Monday, April 28, 2008

A word about blaccent

I was reading reaction to Bill Moyers’ excellent Jeremiah Wright interview over at and came across this criticism of the reverend from what I presume is a white commenter:

What was particularly interesting to me was that he appeared to totally drop his dialect.

Another person chimed in:

You mean like the one Michelle and Barry put on when they’re in front of an AA rally? So Rev. Wright talked straight this time?

Huge sigh.

Lately, I’ve heard several blacks in the public eye taken to task for what some in the mainstream view as nefarious use of a black accent, or the cynical unleashing of a “hidden” black accent when among other African Americans.

Oprah was criticized for the way she addressed a largely black South Carolina audience on Barack Obama’s behalf. A couple weeks ago I listened to talk radio as a white Hillary Clinton supporter voiced that she is skeptical of Barack Obama because he sometimes uses “Ebonics” to address black audiences. He should speak “regular” she said. (Wow!) And this weekend, I came across the exchange on

People who voice the “concerns” above are revealing their own racial prejudice, as well as providing an indicator of how truly little the larger culture bothers to know about people of color.

I am a black woman with fairly race neutral diction, meaning if you can’t see me, you may not be able to pinpoint my race from my speech. Many black people do, however, have some degree of accent that is recognizable as African American. I stress that I am talking about an ACCENT, not poor diction and not slang, but a distinct cadence and way of pronouncing words.

On the other hand, just as there is a vernacular dialect known as African-American English, spoken by many African-Americans across the country, there is also a standard variety of African-American English. This variety combines a standard English grammar with phonological features, intonation patterns and lexical items associated with African-American communities. Standard African-American English is used by many middle-class African-American speakers and indicates their social class or educational background without obscuring ethnic identity in their speech (so that they still “sound black”). The relationship between language and identity can be quite complicated! (SOURCE)
I was born and raised in the upper Midwest. Due to the Great Migration, a lot of Midwestern black speech is influenced by Southern pronunciations and cadence. For example, some black Midwesterners will extend the word “five” into a drawled “fahve.” I grew up around this speech pattern. It is comfortable to me. And though the speech I use out in the world is perfectly natural, when I am alone with family or black friends, I drawl a little more, add in a few more colloquialisms. The change is largely unconscious mimicry, much like how a New Yorker who now lives in California might find her Brooklyn accent gets a little stronger when she goes back home; or how my coworker says her English husband’s accent gets stronger when they visit across the pond.

Code Switching

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a black accent, except that in a society where white is right and all other is wrong, a black accent is judged as less desirable. Making a call without your “white” voice on could mean the loss of a job, an apartment, any number of opportunities. So, as a matter of survival, upwardly mobile blacks learn to effortlessly code switch, that is unconsciously modify speech to slip from one culture to another. We generally reserve speech with ethnic markers for conversations with other people of our ethnicity.

Consider this excerpt from the wonderful book, Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America:

Given their desire to fit in both with black and non-blacks, many women often “code-switch” by shifting between dialects, languages and styles of communication. Code switching is a result of what we call the “yo-yo paradox,” the pressure black women feel to shift back and forth in order to meet the conflicting codes, demands, and expectations of different groups. They shift “white” at the office, in the classroom, when addressing the community board during a public forum; and they shift “black” at church, during book club meetings, among family and friends. Many African American women learn how to code-switch from an early age. The lessons on which voice to use and when to use it are often as much a part of their tutelage as good manners and the ABCs. They learn that what is acceptable on the playground is not always acceptable at home, that what is required in the classroom could cause them problems with their teenage cousins. For some black woman, code switching is relatively effortless; sometimes it’s even an opportunity to use voices that reflect different aspects of their selves.

But for others, code switching is a more arduous exercise. The multilingualism required to speak one way to a Southern grandmother, another way to youths raised on MTV, and still another way in a corporate boardroom can be as challenging as learning to juggle three balls without dropping one. It can lead to the painful “yo-yo effect,” as a woman feels conflicted about shifting between two distinct voices,
self-conscious about using the “wrong” voice in the wrong situation. Women who have difficulty switching may be mocked or unfairly criticized by blacks and whites alike. “She thinks she’s white.” “She tries to hard to sound black.” “She’s a ghetto girl.” “She’s not very bright.”
I think it is awfully rich for the very society that requires that black people learn to code switch, to scream “Gotcha!” when a black person in the public eye—an Oprah or Obama—gets “caught” switching.

It is awfully rich and extremely offensive.


N said...

