This morning I stumbled upon a blog post written by Nick Chiles, the husband of a local blogger/author that I highly respect, Denene Milner, entitled, “To Raise Successful Black Kids You Have To Teach Them Black English” on MyBrownBaby.com. The article definitely resonated with me for several reasons and got me thinking about the way my own children have been raised, mostly subconsciously. My children are coming up in a pretty unique (but honestly becoming less unique with each generation) set of circumstances. There are 5 of them and they are biracial. Their mother is white. Their father is black. They have two brothers who are black. The majority of their more “active” family is black… but obviously they have white family as well. The only family they see on a regular basis is the family that resides under this roof. Most of their social environments over the years (daycares, schools) have been predominantly white and for whatever reason, they’ve never fully felt they fit in. They are from southern Mississippi, but experienced most of their childhood up to this point in north-central Louisiana and now we’ve made metro Atlanta, Georgia our permanent home. As a white mother of five biracial children growing up in such a diverse area where they finally DO feel like they fit in, I’m thankful that this area is SO diverse, but I also know that no matter where they are, they are always going to have expectations assigned to them and assumptions made about them because of who their parents are — not just because they are biracial per se, but in the black community because their mother is white and in the white community because their father is black. People will often want to know how “black” they are… or if they think they’re “white.”
From reading the comments in the article (which you can access by clicking on the link in the previous paragraph) I can see there are somewhat mixed opinions on the viewpoint shared but from raising my children in several different environments, watching them naturally operate within two very different family settings, and interacting with various cultures of people throughout three southern states, I have to say that on a majority scale, I completely agree with Nick. I’m not even black, but code switching is something I’ve done my entire life as I’ve been around mostly black people since I was a small child … That’s for another article though ;) The reason I mention this is because I’ve found that code switching is an automatic reaction in a lot of ways… to pick up on and adopt methods, mannerisms, and speech patterns of the group you are around mostly and apply them in situations where you need to gauge others’ positions or express your own. When you are raising children who are growing up in an environment where the people they are around mostly aren’t people who look like them, those methods need to be taught to them purposefully so that they have the ability to function comfortably in those settings — and likewise to have others be comfortable with them. This is done in EVERY culture — I know several Chinese families who send their children to live with relatives in China for the first few years in order to develop their cultural foundation before allowing them to live in America. Almost every Latino family I’ve ever known makes sure that every child in their household speaks Spanish first. They understand their own cultural norms first. They preserve them proudly. They use them to create bonds and “feel out” uncertain social climates.
My husband and I have done what we view as being a phenomenal job in ensuring that our children adopt a independent point of view as they don’t adopt one or the other culture, but rather both. They subscribe to being biracial and the people they surround themselves with are not chosen based on racial characteristics — our children have friends that are white, black, Mexican, Asian, African, Bosnian, Romanian, Jamaican, Haitian… a couple of their friends are from the Dominican Republic and some of them are Hispanic/Latino in addition to those. As much as I encourage my children to speak properly, develop a broad vocabulary, and engage intelligently, I also do find myself teaching them to have a real, personal voice as well. I want them to be able to identify with every side of themselves and I want them to be able to relate to and value every element of the cultures that comprise their identities, not just the elements that society would want them to believe are desirable. I think it’s necessary to point out that just like anyone else of any other preserved culture in America, African Americans did not start out here and there was a culture in place before they were brought here. Now, societal standards impose judgment and negative connotations surrounding the characteristics involved in the culture that presently exists in the black community and unjustly so.
My oldest daughter has become a lot less “country-sounding” since we made it to Georgia than she did when we lived in Louisiana/Mississippi and while she does hold proper speaking form for the most part, when she’s totally in her element, that “slang & twang” pops back in lol My son has the broadest vocabulary of all the kids, most definitely, but when he’s with friends he adopts my husband’s speech patterns and mannerisms. My middle child has always been the one who is the absolute most comfortable in what Nick refers to as “code switching” lol When she’s around teachers, white family/friends or in otherwise formal-feeling environments, she channels her inner “proper chick” but she’s definitely most comfortable using apostrophes to replace the final letter on many of the words that come out of her mouth and adjusting a host of facial expressions and aspects of her body language ;) My two youngest are only 7 and 4 but they’re already picking that up from her. I can’t say that I earnestly teach them these approaches, but I do believe that they have learned by example how to understand who they are and how to be themselves around others like them… and I do believe this to be an important part of growing up black — more important than I honestly believe I will ever personally understand, but I understand well enough to know it’s necessary. And I do believe that my children, despite having such a diverse circle, are always going to be more comfortable on a larger scale with others who look like them. That’s just how it is.
I think the issue discussed in the article is about being able to identify with people who share a common background — people who can truly appreciate the culture of which you are a part. One commenter referred to accepting and speaking black English as being “ignorant” … I don’t see it that way. It’s a social concept that allows and fosters an immediate form of bonding which lets those around you know that you identify with them and that you embrace that culture. I’ve always had a MAJOR problem with people assuming that black people who “talk black” (eyeroll) are ignorant, uneducated, etc. What it is about assimilating into what is particularly viewed as “white” culture that makes a person less ignorant? What is it about abandoning typical black vernacular that improves a person’s status, reflects a higher level of education, or makes them more intelligent? Not. A. Thing. Now, am I suggesting that busting out with, “Ain’t nothin’ in this proposal ’bout no projected gains, is it? This ain’t gon’ work. Do it ova,” in response to an assistant giving a presentation in the morning meeting is appropriate? No. There is a time and a place for being in your own personal element and then there’s a time and a place for being a part of a separate professional subculture. When my husband signed with his sports agent years ago, he was very professional. Very proper. Not very long after that, the code switch happened. There’s a time, a place, and a certain demographic for black English that is typically understood and the use of it is usually an implication of that person being comfortable identifying with you.
