A little bird told me that it's International Blog Against Racism Week
. Clearly, as it's now Saturday, I'm a bit behind. I fell into a bit of a hole last night before bedtime, reading various blog entries about racism, white privelege, and how best to be an ally. I always like feeding my head, and this is certainly the whole-grain muesli of brain food (as opposed to reading fanfic or random websurfing, which is more like the pick-mix gummy-candy of brain food).
I did find some reasonably good advice about how to combat racism as a part of the priveleged group (at least, priveleged race-wise; the lack of a penis attached to my body means I'm not in the priveleged group sex-wise), and I thought I'd share a bit of what I learned.
Dummies White Folk
First and foremost: Don't be a bystander. If you encounter someone behaving in a racist way, call them out on it. Like a small child spreading their feces on the wall, if they are not reprimanded, how are they ever to learn that their actions are wrong and unacceptable?
Secondly: Don't expect a cookie or a pat on the head from people of color for deigning to give up some portion of your privelege. It's not about you. It's about them. If you're serious about being an ally, do so with humility, patience, and willingness to accept both criticism and leadership from people of color. Don't do it because you want to be popular (with white people or with people of color), don't do it because you want credit or adulation (because the only people likely to give it to you are white people, and they're really not the important audience here); doing it to salve your guilty conscience is at least a start, but at the heart of it all, if you're going to be an ally to people of color and work to end racism, do it because it's the right thing to do.
Thirdly: Educate yourself. Learn what white privelege really means, and learn what hardships people of color have faced and continue to face. Don't rely on second-hand knowledge, pat sound bites, or trite delusions like "This is 2007! Racism is a thing of the past!" You can never learn enough, but you can definitely learn too little.
Finally: Being an ally is a process, not a label. Don't rest on your laurels. You may have been a poster-carrying anti-racist back in your college days, but if you've comfortably settled into all the benefits that white privelege entails without ever questioning your entitlement to them, it's any person of color's right to ask "What have you done for me (or, more importantly, the cause) lately?"
My Own $.02 as a Linguist
The above is a synthesis of both things I knew before, and things I read last night. Now, however, I would like to add my own commentary, which is borne out of what I have learned as a linguist. It is, in many ways, riskier for me to say, because it addresses behavior that I have encountered my own (white) friends displaying, both in real life and on LJ. I'm not going to call anyone out by name, especially because those of you it applies to will doubtless recognize your own behavior in it, and I because don't want to alienate my friends any more than saying this certainly will. But for those whose behavior I am commenting on, I would ask you, after any initial ill-feeling this may cause, to give careful thought to your own behavior and how it contributes to perpetuating institutionalized racism, as well as reflecting your internalized white privelege.
The behavior I am referring to could be referred to as "linguistic racism" or "linguistic intolerance". Specifically, making negative commentary about the way a person speaks (or writes, if their written language reflects their dialect) when their speech patterns are particularly reflective of their race. Or, to stop beating around the bush: some of you really get your panties/briefs in a twist when faced with variants of English other than your own, especially when they are African American English, and comment about certain features being "wrong", and how "everybody knows" that this word, word order, negation pattern, pronunciation, etc. is "right". In the distant past, before I made the change from being a prescriptivist ("this is how language is supposed to be") to being a descriptivist ("this is how language is"), I was guilty of it myself many times, but I have, by virtue of learning, realized the error of my ways. I would like to pass on some of what I have learned.
So, by now, those of you I am addressing probably know who you are. I hope you're still reading, and I hope you will allow me, as a linguist, to give you a quick introduction to sociolinguistics and how language reinforces power structures.
Standard Language, or, Sociolinguistics 101, Week 2 or so
There are, for most languages in this world, or at least for those which have a written version and/or function as a national language, varieties of the language that are considered "correct", "standard" or "good", and varieties that are considered "incorrect", "non-standard" or "bad".
The former varieties, almost invariably, have their roots as the geographic dialect associated with the center of economic or political power in a nation, specifically of the upper and upper-middle class of that area, and are perpetuated as being the "standard" of that language by the media, first through printing (standardized spellings are usually those phonetically closest to the power-dialect at the time when the orthography is fixed, orthography being a fancy-schmancy word for spelling) and later through audio/audiovisual media.
The latter varieties, almost invariably, are varieties associated with those who are disenfranchised from the echelons of power: dialects associated with poor, rural, or working-class-urban people, ethnolects (the dialect of a ethnic group) of those at the bottom of the power structure (historically in the US, that of African Americans, as well as other groups such as Latinos), and those who have not had access to standardized education for several generations.
