Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Language and Race - From Ebonics to Obama

by Whitney Childs

The 1996 Oakland school board decision to legitimize Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE) created a whirlwind of media attention and criticism from a variety of sources - with this post I wanted to focus specifically on the often conservative and "PC" debates that stem from the political realm, but wanted to begin with further discussion on the Oakland school board debate.

Theresa Perry discussed the misrepresentation that the Oakland school board decision received in the media, describing the tendency of media sources to sum up the decision as abandoning Standard English in favor of teaching AAVE in schools. There was little attention paid to the true motivations behind the decision or teh details of the decision itself, just a rapid response of a variety of public figures to form a team of opposition on behalf of the African-American community. "Black and white, members of the religious right, liberal democrats, neoconservatives, staunch conservatives, let liberals, and the privileged -such was the reach of this unintentional coalition of individuals that, in the weeks and months after the passage of the Oakland resolution, vigorously registered their opposition to it" (Perry 2). This included figures who had previously expressed their devotion towards AVE and used it in their expressive works, such as Maya Angelou. Perry also described the representation of Ebonics in the media as coded in order to ensure that i generated "negative reactions from African-Americans" (5), manipulating it so that it created an association to slang and informality in the education setting.

The above is an excerpt from a 1996 newspaper article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that described the reaction of Jesse Jackson to the school board decision.  Jackson initially criticized the school board decision, labeling it an "unacceptable surrender", but later changed his opinion, saying that the meaning behind the decision had been misunderstood by the general public, and that the decision was more of an effort to "stop ignoring the youth in the margins". What I found most interesting about the decision was that it recognized Ebonics as a distinct language, yet also a cohesive language free of variety in the sense that it could be taught to teachers and parents. Jackson, however, framed Ebonics as a "language pattern" rather than a complete language. The district argued that Black English is the "primary language of many of its black students" and that because of this fact, they were falling behind academically and that recognizing AAVE as a legitimate language was a way in which they could help African-American students improve their reading and writing in "Standard English" and therefore be more successful. There was a constant back and forth between what Ebonics  was being labeled as compared to what it was in practice, and often there was a tendency to label Ebonics as one cohesive entity, creating a battle between that of White America (Standard English) and Black America (Ebonics), when in reality there is so much more linguistic heterogeneity that is present. There was also a label applied to Ebonics as "slang", or an inferior language deviant from Standard English that was not acceptable in more formal settings such as the classroom. The conversations became much larger than the school board's intentions and more focused on what conclusions people draw from their own perception of the school board ruling.

There are two key things that we have discussed in class and that I wanted to investigate further that are stemming from this ruling. The first is that it is implied that academic and professional success can only be achieved with the mastery of "Standard English", whatever that may be, and the second being that this decision and the subsequent chaos of opinions and criticism signified that it had very little to do with language and linguistic practices and more to do with race.

Over ten years later, and the debate regarding the connection between language and race continues. Game Change, released in 2010, gave a behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 United States presidential election. Within the book were assertions made by Harry Reid, who served as the Democratic majority leader. It is stated within the book that he claimed Obama could become the first African-American president in the United States because he was light-skinned and because he had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" . His comments resulted in a great deal of criticism and a call for his resignation - he later apologized to President Obama, who accepted his apology and stated that he didn't believe Reid was racist. The ladies from "The View" discuss the incident below.

Whoop descries how the perception of African-Americans is different when it comes from the narrative of white people, saying that the absence of a dialect really means, "he's not going to scare white people". In this way, language is described from the point of view of users of the alleged dominant language of Standard English. She goes onto state that it also means that "he doesn't always sound like he's black". There is an inherent connection implied here that we have investigated in past readings in the assumption that depending on their race, people are expected to speak in certain linguistic patterns and that to deviate from this expectation creates markedness. Sherri Shepard goes onto state that she's "tired of people doing the PC thing" and that people voted for Barack Obama because of his qualifications, not because he was 'light-skinned' and therefore didn't appear threatening.

The women go onto discuss what is implied with the observation of a non-dialect, with Sherri asking that if this indicates that people who speak "differently" are not intelligent, and Whoopi responding by stating that observing a lack of dialect is just another way to say to someone, "you're so articulate" - this reinforces the idea that Standard English is in some way superior to all other dialects or variations of English and that to master Standard English is an indication of articulation and higher verbal capabilities, therefore showcasing a higher level of intelligence possessed by the speaker. She then goes onto state that in reference to speaking with a dialect, "Sherri can do it, I can do it, we use it when we want to", implying that she does possess the ability to speak in AAVE as well as Standard English and that she can employ code-switching to move back and forth depending on the situation, or, as she states, when she desires to switch. What I also noted about the debate amongst the women was the awkwardness that is evident in their attempts to navigate this discourse of race, language, and professional success. I would be interested to hear what everyones opinions are as to how they see this discourse continuing in the future, and what strides, if any, we feel we, as a society, have made in the conversations surrounding race and language.

No comments:

Post a Comment