I've been lurking here for a while, but this is the post that I just have to speak up and say hi, because this expresses so very well what I've been absolutely frustrated over the last few days in the media coverage of the election. (Not that the media coverage of the election, or the election itself, at other times causes feelings other than frustration.)

I think we all slip into what's most comfortable for us, given our backgrounds and who we're talking to, and there's nothing wrong with that.

And I could go on, I've written and erased comments god knows how many times now, but I just wanted to say that I love reading your posts.

Jill said...

Hi Tami - I studied linguistic nearly 30 years ago and sociolinguistics as well. I loved the topic. But reading this post has really made me wonder: who were the gatekeepers of our texts and or our lesson plans and of the faculty who taught us?

I don't remember all that much anymore but I remember being told about VBE - I can't imagine that's appropriate anymore - to be taught about "vernacular black english" - is it? I don't actually know.

But I think about it like this: if we can't even communicate - if we are judging one another on the very words and pronounciations - oy. We just have so far to go. It makes me very sad, angry but still engaged.

Deborah Tannen is the only linguistics prof. who was at my school who is still there and is well-known - but I really don't know anything about her writing - I only know she's sold a lot of books about men and women talking and mother and daughters.

Another section to research: writings on the linguistics of race and oppression? would that be the right way to put it?

CVT said...

It's funny, because the same people that "call out" Rev. Wright, or Oprah, or Obama (or whoever) are probably the same ones who appreciate a white politician's ability to slip back and forth between "political speech" (during a debate, perhaps) and comfortable "normal speech" (in an interview, when talking one-on-one with a lobbyist, etc.). And they will NEVER see the problem in their definitions of "normal" vs. "African-American" ways of speaking.

Why some white people think that their own code-switching (at work vs. with friends and family) is a totally different thing is beyond me.

Charlotte said...

Hi Tami,

Great post, and maybe I can offer some words that are encouraging. The department where I got my MA in English stressed that there is indeed a multiplicity of languages and dialects in the United States, and if we say that one is correct, we are invalidating the others (think Gloria Anzaldua).

A premise of the composition track in that program (though I was lit) is that there are different ways of addressing different audiences, and they are all equally valid.

So maybe this indicates a trend of acceptance rather than intolerance? I hope?

quarter-life-crisis said...

Thanks for writing this post. I could never articulate it to people, but I always felt like I had two sides of myself. However neither side was fake. They were just a natural transition depending on the person/environment I was around. I am ordering the book today.

Tami said...

For those who are interested in linguistics, another great book to try is "Do you speak American?" It was the subject of a PBS doc about three years ago. It doesn't tackle race so much as regional differences, but it is very enlightening.

SagaciousHillbilly said...

My son-in-law grew up in the deepest most mountainous part of southern WV. Sometimes, you can hardly understand what folks from down there are saying if you're not familiar with the vernacular.
My son-in-law speaks with a very clear standard voice with very little indication of where he's from.
Something he learned how to do when he went off to college. Sadly, he never switches. Some sort of deeply held resentment toward his roots.

In another case, when I was first in college back in the 70s, there was a young woman from the same locale who had a very strong southern WV accent. She was on a fast track to medical school. The biology profs approached the English profs about getting her some help in taming down her accent. The English profs insisted that to do so would be a travesty because of the cultural significance of such an accent.
I wonder if they would have reacted the same had she been a black woman with a similarly strong accent?

Erica said...

I've found my ability to change dialect or accent to be an asset. I work as a manufacturing engineer; I am the interface between management decisions and the folks making things in the factory. My whole job revolves around interpreting white-collar decisions for blue-collar workers, and also expressing the blue-collar worker's expertise in terms the white-collar manager can understand.

I've lived in Boston MA ad Bloomington IN. In each place, I would match the local accent -- mostly unconsciously, but the workers saw this as a sign that I "got" them. And a good relationship with them is critical to me being able to do my job.

I don't think I've somehow changed or lost my identity as a midwesterner (Ohio, which does have a different accent than Indiana) through these language shifts. I was not trying to appear native -- just be somebody who could listen and understand their concerns. Speaking WITH your audience instead of AT your audience is hardly "deceptive" in some way, it's just a way to be closer to (and accepted by) another group of human beings.

I hardly see it as a problem for a political candidate to be a good communicator, able to express positions to all sorts of audiences.

Danielle said...

I flip my speech all the time and think nothing of it. It's part of my life in this country.

This is a fantastic post and your site makes for excellent reading Tami.

Keep up the good work.


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