As those of you reading this are intelligent people, I assume that you can connect the dots and see how being the native speaker of a standard or near-standard variety immediately makes you less likely to be disenfranchised from power than being the native speaker of a non-standard dialect. This doesn't necessarily have to be about race: I think back to the way we mocked the Texarkana/Oklahoma dialect when I was growing up in Kansas, or the way we mocked the West Virginia dialect when I was in college in Ohio. But it takes on a certain degree of insidiousness when it is directed at linguistic traits associated with African Americans. Any sort of "my variety is better than your variety" behavior (be it language, skin color, hair type, what have you) reinforces racism, just as "men are adjective
-er than women" reinforces sexism, "fat people are are lazy/unattractive/stupid/whatever" reinforces sizism, etc.
I would also point out that non-standard varieties are by no means "incorrect" in a communicative sense: if a speaker's utterance gets the speaker's meaning across to the hearer, then it is communicatively correct. Non-standard varieties are internally consistent and systematic (unless they are in their initial stages of development, which none of the varieties I have discussed are), both in their pronunciation and their grammar, not "bad" versions of Standard English.
As it is most relevant to the occasion (International Blog Against Racism Week, if you'd forgotten during my brief sociolinguistics lesson), and as it is the variety about which I have done the most reading and writing, I will confine the rest of this discussion to African American English (hereafter AAE).
African American English
First, a couple of disclaimers: I am not a native speaker of AAE, nor do I speak it as a non-native speaker (as I do with Danish, and, to a lesser degree, German and French). I have studied it from a linguistic and sociolinguistic standpoint, which makes me roughly as qualified to talk about it as I am to talk about Norwegian. However, as with Norwegian, I've done a fair amount of my homework, and I can quite happily refer you to further information written by native speakers who also happen to be linguists. I am not an authoritative or exhaustive source, but I feel sufficiently qualified to interpret the authoritative sources to a lay audience.
Next, a couple of definitions and clarifications: AAE is a variety of English spoken by African-Americans. It is not, however, monolithic. Not all African-Americans speak AAE, and some speak it only when speaking to other African-Americans. In addition, there is a fair amount of geographical variation in AAE. AAE is not merely slang, although slang is an important aspect; by slang, in this context, I mean the temporally ephemeral "in-language" spoken by youth and young adults.
Most other aspects of AAE cut across age lines; while this does include some vocabulary, it primarily includes pronunciation and grammatical features. I will comment on those features that I most frequently see white people commenting negatively upon: pronunciation differences, negation patterns, and auxiliary verb usage differences.
AAE has several pronunciation differences from Standard American English (hereafter SAE). The most noticeable for SAE speakers are AAE /f/ : SAE /th/ (e.g. toof
), and consonant drop of /r/, /g/, /t/ and /d/ (e.g. AAE libary
: SAE library
, AAE I'unno
: SAE I dunno
, AAE I'm'onna
: SAE I'm gonna
). These pronunciation features are not the result of laziness, any more than your saying I dunno
instead of I don't know
Language communities always change their sound systems to increase economy of motion, until such point as ambiguity appears and new differentiations must be made (which is why we have consonants at all, and are not perpetually going in the direction of an all-vowel language, although I sometimes wonder about Danish). Sound change and sound variations in any language happen along these lines, and to attribute laziness or other judgments of character (be they negative or positive, though they are usually negative) to African Americans because of these differences is racist. It would be no less absurd to say that immigrants from China or Japan have trouble distinguishing /r/ and /l/ because they're good at math. Hello? Stereotyping, anyone?
Multiple negation is grammatically correct, although not obligatory, in AAE, just as it is in many of the world's languages. Double negatives do not logically equal a positive, and acting as though they do is just pedantic. Let's face it, SAE speakers: If an AAE speaker says "I don't know nothing", you know perfectly well what they mean, even if you would say "I don't know anything" in your dialect. To act as though you don't is asinine, and to mock or criticize African Americans on a feature found in many of the world's languages is racist and ignorant.
Auxiliary Usage Differences
This one gets a bit more into what I, as a linguist, find most fascinating about AAE, and what, other than slang, is most likely to cause communicative difficulties between AAE and SAE speakers. However, even if you never use these traits yourself, it takes only a little bit of learning to grasp the differences, which will go a long way towards aiding communication.Copula drop / Persistent be
Copula is the linguistic term for the verb to be
in English and its semantic equivalents in other languages, specifically in the sense of equating two things or making a statement about the subject of a sentence. In AAE, sentences of this nature do not require the use of am
, or are
. For example:
AAE: He here.
SAE: He is here.
AAE also features a usage of the bare infinitive be
which does not have a direct, single-word correlate in SAE, sometimes referred to as "persistent be
" (linguists refer to this as an aspect marker, which means it communicates information about whether an action or state of being is in a completed or ongoing state). For example, by means of contrast:
AAE: He sad.
SAE: He is sad (right now).
AAE: He be sad.
