What Do You Mean, “Talk Black?” Let’s Discuss Black English (… among other things).

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!

Comments

  1. says

    YOU. BETTER. WRITE. IT.

    Every single word of your post resonated with me on so many different levels, it’s not even funny. And I don’t have biracial children. But I HEAR you. And I receive what you have to say. And I’m proud of you for thinking very deeply about this—for the sake of your children, your family and its place in this world. I think you’re pretty doggone amazing.

    • says

      Thanks, Denene :) I appreciate your feedback. It took me a while (and admittedly several revisions) to get things to where I feel like the article reflects exactly what I wanted to convey, but it’s finally *out there* lol I, for one, do not think ANY topic that is relevant to the way my kids will experience life is to be taken lightly so I am extremely analytic when it comes to things like this — where I’m not positive as to what my position is. I gave it a great deal of thought and I do think that it’s important for my kids to grow up being able to effectively communicate, relate to, and bond with all types of people — especially all types of people who share the same heritage/culture as they do — even, and especially, if that happens to not be my own. Thank you for your website and Nick, for his article. It definitely made me think — and I’m a little better of a mommy for it! :)

  2. says

    WOW! What an amazing post, Kat! One thing you said was that bi racial children are becoming more and more the norm than the minority and it is true! My daughter goes to a private Christian school here in Kansas. Each grade has like 10-20 kids in it max. Yet there are black and bi racial kids at this school. One of Lizzie’s favorite friends is Sky – her mom is white and her dad is black. (And Sky is seriously a beautiful little girl with a vibrant personality)

    This post reminded me of the one time in high school when I went to a summer camp for “at risk kids.” (my mom was a single parent, we were on food stamps). I was one of 2 white kids, everyone else was black. Talk about a culture shock! I could barely talk to these people nor could I understand what they were saying. It was a very lonely summer camp, I will tell you that. I remember thinking, “Who calls a curling iron a curler? And what is Holla? And why do they say “what up” when what has an s.” It wasn’t racism, it was just culture shock. I tried to hang out with them but they knew how uncool I was LOL :)

    I made a few friends from that camp – one of which helped me understand the culture better. That is when I learned it really is a culture. Save the Last Dance was another educational film for me. It is definitely a culture. I am proud of you for standing up for the preservation of it.

    • says

      Thanks for your feedback and sharing your personal experience! I read a comment on the original article that I wrote this one about in which a lady mentioned that she took her biracial daughter to a birthday party and someone asked her, “Where you stay at?” For a moment, she was confused but then she picked up on the fact that they were asking her where she lives.

      This is one example of how she realized how important it would be for her children to know AAVE (African American Vernacular English) in order to communicate with people in the black community from all different regions/classes as they get older. I think that is an excellent point and a prime example of how “black English” is a valuable piece of a huge culture and shouldn’t be automatically dismissed as being the language of an ignorant or unproductive subsection of American society as it so often is.

      :)

  3. says

    Great post. I wish more people would read this post. I am black, married (to a black man) with 2.6 children, but I can relate to the things you speak about with your husband (walking into a room just trying to identify). I also understand about switching codes, turning it on and off. Very good read.

    • says

      Thanks for visiting and I appreciate you letting me know that you *get* what I’m saying here. I have to admit I was a littttttle hesitant because you never know how one person’s knee-jerk reaction can spiral into a bunch of horrid commentary but this has actually become a great conversation and I’m thankful that several people have chimed in to leave their feedback on the topic!

  4. says

    Bravo! I am the Black mother of 2 biracial kids, a 20 yo and a 7 yo and yes, even biracial kids can benefit from knowing when to code switch. I don’t think my 20 yo got it until he went away to college but gets its now. Great post!

    • says

      Thank you!!! It is not an easy thing to do — describing exactly HOW and WHY the ability to code switch is important and beneficial while still maintaining that there is nothing wrong with NOT being able to code switch, but I’m ecstatic that so many people are joining the conversation. I appreciate your comment!!

  5. Bree22 says

    Definitely some great points..,the only thing that I would point out is that it’s not “black English”…that’s like saying everyone who is black speaks the same way which just isn’t so. There are different dialects based on culture, areas of residence, etc. The fact that people think that a “black English” and a “white English” is a huge part of the problem.

