Growing up, my Black friends said I talked “white” and my non-Black friends said I talked “ghetto”. Pretty soon, I was both the accuser and the accused in the racial speech witch trials. But as I grew older, intellectual maturation and social awareness showed me the role language plays, how it helps us, and how it hurts us, unevenly in both situations. I learned that assuming everyone from a certain race does or should talk the same way is problematic. But I quite often found rebuttals to this theory are even more problematic than the accusation. Here’s why:
1. Using the phrase “Talking (insert Race here)” is problematic.
Saying someone talks black, white, brown, red, or purple is problematic. While we may speak similarly as another from the same race or culture, the amount of dialects, accents, pidgins, slang, colloquialisms, etc. there are in any language (especially English) is staggering. When it comes to speech, a racially monolithic way of talking is simply not possible.
Languages and accents aren’t stagnant either. For example, English is derived from Latin, and was heavily influenced by German and French. The regional American accents we speak English with were created as colonists came in contact with the Spanish, French, Native Americans, and African Diaspora. “Where you at?” is a long ways from “where art thou?”. Speech changes over time and space.
2. But when people use words like “educated” and “proper” to describe speech or as a rebuttal against “talking white”, it can be even more problematic than the accusation.
As frustrating as is to be accused for talking a race, our responses can be just as or even more problematic. Whenever I hear my Black peers ask a question to the effect of “So you’re saying I ‘talk white’ just because I speak properly?”, it makes me cringe. I assume their intention is to rebel against a one-size-fits-all “Blackness” and that speaking “properly” has nothing to do with race, but describing speech in those terms subtly plays to the idea that “talking Black” is inarticulation.
The idea that speaking a certain way denotes intelligence has roots in classism across world history, but in the context of America, it is specifically rooted in slavery. Enslaved and displaced Africans were taught a new language under the whip, not in the classroom. There were laws against giving slaves any type of formal education, so throughout the diaspora, millions of Blacks were institutionally prohibited from learning and speaking “proper” English. A Black house maid who spoke “properly” (in form and function) was in proximity (figuratively and literally) to “whiteness” in the eyes of other Black people, but to some white people, she could be a sociopolitical threat to “whiteness”, because it would have revealed a level of education (keyword: “education”, not intelligence). “Whiteness” as we see it is a very recent thing, formulated in order to synthesize race into class as Europeans colonized darker continents. Policing speech was an extension of oppression, and one of the many tools that helped racism and classism reify each other.
Fast-forward to 2015 to a Black kid born and raised in Englewood, Chicago. He lives and interacts with only Black people, all of whom speak the same way. When he sees another Black kid speak “properly”, he may assume they “talk white”, because he has only one reference to “Blackness”. He making the (problematic) observation that the other kid speaks with what he thinks is a “white accent” (intonation, inflection, hard consonants, types of slang, fully pronouncing words, etc.). It’s an ignorant (in the denotation of the word) generalization, but his problem is he thinks Blackness is one thing and has to be one thing. But if you or I assume what he really means is “you don’t speak un-intelligently like I do, so you’re not Black”, that’s even more problematic, and reveals way more about us than it does about him.
Why do we use the term “proper English” in America? If that phrase means how the ethnically English speak English in England, then there isn’t one person here who speaks proper. In the US, one says “literally”, the other says “lid-duh-ruhlee”, but they both sound odd to a London tourist who has pronounced it “lit-truh-lee” their whole life. But as Americans, that isn’t what we’re talking about 99.99% of the time. What we almost always mean (in intention or not) by the term “proper” when describing speech is “normal” or “standard”. And that’s where the issue lies. Who sets the standard? How is it negotiated? And is that Black kid from Englewood at the negotiation table?
3. Speaking “clearly” or “proper” is subjective.
When I was living in Cape Town, South Africa, I was often responded to with “huh?” when I spoke. In my opinion, I was enunciating my words very clearly, but some couldn’t understand what I was saying. It was a tad bit annoying, but my annoyance was very “American”, because we typically don’t see ourselves as having an accent. We forget or remain oblivious to the fact that how we generally speak English is not how English is generally spoken anywhere else in the world. And what may be even more difficult to conceptualize for many of us is that white Americans have an accent too.
Speaking “clearly” to you or I may sound confusing to another. If you visit Paris and speak French, they may not be able to comprehend you, because you are enunciating French words as if they were English words with an American accent. In that moment, you are speaking “clearly”, but to them, you sound funny. Bringing it back to America’s regional accents, the same applies. In my opinion, the twangy Southwestern accent is unbearable. But if I was born and raised in the heart of Texas, I highly doubt I would believe that. And though I’d understand that how I talk is “not normal” to the rest of America, I definitely would not equate my twang to stupidity.
So although we approach speaking “properly” or “clearly” as a universal concept, we have to be aware of its parameters. Normalizing the way we speak is not the same thing as the way we speak being normal. One is a social construction created and policed by the majority, the other is a passive-aggressive myth. Again, it is very problematic to imply that everyone from a specific race talks the same. I’m certainly not trying to dismiss that. But if you are non-white person accused of “talking white”, the accuser is probably saying you pronounce words in a way they’ve equated to “whiteness”, not intelligence. Both are bad, one is arguably much worse. And if you are a white person who sees the way you talk as objectively normal, you may be unknowingly otherizing minorities, and perpetuating the political role of language by arguing for an artificial standard that serves the majority.