SAE: He is sad all the time. or He is a generally sad person.Remote past aspect marker BIN
This marker is related to been
, but many linguists write it as BIN
to denote the fact that it is stressed. Where as been
is used in much the same way as in SAE (to denote the perfect progressive, although frequently with the auxiliary to have
dropped, e.g. SAE: I have been walking / AAE: I been walking), BIN
denotes action begun in the remote past. Again, this is a single marker in AAE that requires the use of a longer time phrase in SAE. Depending on what type of verb it is used with, it can denote either action that is completed or action that is ongoing. For example:
In answer to the question, "When are we supposed to be at our friends' house for dinner?"
AAE: I BIN told you that.
SAE: I told you that a long time ago. or I already told you that.
In answer to the question, "Do you want to go for a walk?"
AAE: I BIN walking; I'm tired now.
SAE: I have been walking for a long time; I'm tired now.
I hope this serves to highlight some of the linguistic traits of AAE. If you want to learn more about this variety, but don't want to spend any money or very much time, I suggest you check out the Wikipedia entry
on the subject. If you are willing to spend a bit of money, and the time involved in reading a whole book, I would recommend Lisa Green's excellent African American English: A Linguistic Introduction
. John Rickford's book
is also good, but if memory serves, he is a native speaker of a Caribbean creole, while Green is a native speaker of AAE. Also, I find Green's book vastly more readable and enjoyable, as Rickford's is to some degree a compilation of prior articles, book chapters, and presentations rolled into one.
But what about Good GrammarTM??
I can just hear some of you shrieking that question in response to some of the things I have said above. To which I respond: I encourage you to recall that "good" grammar is really "the grammar spoken by the powered classes" combined, in the case of English, with some rather ridiculous rules exapted by scholars of Latin (a dead Romance language) and applied willy-nilly to English (a living, changing Germanic language with heavy Romance influences). (I would happily refer you to reading material on the ridiculous history of Latin-derived prescriptivism in English, but at the moment I don't remember where I read it. If you are interested, I'll do some searching.) Secondly, language is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Language serves the function of providing a means of communication to its community of speakers, and to apply moral judgments of "good" and "bad" to different varieties serves to reinforce injust power structures.
Therefore, I urge you to think carefully about your position on grammar, and move away from the useless good/bad dichotomy into more realistic labels like "standard/non-standard grammar" (better, but not perfect; it does at least recognize the existence of a standard variety, even if it does devalue other varieties), or better yet "genre-appropriate" style or grammar.
Communicative Genre, or, Sociolinguistics 101, week 4 or so
All communication takes place in one or more genres, depending on the people involved, the medium of communication used, and the intention of the utterance. The thing that gets the grammar-totalitarians' (apologies, but that is really how I've come to think of them, and that is actually my kindest term) collective knickers in a bunch seems to be predicated upon the notion that the style which is the accepted standard of formal, written communication should be applied to all genres. Hooey, says I. There is absolutely no good reason that spoken language should be held to the same standards as written language (try looking at a really accurate transcript of spoken language sometime, if you've never done so). Trying to do so is ridiculous and pedantic. Different media of communication (spoken, written, emailed, text-messaged) have different styles, typically dependent upon the length of the utterance, the intended audience, and the permanence of the medium.
In addition, the people doing the talking also sets the genre. And this is really the crux of the matter. We, as white people (most of whom qualify as middle-class and well-educated), have no right to impose our expectations of spoken language style on African Americans, particularly when two or more African Americans are communicating with each other
, and we just happen to overhear them. It doesn't stop most of us from doing so, consciously or unconsciously, but it's still racist, and it's still wrong.
As far as when an African American is communicating with a white person, it's entirely up to them whether they want to speak AAE, SAE, something in between, or a combination of both. Here, again, is where white privelege creeps in: most white people assume that it is the obligation of the person of color to normalize their
speech to our
standard. After much consideration, I disagree. What I would challenge you, as a member of the priveleged group, to do is this: when speaking with a person of color, meet them at least halfway, if not further. Educate yourself about the differences between SAE and AAE, such that they no longer present a barrier to communication. You don't have to be able to speak a language or variety fluently in order to understand it (I'm much that way with Norwegian). If the AAE speaker uses a word or phrase you don't know, ask what it means, without being arrogant or condescending. Don't try to make them feel inferior about their variety of English. Be as patient and open-minded as you would be when speaking to a native speaker of British English, Indian English, Singaporean English, or any other of the world's myriad Englishes (and yes, it is quite legitimate to talk about English in the plural).
Lemme sum up
Since this has become something of an essay, I feel like I should write a conclusion, but I really hate doing so. I will just leave you with the key points I tried to make: African American English is a variety of English no less valid or correct than any other, blind adherence to standard language in all genres perpetuates racism and injustice, and if you're white, you should educate yourself on white privelege and its ramifications in your society. Thank you for your time and attention if you managed to read this all the way through. I welcome reasoned discussion in the comments.