    • says

      It actually is called Black English. Well, to be completely correct, it’s called African American Vernacular English. I was writing about a specific article and used the terminology contained in it, but Wikipedia describes AAVE as being especially common in the American South states that it “shares several characteristics with Creole English language-forms spoken by people throughout much of the world. AAVE has pronunciation, grammatical structures, and vocabulary in common with various West African languages.” However, it is very often condensed into the term “Black English.” I also did point out in the article that this is PART of a culture, not something that applies to every black individual in America and is influenced not only by racial characteristics but by a number of factors, including class — and as you pointed out, region as well. To further explain my position, to say that anything applies to “all” of any group of people who share common characteristics would be false — for instance, all Latino people do not speak Spanish although most do. All Chinese Americans aren’t able to speak Chinese, but the majority are. Those two populations of people very frequently “code switch” and even to the extent that some have their given names and some adopt more American names as an alternate. I have a very dear friend Latina friend whose name is Raquel Negron, but she also goes by Rachel White. This, along with being multilingual, is an example of code switching…

      • Bree22 says

        Yikes, that’s even more sad. Here’s the thing, if you’re black and you didn’t grow up in certain neighborhoods, you may not even be able to speak “black English”…does that mean that you’re somehow culturally deficient? Lol, that could certainly be another post entirely but thanks for the info.

        • says

          The reason I decided to discuss this topic is not to stereotype or to assign any attributes to people to which they do not apply, but rather to touch on why I do believe this particular dialect should be recognized as being of certain value to those by which this culture is the norm.

          Being from south Mississippi, the majority of our family (my husband’s side) speaks what is considered to be AAVE/black English and I would say at least half of them aren’t “code switchers” meaning that they speak this way 100% of the time. To mainstream America, this diminishes their value or takes away from what they can contribute to society in many fields of business. Many people were NOT raised in neighborhoods which afforded them an opportunity to learn what most would consider “proper” English. Does this negate an otherwise brilliant mind?

          It is beneficial in today’s society to be able to code switch because of the way mainstream America views and portrays the black population already, especially in the media. One of MY issues with that is WHY black English seems to infer a person’s intellectual capacity. I know many very intelligent, insightful, and culturally educated people whose dialect is mostly AAVE. It’s not “sad” … it’s a large part of black culture. That doesn’t make anyone culturally deficient — on either side. To many people, it would be the opposite of what you’ve questioned — people who only speak AAVE are seen as being culturally deficient on a mainstream scale.

          See my point?

          • Bree22 says

            To be clear, what I think is sad is that this vernacular has been assigned to black people as a whole. I’m not even talking about anyone’s intelligence or lack thereof. I mean that, just like a lot of things in this country, an issue has been reduced to color, rather than culture. It’s really a byproduct of the topic you’ve touched on and a rather minor one, as you have no control over what the designation is, but it’s something that I have a personal issue. Going back to my earlier example, let’s say a black person doesn’t speak “black English” at home or otherwise. Are they less black? That’s my issue, and again, it’s an aside of the topic.

            I see your point…and it’s not what I was talking about initially.

            • says

              Got ya! :) Misunderstood what you believed to be sad. Thanks for clarifying. There are a lot of subtopics that surround this topic as a whole so there are THOUSANDS of side-conversations that could happen as a result of it, which I welcome because that’s the whole point in addressing it. For thoughtful discussion. This is how we all learn — and how we are motivated to consider things that normally wouldn’t cross our minds! I think for the most part it’s still a cultural issue, but it’s a culture that *as a general standard* is a part of one race so I can see how you would feel that it’s been reduced to being more about color than anything else. That being said, it’s not about an exclusionary clause but rather the opposite — if society dismisses the potential of those who DO speak “black English” then are THEY less American?

              The truth of the matter goes back to the fact that English itself was formed from a broken language — and it was formed by whites. Why is white English considered proper while the culture reflected by black English is considered wrong or incorrect? I know, because Webster says so. LOL But it goes much deeper than that. I didn’t address this aspect in much detail because it ends up becoming a political statement for me as this country has always forced black people to conform to white standards in order to move forward and I see this as one of those things and THAT is where I have an issue. It’s SO hard to organize all my thoughts in an article — maybe I should write a book … haha Covering everything is difficult. I know what I want to say, but it takes WAY too much to say it all and I can’t express half thoughts lest I end up being misunderstood.

