People often do not realize the implications and ideologies embedded within their language use. We tend to take for granted that if we speak the same language, we will understand each other. However, misinterpretations often occur between people speaking the same language but in different dialects or nonstandard forms of that language. For example, African American English is a nonstandard form of English spoken among many African Americans, as well as other groups, including whites. However, many people mark this form as merely slang or just plain wrong. A key step toward better communication and mutual understanding in America is to first acknowledge that there are many different forms of the English language spoken in this country.
This article describes white Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s apology for controversial remarks about President Obama last January. Reid said that “Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks, in part, to his ‘light-skinned’ appearance and speaking patterns ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one’ ”. Senator Reid, as a “proud and enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama during the campaign” who “worked as hard as [he could] to advance President Obama’s legislative agenda”, probably did not intend any harm or offense in his comments. In fact, Senator Reid may not even realize the many ideological implications behind his seemingly straightforward remarks. First, he refers to a “Negro dialect”, acknowledging the existence of a nonstandard form of English, namely African American English. Furthermore, in his recognition of a nonstandard form, he unavoidably implies the existence and relevance of a standard form of English. In Michael Silverstein’s article “Monoglot ‘Standard’ in America: Standardization and Metaphors of Linguistic Hegemony”, he describes the process of standardization: “Standardization, then, is a phenomenon in a linguistic community in which institutional maintenance of certain valued linguistic practices…acquires an explicitly-recognized hegemony over the definition of the community’s norm” (285). This idea of standard English is set in direct opposition to the nonstandard “Negro dialect” that Reid refers to.
Senator Reid’s remark that President Obama has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one” has numerous implications. The phrase “unless he wanted to have one” depicts the idea of “code switching”. This involves the ability to accommodate one’s dialect or form of speech to different contextual situations, whether deliberately or subconsciously. For example, a teenager might speak Standard English in school, when assuming the role of a student, then switch to a nonstandard form after school when assuming the role of a friend or peer. The act of code switching involves an element of performance, or portraying a persona. This raises questions about linguistic authority and flexibility. The phrase “unless he wanted to have one” suggests that Obama has the ability and authority to switch back and forth between standard and nonstandard English. This phrase seems problematic on different levels; first, Reid is making assumptions about Obama’s speech practices. How does he know Obama’s relationship to African American English, including when and how often he uses it? Does he mention specifically a “Negro dialect” simply because Obama is black, or does he recognize nonstandard features of it in his speech and suggest that Obama incorporates African American English as a rhetorical strategy in public speeches? If this is the case, it raises the question of authenticity in languages. Since Obama supposedly has the ability to code switch, is he an inauthentic African American English speaker? Is he then also an inauthentic Standard English speaker?
Among the most significant implications behind Senator Reid’s comment is the connection between race, language, and politics. He suggests that race and language can affect one’s access to political opportunities and success. He acknowledges that different languages and different forms within a language are intertwined with racial implications and ideologies. In Urciuoli’s article, “Racialization and Language”, she describes how “hegemonic perceptions of difference” make the “structural limits and pressures that shape race/ethnic experience seem natural, even common-sensical” (16). Hegemonic structures and institutions have helped perpetuate ideologies of race embedded within our perceptions of and approaches to language. In Urciuoli’s article, “Good English as Symbolic Capital”, she asked a sample of people to identify the racial/ethnic backgrounds of voices on her tape recorder. The participants used elements of both content and form to determine the speakers’ ethnicities: sound, tone, accents, words, and grammar. People tended to identify nonstandard or “improper” forms of English with minority groups, particularly blacks and Hispanics. They also tended to associate standard or “proper” English with whites. This concept of determining people’s racial backgrounds based solely on their speech demonstrates the unavoidable relation between language and ethnicity. The participants also associated the people’s languages to certain occupational statuses. They tended to associate the speakers they identified as black and Hispanic with low-income blue-collar jobs, while identified white speakers were presumed to be professionals or academic superiors. Urciuoli’s article “Racialization and Language” describes how “language difference is routinely racialized, typified as an impediment to class mobility” (16). Therefore, Irvine and Gal’s process of iconization happens on two levels; both forms of languages and levels of occupations get mapped onto certain racial groups. Senator Reid seems to be aware of this process, suggesting that Obama’s language and skin color are influential factors in determining his political success.
Uriuoli states that the “local linguistic identity [of a stigmatized group] contrasts sharply with middle-class, white English…largely characterized by its lack of localizing features” (Urciuoli 121). Furthermore, the article suggests that nonwhites are “marked” while whites are “unmarked” in American society; consequently, nonstandard forms and languages are marked, while Standard English is unmarked (Urciuoli 121). This recursive process of defining through creating an opposition is referred to in Reid’s comments. He suggests that Obama’s “ ‘light-skinned’ appearance” will benefit him in his political experience. Essentially, darker skin is marked while white skin is unmarked; therefore, the closer Obama is to white skin, the closer he is to political success. Bucholtz’ article, “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness”, expands the idea of markedness to include the “hyperstandard”. She describes how abiding too closely to Standard English, students become marked as being “ ‘too white’ ” or nerdy (Bucholtz 86). Some of the white students embraced this markedness in fears of becoming associated with markedness on the opposite spectrum: African American English and, subsequently, blacks themselves. In the article, many of the “nerdy” students associated the marked nonstandard languages with low success, academically and occupationally. Therefore, the further they distanced themselves from nonstandard language forms, the closer they believed themselves to be to success. Reid’s comments seem to mirror this ideology; the further Obama distances himself from a black identity, the better his political chances will be.
What is perhaps most interesting about the controversy surrounding Senator Reid’s remarks is the reaction to them. He apologizes for his comments: “In a statement to CNN, Reid said, ‘I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words’ ”. Nevada state Senator Steven Horsford, an African American, claimed he was “disappointed in Senator Reid’s comment and choice of words”. These, among other reactions, raise an important question: What was really offensive about Senator Reid’s comment? Was it what he said or how he said it? Horsford seems to imply that it was both: his “comment and choice of words”. Reid, however, claims he regrets “using such a poor choice of words” and apologizes for his “improper comments”. What made his comments improper? Was it his choice of words or the comments themselves? Reid seems to be more apologetic for how he said it—his word choice. After all, he uses the term “Negro” which, while once the preferred and acceptable term, is now certainly outdated and somewhat stigmatized. This demonstrates Lippi-Green’s point that “all spoken language changes over time” (“The Linguistic Facts of Life” 10). Perhaps Reid’s reference to Obama as “light-skinned” may also offend some people, yet this, along with his use of the term “Negro”, might appear to be trivial matters to some. What, then, is most offensive about Reid’s comments? After all, there is no denying that there is some truth behind his statements. The intertwining of racial and linguistic implications certainly affects access and opportunities, especially in the political world. However, there still remains something unsettling about his remarks. If it is, in fact, how he said it, then he proves his point that language certainly matters in significant and subtle ways. Perhaps we just have trouble handling the truth.