduation requirement. I have yet to hear about a school that allows for Ebonics to fill that requirement.

    I do not see the motte-and-bailey tactic that you claim I am using. My post was:
    a) An attempted explanation on to what appeared to be your misconception of the article (I thought you were under the impression that the author was saying non-standard vernacular English should be taught in schools, but it appears instead that you believe the author wants African American Vernacular “to be treated as a second official language of the country.”) That statement you quoted was taking my interpretation of the entire article into account, which included the line “Ebonics was disregarded as inappropriate for mainstream American society,” which I saw as similar to my statement, which you quoted, “The problem is that non-standard variants of spoken English are held as improper, as deviant, in much of society.”
    b) Giving my thoughts on the connection between nationalism and colonialism, which your post implied had no connection between them (specifically the part that said “Nationalism and colonialism are two very different things”).

    If any of that was retreating to something uncontroversial from a place of controversy, please quote where I did so so that I may not make that mistake again.

    Finally, I would not want Ebonics treated as a second official language – it is at most a dialect.

  • HiJinks

    This sounds like a 70’s rendition of a bullshit prick impersonation.

  • HiJinks

    So what do we call the white broken english or vernacular that i just so happen to be watching on #southernjustice right now. WEbonics?

  • Jonathan Poto

    Neil is a boss.

  • Jonathan Poto

    I’m big into brevity and clarity, the holy grail of communication. If an Oakland school district decides that the most effective form of communication, and one that connects to students the best is Ebonics, then let’s consider then innovative. As long as they’re also being real enough to say that traditional English needs to be taught effectively so that those students can hang in any ‘traditional’ setting, its a win-win.