              I’ve spoken to you and your sister both many times and I do realize how you would be a little taken aback by the notion that “incorrect” English is equated with the black community — especially since you and Adrienne both speak and write what most view as “perfect” English. I guess my stance is WHO SAYS it’s perfect English? And who says it’s more valuable than an alternative? Initially… white people. And so it was born as an AMERICAN cultural standard; one that now overshadows a cultural vernacular that was widely held by the black population in the US prior to such diversification as we see today — and this is mainly why it’s now most prevalent here in the south where the “Black” experience (for lack of a better description) is still very different than that of people who reside in more northern parts of the nation.

              • Bree22 says

                Hmmm! Great point,
                And yes, I despise the idea of broken or incorrect English given the black label. What about poor whites in Appalachia? Does Honey Boo Boo speak black English? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way =)

                I LOVE a healthy discussion. And you did a fine job articulating your points in your article…I’m the one who took you way left field =)

      • Bree22 says

        Oh and please understand, I loved your view and the willingness to tackle this topic =) It’s just the whole black English/Ebonics/etc. makes me…*sigh*

        • says

          I added more to my original comment response ;) I didn’t realize you had replied — I was revising in the back end of the site to make sure I fully explained my logic…

  6. Bree22 says

    Understood, just read it. Thanks for the info…had no idea that designation was official — beyond the Ebonics fiasco of a few years ago. At any rate, I appreciate your insight.

    • says

      Thanks for visiting and for considering my perspective on the topic. :) It just goes to show how differently the “life experience” is for different regions and subcultures in our country. Having lived in the south my whole life, I have a different point of view. That being said, there are definitely many areas even within the south (mostly more affluent areas) in which those populations of people would have no idea about the concept of “black English” at all.

  7. Tracie says

    Read the article, didn’t read the comments yet. As a former high school teacher, and now a middle school English Language Arts teacher, in a predominately black school, and the mom of two bi-racial daughters, I have to agree with your post. I teach my student’s daily, two types of language you use, sometimes even more, your “academic” language and then your “friend” language. The way you speak when you are out with your friends and family will be and pretty much should be completely different than how you speak in a classroom setting. We discuss this on a regular basis. I explain that in the classroom, it is my job to teach them to speak their academic language, I am not trying to change them or how they speak to family and friends, but it is important to know the difference and when to use them.

  8. says

    I am Latina, born in Puerto Rico and raised primarily in Florida. I lost my “accent” so people are always surprised I speak Spanish. I am not familiar with “Black English” personally, though I hear it. I am married to a Black man, but he is Caribbean, not African-American. So, again, though he’s familiar with the culture and like me, knows slang, it’s not how we normally speak. Some comes out more when around his friends.

    I will say, that I think this is true of any culture. For example, I don’t normally speak Spanish or even think in Spanish. But, the minute I’m around my family or friends that also speak Spanish, my Spanish comes out. The same goes for my husband. His Trini accent is not there when he speaks on a regular basis, but the minute he talks to a family member, his accent comes out.

    I am thinking this is similar to talking one way to a certain group of people, and then talking another way when around another group – code switching as you said. As a mother to two young children that are Black and Latino and currently in a neighborhood and school that is predominantly white, I do worry that they are not getting enough diversity. I worry about them feeling like they don’t fit in as they get older. This is one of the many reasons why we stress their heritage and culture at home – we want them to be proud of who they are and know their family’s history, before someone else decides to label them.

    • says

      This is a great article. I would point out there was a period of time where assimilation ruled – Hispanic families like the one my husband’s mother grew up in, focused on “code switching” to the extent of NOT teaching spanish to all the children to make sure that they weren’t overlooked or passed over because of accent, etc. My MIL lived in a very rural town after marrying my FIL so she raised her son not according to his heritage, but according to where he was. I WISH she had taught him Spanish!! Lol!

  9. says

    Wow. What a thought provoking article. I actually found this through another blogger who had mentioned your company for designs. My boyfriend is black and I am white. His niece and nephew are biracial and I wonder sometimes how they view themselves. My boyfriend and his brother have never spoken black english, I am not sure where exactly that comes from because it is very prevalent where we both grew up. We plan on having kids in the future and it makes me nervous sometimes that they are going to get brought up in a world that can be so judgmental over things like their skin color and how they talk. My boyfriend grew up having to deal with race issues, and it effects him still. We have disagreements about this sometimes because I have never had to deal with this. I hope that I am able to understand my children enough to help them cope with any problems they do have, even though I will have never experienced it. It is sad how some people think that if you speak black english it means you are less intelligent and they can’t relate to you.
    I stumbled upon your blog but definitely plan on coming back. I am actually the oldest of 5 children! I love having a big family and I think your is beautiful!

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