Did You Know You Sound White?

Language Discrimination and Code-Switching in the Black Community

By Brianna Atkins

Speaking two Englishes created an identity crisis within me. I wasn’t White enough for White kids, and I wasn’t Black enough for Black kids. Black students would say, “You’re so White” when I refused to use Black English in school, and I would laugh along and agree because what else could I say? Standard English is the way White people speak. I use it, and therefore I must be “White.” I’deven identified as an Oreo– Black on the outside but White on the inside– as if my personality was trapped in a body with the wrong skin color.This manifested into other areas of my life and led me to resent parts of my Blackness as well as my Black peers. If I’d always have to prove my Blackness to them, then maybe I didn’t want it anymore. Maybe I didn’t want the hair, lips, nose, attitude, culture, or the history anymore. 

It wasn’t until high school that I grasped that my speaking two Englishes stemmed from the social hierarchy of languages present in American society. There’s an unquestioned bias toward Standard American English (SAE) that coerces most Americans into believing SAE is superior to other forms of English (and other languages). Americans fail to see that Black English (BE) follows a grammatical and syntactical structure like other languages. Standard language ideology—the belief system privileging SAE– promotes racial microaggressions from adults and peers that make Blacks aware of their linguistic differences, even for those who gain proficiency in SAE. Blacks hear comments such as “You sound so White” and “You’re smart for a Black person” which create an awareness that makes us feel “othered” and shames us into hiding Black English in public spaces and hide Standard English in private spaces. Thus, standard language ideology has a bigger impact than merely leading society to disregard BE as a form of linguistic expression, but characterizes it as a bastardization of the language of power. 

Of course, everyone hides facets of their lexicon to one extent or another. You don’t speak to teachers the way you speak to parents; you don’t speak to parents the way you speak to friends; and you don’t talk to friends the way you talk to strangers. That’s because you recognize that each relationship requires a different use of your language. You could tell your teacher, “Nah, I ain’t do the homework” but could you imagine doing that? No, because you’ve learned that that’s inappropriate. You’ve been code-switching your whole life and never realized it. 

Linguists describe code-switching as the switching between two or more languages or dialects in a single conversation based on the context and situation of the conversation. It’s something we all do, usually on a subconscious level. Blacks, particularly, those who speak BE, have been specifically taught to code-switch for job opportunities, a good education, or respect by Non-Blacks. 

For us, as I myself code-switch, there’s a deeper layer present. It’s not just incidental switching between languages but a conscious, purposeful dismissiveness for our native language engrained in our minds throughout our lives that force us to bury our mother tongue to be seen as competent and productive members of society. Racial microaggressions and other forms of blatant and latent racism reinforce this linguistic oppression. This is so deeply embedded in American society that even Black people project these beliefs onto themselves. 

BE speakers who don’t know how to code-switch or choose to use BE in public settings instead of SAE, are shamed by SAE speakers. SAE speakers typically feel a “savior complex,” or sense of superiority, toward BE speakers and correct their English. White SAE speakers, in particular, have strong opinions on BE. According to linguist Rosina Lippi-Green in her book English with an Accent: Language Ideology and Discrimination in the United States, 

Anglos rarely hesitate when they are asked their opinions on AAVE [African American Vernacular English]. Without pause, individuals will tell you what is wrong with the language and the people who speak it. Complaints tend to fall in two categories: (1) targeted lexical items or grammatical features which cause immediate reaction; and (2) general issues of language purity and authority. The purpose is the same, however, no matter the packaging: this kind of criticism is the tool of choice when it comes to silencing the peripheralized.

In response, Blacks develop bidialectism and selective assimilation as a way of navigating pitfalls of the social landscape in America while maintaining and preserving culture. In some ways, we conform to the power structure that prioritizes White speech and behavioral patterns for Whites and other Non-Blacks to feel comfortable around us. But in some sort of internal defiance, speaking BE allows us to be as “us” as possible. To anyone else, this seems a sufficient compromise, but to someone Black, that can’t be the case. 

Don’t we all speak in a way someone else in this country won’tunderstand or relate to? Don’t we all use our ownlanguage variety,slang, jargon, andhave different accents? What is it about Black English (which to Black people, might I add, is just English) that infuriates people so much that it must be bent, broken, and beaten down so that it may not exist outside of the Black community? Why is it so important we “sound White”? 

It’s essential to understand that the U.S. education system perpetuates this endless cycle of linguistic oppression. The first contact you have as a child with society is school. You learn how to interact with others and develop a general sense of the order in which things work in the world. You also learn the education you’ll use to propel you to success in the future. In America, your level of education (or the perception of your level of education) indicates to others wealth, status, and availability to opportunity. Because we’ve been socialized to see Black English as inferior to Standard English, language ideology manifests throughout our society and linguistic discrimination endures for generations. 

Teachers recognize their obligation to make sure they’ve taught their students the appropriate curriculum needed to advance to the next educational checkpoint. It’s understandable that a teacher, unaware of the impact on the student, will discourage BE or slang because they don’t follow his/her curriculum for spelling, grammar, or literacy. The teacher whole-heartedly believes they’re doing their Black students a service by teaching them SAE because their mastery of the language will dictate their success and because language habits after a certain age are impossible to change within a person. The Black student, who has been taught to trust their teacher to do well in school, begins the process of switching their natural language habits for Standard American English. 

Parents of Black children are also unaware of their complicity in the oppression of Black English. Well-intentioned parents often scold their children for speaking BE in social and professional settings. It’s not because they see a problem with the language(they use it and inadvertently teach it to their children),but they’re aware through their own experiences the detriment use of the language has had on their personal lives. Parents want to prevent their children from experiencing similar hardships and setbacks. Standard language ideology presents serious consequences for those who don’t speak the language of power.

As Vershawn Ashanti Young, a researcher of Black English in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, explains in his article “Nah We Straight: An Argument Against Code Switching”, “It’s illegal, of course, to restrict Blacks from integration based on their ‘color.’ But it’s currently legal to discriminate on the basis euphemistically called ‘the content of their character,’ which in this context is manifested by whether or not they talk Black in public” (56). Blacks are then forced to be one way in the workplace and totally different at home if they want the slightest chance at upward mobility. We want to hold on to our culture, but don’t want the way we speak to hold us back in society.

So what’s there to do? Should we stand on soapboxes on Capitol Hill? Shout until our voices are hoarse, waiting for a Congressman to hear our concerns? Do we sit in the shadows and live with how things are, believing we’re powerless being ourselves? Should we officially declare that BE is a standard variety, just like SAE, when only 12.6% of the country speaks it? A question like that implies that legitimizing the language equates to it becoming standardized, but the two aren’t inextricable. You can legitimize a language and believe it to be valid and equal without pushing for standardization. 

Make no mistakes, rattling the system in this way won’t be easy. There will be those that’ll fight this issue, but don’t we owe it to ourselves and the children in our lives the chance to embrace who they are–to teach them their Black really is beautiful? Not just their hair, lips, nose, attitude, culture, or history, but their language as well? We owe it to our children not to let them grow up believing that success is equated to sounding White. Success should sound like being yourself.