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Cultural domination in language: Why you talk like that?

Recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore have drawn attention to the political and economic inequalities in black and minority communities. However, in addition to this, another often-ignored dimension of American race relations is the continued mindset that paints African Americans as deviant, criminal non-citizens and results in internalization of such beliefs in the black community. To illustrate this point, this article will focus on one particular instance of this cultural narrative: African American vernacular, or Ebonics. In particular, the devaluation of Ebonics represents a colonial process that diminishes the cultural confidence within African American communities.

The devaluation of Ebonics can best be analyzed by example. In 1996, the Oakland School Board passed a resolution acknowledging Ebonics as a legitimate form of language to incorporate into school systems. Specifically, the board believed in “maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language” and creating “environments where…African-American pupils shall not, because of their race, be subtly dehumanized.” Rather than demonize Ebonics, this resolution accepted it as a legitimate language in itself just as British English and American English are.

However, the resolution immediately erupted into a national controversy questioning the legitimacy of Ebonics as a real language. Mainstream media construed the actions of the Oakland School Board as an attempt to gain bilingual funding and treated Ebonics merely as an accent. The New York Times, even, referred to Ebonics as “black slang” and “street language.” The reactions to the resolution demonstrate that the broader American society acknowledges a Standard English, namely the English spoken by the white American majority, and establishes this English as the normatively correct version because it is considered proper, respectful and polite. However, establishing a “standard” English comes at the cost of marginalizing other forms of English spoken by minorities in America. In this case, Ebonics was devalued as something criminal, subversive and uneducated.

Many theorists argue that the association of Anglo-American English as the “correct” and “standard” version of English in the US is a result of power and wealth dynamics in America. According to linguist Noam Chomsky, “If the distribution of power and wealth were to shift from southern Manhattan to East Oakland, ‘Ebonics’ would be the prestige variety of English and [those on Wall Street] would be denounced by the language police.” Chomsky illustrates the relationship between power and language control. For centuries, white Americans have had exclusive ownership over the institutions that produce social norms. White Americans have controlled the job market as employers, have controlled governmental policy over English education and have owned national media and entertainment outlets. With such power, traits and characteristics associated with white Americans were instilled as the normatively correct versions. As a consequence, Ebonics was disregarded as inappropriate for mainstream American society, resulting in the outrage over events such as the Oakland board resolution.

Perhaps one of the most insidious consequences of creating a Standard English is that the assimilation process can produce a sense of psychological inferiority of individual and cultural worth in black communities. African Americans, coerced by concerns in the job market and by education policy, assimilate to Standard English and, in the process, must buy into a language that represents a cultural hierarchy with white America at the top. In Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin, White Masks, he makes the observation, “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” Black Americans assume the culture of white America when assimilating into Standard English and, in doing so, become “civilized.” Becoming white in manner of speaking and conduct allows black individuals to reap economic rewards in the job market and psychological rewards of social acceptance and appreciation by dominant cultural norms.

However, the process of language assimilation to Standard English is essentially a process of colonial domination. The colonizer creates the economic and social incentives for assimilation; meanwhile, the colonized strive to speak the colonizer’s language and develop an inferiority complex, to the extent that they fail. This process of assimilation partially extends membership for African Americans into American society; however, it requires that African Americans buy into an ideology that marginalizes Ebonics and, symbolically, larger African American cultural differences. As a consequence, even as assimilated African Americans can look down upon Ebonics-speaking African Americans, they are concomitantly self-berating themselves for their own black characteristics, such as physical traits or cultural traditions, that are devalued by dominant white norms. The process of language assimilation acknowledges the humanity of white America; however, it is unable to recognize Ebonics as a legitimate language of the oppressed and, therefore, fails to recognize the humanity of black America.

Ebonics is an instance of how cultural norms and beliefs have been shaped in America to devalue black bodies and black lives. Shedding light on this topic is crucial because, as the nation continues to mobilize around racial politics, it should also acknowledge and support black and minority cultural pride efforts to resist this colonial mindset.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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