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.


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