Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” & academic achievement a myth


“All right, hear me out,” begins the young black woman in a video uploaded to the website LiveLeak last Friday. “There is no such thing as ‘talking white,’ … it’s actually called ‘speaking fluently,’ speaking your language correctly. I don’t know why we’ve gotten to a place where as a culture—as a race—if you sound as though you have more than a fifth-grade education, it’s a bad thing.”

She continues like this for nearly two more minutes, emphasizing the point that her speech reflects proper English and attacking the idea that it’s a deviation from black identity.

If she was hoping for a positive response, she got it. In addition to thousands of shares and tweets, it reached more than 560,000 views and made the front page of Reddit.

Not that this was a surprise. The main ideas—that black Americans disparage “proper English” and education and use a “broken” version of the language—have wide currency among many Americans, including blacks.

“Ebonics” is mocked as a fake language, and efforts to use it in schools have sparked vocal opposition. When the Oakland, California, school board approved Ebonics for use in its schools in 1996, a flurry of public figures condemned the decision. “I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender, bordering on disgrace,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who later reversed his stance, but not before he was endorsed by a wide range of people.

At the time, linguists protested the criticism, noting the extent to which Ebonics—officially known as African American Vernacular English—is recognized as a language system with its own grammar and pronunciations, with roots in the regional dialects of 17th-century Great Britain. Far from being slang or broken, AAVE is a distinct form of English used by many blacks in informal settings.

Still, it is true that so-called “proper English”—otherwise known as Standard English—is associated with white people. And there are many anecdotes and stories of black teenagers disparaging one another for using Standard English or “talking white,” which also tends to come with accusations of “acting white.” And, as we can see from the video, it’s these accusations that stand as Exhibit A in arguments for the existence of black pathology.

After relating a story involving his sister and her children, who asked him why he “talk white,” Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley mourns the alleged pathology of black anti-intellectualism that stunts community growth. “Here were a couple of black third graders already linking speech patterns to race and intelligence,” he writes in his book Please Stop Helping Us. “They had determined that ‘sounding white’ was something to be mocked in other blacks and avoided in their own speech.”

In this anecdote, Riley provides the nut of the “acting white” theory: That blacks stigmatize academic achievement and code it as “white.” But as he notes in the book, the definitive treatment comes from the late John Ogbu, a professor of anthropology at the University of California–Berkeley.

In multiple studies over several decades, Ogbu explored the allegedly “oppositional” culture of black teenagers and pushed the “acting white” idea into the popular discourse. “The low school performance of black children stems from the following factors,” he writes with Signithia Fordham in the 1986 paper, “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of ‘Acting White’ ”:

First, white people provide them with inferior schooling and treat them differently in school; second, by imposing a job ceiling, white people fail to reward them adequately for their educational achievements in adult life; and third, black Americans develop coping mechanisms which, in turn, further limit their striving for academic success.

Ogbu was thorough and convincing enough to spawn a whole genre of popular work around “acting white.” Besides Riley, the most recent contributions include Ron Christie’s Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur and Stuart Buck’sActing White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, which—like Ogbu’s work—argues that blacks lag in educational outcomes because of a cultural bias against academic achievement.

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One Reply to “Talking White”

  1. realist says:

    i wonder why no one complain about the southern drawl and the way hillbillies speak when they are talking. everyone complained about black kids speaking ebonics and how it wouldn’t let you advance in society but their isn’t any complaints of these kids and the language that being used in their texting. that’s not standard language.

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