The language of racism, the racism of language

By Pat Watson Wednesday July 03 2013 in Opinion
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We knew it would come to this. It was only a matter of time before the trial into the shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, now taking place in Florida, would put America’s racism on display.


Never mind the question of whether a jury that has not one single Black person among its members will be able to accurately contextualize a gun-toting Zimmerman following the Black youth wearing a hoodie unto his death, even after the self-styled neighbourhood watchman was advised by authorities to cease and desist. When 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak to Martin moments before he was shot and killed by Zimmerman, took the witness stand to be questioned by Zimmerman’s attorney, the court of public opinion flung a torrent of ugly racial stereotypes at her, like so much mud at a windscreen.


It was about her appearance. It was about her attitude. It was about how she spoke as she responded to the lawyer’s questions. And it was about her rejoinders to his sometimes abstruse questioning.


It was about how America’s mainstream speaks and behaves and how it contrasts in the moment-to-moment encounters between that mainstream and everyday Black American individuals.


The vocabulary and syntax of Africanized American English has its history in distinct cultures blended together after so many African cultures survived the transatlantic horror that brought the descendants of today’s main African-American population to this part of the world.


It’s a funny thing about White America’s love/hate relationship with the language of Black America. When White rappers create their sounds they draw from the vocabulary and cadence of Black rappers. When White scat singers of a bygone era created their sounds, they followed the stylings of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.


When people first began to pay attention to Barack Obama, the history making first Black president of the United States, one of the descriptors that pundits would attach to him is ‘articulate’. This is the White world’s way of saying ‘he speaks our English well’. One hardly hears such a term regarding White high profile personalities. Those who would be are regarded as supremely articulate, like the late essayist Christopher Hitchens and U.S. president Bill Clinton. But for Black people, being articulate indicates that (surprisingly) we speak mainstream English.


This raises an important point. Black English, or ‘Ebonics’ as it is often termed, is its own particular integrated language. Any suggestion that it denotes racial inferiority rather than cultural identity is racist.


Language is a signifier of class and culture in this world. The people from the east coast of Canada speak with an accent and cadence distinctly different from those in central and western Canada, and ‘down-easters’ have been derided for it for decades. This kind of regional denigration – or in the case of Black language, racism – is egotism at its core.


Everywhere that a people have met with subjugation or slavery – in the Caribbean, the United States, South America, and the Philippines, for example – adapted languages have emerged among the subjugated, because many were punished for speaking their native tongue and survival required that they adapt to the language of the oppressors. Naturally, as with all second-language learners, intrinsic syntax and cadence influenced that adaptation. Moreover, the oppressor classes adjusted their own languages in communicating with those they captured, and then communicated in similar fashion with each other.


So what is this mockery of Jeantel about? Depending on the source, either racism or shame.


Yet, the hegemony of mainstream English in today’s world speaks for itself in dollars and cents. Mainstream English is what one needs for particular types of employment. It is a signifier of social level. And, it is the presumed standard in a courtroom – even if your first language is not mainstream English, as is the case with Jeantel, whose personal history references Haitian Kreyol.


Mainstream English is now the lingua franca in many parts of the world, but depending on where one is, it presents with local adaptation, Scotland and India being distinct examples. Yet English is a derivation of Latin – a Latin patois, if you will, so it would be best for speakers of mainstream English to stop being uppity about it.

A note on summer fun…


The countdown is on for the 46th annual Caribbean carnival season in Toronto. Get your costumes ready.

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