Yes, black culture and white culture are very different but they are still two sides of the same coin — no one in white America feels compelled to modify themselves, prove themselves, or switch aspects of themselves on and off just because they are white, but white America also hasn’t seen a fraction of the struggles or had to overcome a fraction of what Black America has as a unified front which means that white Americans are generally not in search of someone in the crowd to identify with on a core-level whereas black Americans usually are. Not always. But definitely moreso than white people. My husband is an example. When he walks into a room with mostly white faces and finds a speck or two of black in the midst, he typically migrates in that direction and looks for some form of verification that those people identify with him — that verification is normally by way of their vernacular. When that common ground isn’t established, my husband isn’t as comfortable. It’s just the way it is. When my 7th grader walked into her first day of class this year to a room full of skin with no color, she looked a little frantic and said, “Mama, there’s NO black people in here!” You could literally SEE the relief in her face when another black girl walked in to obtain her schedule. It wasn’t that she doesn’t like white people. Obviously. It’s not that she can’t at all identify with white people. It’s not that she’s uncomfortable around white people. It’s just that a room full of white people can’t fully identify with her. And for any person of color — or at least most — that’s important, even if only to a certain degree.
My children may be growing up in a new generation — in a more diverse generation, but they will still experience the same struggles and they will still have to overcome the same burdens because they aren’t white. They’ve experienced things in their short years already that I will never experience because I am white. If there is one thing that I can recognize as being important, it’s identifying with, embracing, and relating to Black American culture because of the simple fact that it’s a part of who they are — and not only that but they have two brothers who have grown up in a mostly black environment (aside from school) and for anyone to think that I should teach them to abhor or look down on characteristics that are generally associated with that culture or to expect me to discourage them from being familiar with or adopting a vernacular that serves as a signal of that cultural association is something that baffles me. My children are all honor roll students who are extremely bright and articulate. None of that changes just because the aren’t going to be taught to put on this facade of superiority every day by rejecting their father’s culture to adapt completely to mine. And it’s not just about the racial culture, but often also about black culture in regards to social class as well. That being said, I don’t school them on the concept of code switching nor do I teach them black English — mainly because it’s something they’ve learned over the years on their own and I’m not sure I believe it can truly be taught if the experience itself isn’t there.
Encouraging and fostering an environment for learning these things that directly reflect and support the continuity of black culture in America is just as important as a Latino, Asian, or other cultural vernacular being maintained despite learning proper English. I think the broader issue is that people want to mask history and would love for the black community to just forget everything prior to 1970. The subliminal message has become something like, “Just assimilate, go along with the mainstream, and let society be more strongly influenced by the non-black (white) population so that your culture and the identity that stems from it can be further dissolved into an abyss along with your true ancestry and family ties that began to be lost the day the n-word was born and you were given a slave owner’s last name.” And people buy into this without considering the hidden agenda because they want acceptance based on their merits of appearing responsible, professional, educated, and forward-thinking. Well, I don’t believe people should have to risk being assigned with a label of ignorance or make sure that their every move and every word were learned inside of a classroom just to avoid being charged with the notion that they haven’t evolved with the generations.
I realize some people don’t “get” this argument and that there may be a consensus that feels as though proper English is the only English. I know people who don’t — and won’t ever — understand why anyone who knows how to speak properly would want to purposely butcher the English language or teach their children to do so. We don’t “teach” our children to do so, but they pick it up unencumbered in daily life and they do know proper English. My husband does find it extremely important for our sons — one biracial and two black — to not only know how to be men, but how to identify as men in the black community. I am a white woman who gave birth to four daughters, but I am not naive enough to believe that they will ever be considered white women… Kids in their classes have already asked them why their mom is white so even at their young ages, it’s apparent to everyone around them that they aren’t white. Therefore, it’s important for them to not only know how to be women, but how to identify as women in the black community. Even though all of our children embrace their white parent and their black parent and both of our respective heritages, there is a firm understanding of which culture will always more closely relate to them and their life experiences and ultimately, that is what black English is all about — the life experience through which it is learned.
We don’t teach them to solely identify as black, but we do teach them to identify with who they are in relation to black culture because as it stands today, white culture will always stare them in the face. In closing, let me point out that I’m not implying that every black family or every family with black children should press the use of black English or find it necessary to code switch. What I am saying is that we do not discourage it (although we do ensure that our children know the difference between proper English and improper English) nor do we teach the kids to devalue it and have never felt the need to be condescending toward those who haven’t learned proper English in addition to it. In that light, I’d love to know what YOU think about the importance of cultural vernacular such as what has been dubbed “black English” within subcultures in America. Drop your perspective in the comment section below!