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The Quad: Refusing to legitimize Black English invalidates Black experiences

(Emily Dembinski/Illustrations director)

By Danielle Pigeon

Oct. 10, 2020 6:02 p.m.

One way the pervasiveness of racial bias towards Black Americans can be seen is in the ongoing battle for language legitimacy; members of the Black community are calling for the recognition of Black English as an official language variety.

Black English – also known as African American Vernacular English or Ebonics – is the distinctive set of speech forms used by Black Americans, though the linguistic community remains divided on whether it is specifically a dialect or a language.

Black English first arose out of the necessity for communication between enslaved people of various African descents, resulting in a linguistic system that follows set syntactic and phonological rules even as it varies across demographics.

Dr. Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, faculty emeritus and former vice chancellor of Graduate Studies at UCLA, said in an email statement that there are many features that exemplify the rule-governed structure of Black English.

“Among features I discussed (in my publication) were A. phonological features such as consonant cluster simplification (las vs last); B. grammatical features, such as deletion of third singular (he think vs he thinks) (and) C. syntactic features (don’t nobody know vs nobody knows),” Mitchell-Kernan said in the statement.

However, the validity of Black English has long been questioned.

Perhaps the most well-known example of the controversy surrounding Black English is the national debate that occurred after the Oakland Unified School District decided to recognize the linguistic variety in 1996. As members of the Oakland school board moved to officially recognize Black English in bilingual student programs in order to increase educational accessibility, critics said the evidence supporting its benefits was underdeveloped and that it could result in political repercussions as well as a “lowering of standards.”

According to JSTOR Daily, when others fail to recognize Black English’s legitimacy, its innovative and culturally significant features are dismissed as well.


Tiffany Jackson, a third-year human biology and society student and president of the Organization of African-American Students Excelling in STEM at UCLA, said language has a key role in culture and in defining one’s own being because it is central to childhood communication development.

Your primary language is how you tell people ‘I love you’ (and other) certain important words,” Jackson said. “We use it throughout our wholes lives (and) hear it from all of our family, and now it’s ‘so controversial.'”

Several studies have found that Black speakers of Black English are often dismissed as “uneducated” or as unable to “properly” articulate their thoughts.

Promise Ogunleye, a third-year undeclared student and Undergraduate Students Association Council cultural affairs commissioner said this stigma impacts Black people’s ability to take their rightful space in society.

“In order to be accepted into a space like UCLA even, (Black people) have to act like we talk a different way,” Ogunleye said. “Especially as a Black person walking into spaces (that) are heavily white – which is most spaces – you find yourself having to figure out how to assimilate or … make yourself small.”

These stigmas do not just carry with them harmful prejudice but they also feed into a greater collective of institutional barriers.

Sabrina K. Rhoden of Gardner-Webb University relayed that the lack of knowledge about and exposure to Black English causes elementary teachers to have lower expectations of students speaking the linguistic variety, leading to premature incorrect assessment of Black students’ abilities which goes on to impede student learning.

Additionally, a recent study found that court reporters in Philadelphia regularly incorrectly transcribe statements made by Black English speakers, including statements that play a key role in criminal cases and the misunderstanding of which can lead to unjust legal processing.

A survey conducted by Pew Research Center reported that because of these barriers, four in ten Black and Latino adults sometimes or often experience pressure to “code-switch,” or adjust the way they talk around people of different ethnicities and races.

“People code-switch to maintain intelligibility, and this can mean strictly linguistic intelligibility or ‘social intelligibility,'” Mitchell-Kernan said. “If you recognize (as most college-educated people do) that invidious attributions are associated with AAVE/BE, Code-switching may be a form of impression management.”

Jackson added that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in having to speak a little differently in the workplace.

“But it is problematic in terms of institutionalized racism and the fact that … professional spheres consider our way of speaking to be ‘unprofessional’ (and) ‘uneducated,'” Jackson said.

Even as the use of Black English by Black Americans is shrouded in stigma and discrimination, non-Black people go on to culturally appropriate different terms or phrasings from Black English in a manner that is accepted and approved by mainstream culture, according to an article from The Guardian.

One example of this linguistic appropriation can be seen from non-Black rappers like Iggy Azalea, who has been criticized for profiting off her extensive use of Black English in her music despite creating content that perpetuates stereotypes of the Black experience and hip-hop culture, including hyper-sexualization, drugs and violence.

Ogunleye said that by co-opting the language, non-Black people, who fail to understand the nuances and rules of Black English, create a caricature of how they think Black people speak.

“(Linguistic appropriation) kind of tries to erase the fact that not all Black people are the same – we have individuality,” Ogunleye said.

Jackson said attending a white Quaker school in rural Pennsylvania has shaped some of her experiences with language.

“A lot of people – a lot of Black people – tell me that I sound ‘too white’ all the time, even when I’m speaking regularly,” Jackson said. “But when I’m speaking … in the professional sphere, I’ve never heard that I sound too white. (Instead) people will tell me ‘oh, you sound so educated, professional.'”

Mitchell-Kernan said that the institutionalization of language can reflect those who have social and political power in a society.

“Languages and varieties of a language take on a ‘valence’ similar to that of the people who speak them,” Mitchell-Kernan said. “It is not uncommon for some varieties of a language to enjoy greater prestige than others and some to be actually stigmatized.”

Ogunleye encouraged people to interrogate their actions and personal biases in order to not reinforce the stigmas and stereotypes associated with Black English and the greater Black experience.

“It’s going to take a lot of unlearning anti-Blackness for (Black) people to … not have to constantly bend because they can’t exist completely freely because of different stereotypes that they … know they’re going to be put under,” Ogunleye said.

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Danielle Pigeon
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