On Wednesday, April Baker-Bell identified yet another barrier that African Americans face in their pursuit of the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: linguistic racism.
“(I’m) arguing for Black linguistic justice,” she said. “I just want to take a moment to acknowledge my intentions upfront. I’m a protector of Black language; I’m not a defender of White comfort,” warned Baker-Bell, associate professor of language, literacy and English education in Michigan State University’s departments of English and African American and African Studies.
Baker-Bell, author of “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy,” was the featured speaker at a virtual workshop organized by the Center for Excellence in Writing, Undergraduate Education and the Office of Inclusive Excellence.
The workshop was designed to educate participants — writing instructors and consultants, as well as UB students, faculty and staff — on how traditional approaches to language education that prioritize “white mainstream English” negatively impact the sense of self and identity of students of color, who may have grown up in an environment or family that used a diverse language style.
Baker-Bell noted that the fluid, informal speaking style of many Black Americans — currently known as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black Vernacular English (BE), and previously known as “the Negro Dialect” or “Ebonics” — is often actively dismissed by those in the fields of education, business and politics as being inferior to the more formal, rigid style that is used by those of European descent. This insistence on the so-called “standard” of white mainstream English helps enforce white supremacy by rejecting the language that many Black Americans use with their family, friends and home communities.
“‘Standard English’ is a myth,” Baker-Bell said. “… The belief that there is a homogenous, standard, one-size- fits-all language is a myth that normalizes white ways of speaking English and is used to justify linguistic discrimination on the basis of race.”
The approach, she warned, is a continuation of the tactic of “linguistic isolation,” in which white slavers would segregate enslaved Africans from those who spoke their language, and force them to speak only English, while using racist laws to ban them from learning how to read. The practice, Baker-Bell noted, enforced, and continues to enforce, a class of people reliant on the oppressors’ language in order to communicate, while also denying the enslaved peoples their history and culture.
Still, those enslaved took fragments of their forgotten languages, mixed in English words, and created “Negro spirituals” that were actually coded language detailing escape plans and how to access the Underground Railroad.
Today, Baker-Bell said, many educators dismiss Black English as “poor grammar and ignorance,” ignoring the fact that it possesses all the components of a valid language and has, in fact, been recognized as such.
“Black language for me has always reflected Black people’s ways of knowing, interpreting, surviving and being in the world. But despite there being decades of research on Black language, its survival since enslavement and its linguistic imprint on the nation and globe, Black people … keep having to remind (white) people that it is a legit language.”
Despite the mainstream rejection of Black language, Baker-Bell pointed out the hypocrisy of its popularity in the entertainment and fashion industries, where phrases and ideas perceived to be “Black” are used to draw audiences to TV programs or films, or emblazoned on clothing to appeal to consumers who wish to demonstrate their “wokeness.”
“Let’s not forget: Black language is also the language that continuously gets appropriated and exploited,” she said. “… There are so many examples of fashion designers who capitalize on Black language to create market messages to invite consumers to buy their products. … Let’s not forget the growing number of white Instagrammers and entertainers who are making a (living) off of Black language and culture.”
Baker-Bell urged educators to ask themselves where they fall in the war between “good English” and “bad English.” An easy way to determine how race is involved in language is to ask, in their perception, who they’ve been taught uses “good English,” and who uses “bad English.” She asked that educators ask themselves a series of questions, among them:
- How can I work against my own assumptions that Black students are linguistically and morally inferior and (that) their language practices reflect incompetence and a lack of intelligence?
- Do your language policies uphold the belief that Black students must eradicate Black language to succeed in school and life?
- Does your teaching about audience prepare students to participate in a multilingual, multiliterate, multicultural society?
While Baker-Bell noted her suggestions focus on educators, she said other professions — hiring managers who review resumes, attorneys, public officials, law enforcement officers — could also benefit from such self-reflection. Despite Black students being taught that they must use “standard” English to succeed in life, she said such usage does not overcome institutional racism, nor does it save Black lives in cases of unarmed shootings by police officers.
“Black lives won’t matter until Black language matters,” Baker-Bell said.
Rhonda Reid, director of the Center for Excellence in Writing, introduced Baker-Bell. Odette Reid, CEW’s associate director, moderated the workshop.
Copies of Baker-Bell’s book are available in the Center for Excellence in Writing, as well as in Academic and Professional Writing. The book is also available in electronic format with unlimited access through the UB Libraries.
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