I have always been the proverbial privileged white girl. Poverty never touched my life. Challenges never threatened reaching my goals. An entitled upbringing stripped my ability to understand stigma, to empathize with the oppressed. I grasp no understanding of prejudice. I am not qualified to have an opinion about racism. Nor do I have full consciousness of what it means to be a person of color in American society.
Okay, none of that is true except the the last sentence.
Yes, I’m living the American Dream now.
House, vehicles, three dogs, two kids, one amazing Hubby. (Also, six and a half rescued cats. And a small lizard. He is not a bonafide tenant, but somehow he got into the Girl’s room and we haven’t managed to capture him. Big game hunters we’re not.)
My life has not always been so stable.
Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t pretend to understand the African American child who qualifies to receive free lunch at school just because I carried a free lunch card. I absolutely believe that many of my good friends who grew up “not white” endured an altogether tougher existence than I.
Humans get stupid when everyone’s skin color doesn’t match. Or their religion. Or their politics. Or their pinky toe shapes. We find all kinds of reasons to discriminate.
Americans aren’t the only jerks. Friends of ours returned from a mission trip to Romania with stories of gypsy children eating grass. Grass. Parents can’t afford food for their children because Romanians won’t hire people with a gypsy background. In some towns, a gypsy bloodline ensures you’ll be treated worse than Romanian dogs.
And get this:
They’re all the same color.
But I digress, because this isn’t really about color.
I promise, it’s not.
The people of our country feed hate in so many ways, creating factions and divisions. Sometimes, I understand. People on both “sides” find a soapbox or cause and stand together, which is not fundamentally wrong. If Martin Luther King backed down, he wouldn’t be one of my son’s heroes. We should all stand up to bullies.
But here’s one schism I just don’t get:
The problem’s pervasiveness flabbergasts me.
How does speech divide us?
We’ve all heard the stories of kids like Akeela. You know, the girl in the Bee. (If you haven’t seen Akeela and the Bee, I recommend watching.) A child of color decides to take her education to the next level. She begins to speak English correctly; her friends are derisive and her family is not supportive.
In Zootopia (which addresses stereotypes and stigma), sly fox Nick has a flashback about experiencing abuse and prejudice simply because he’s a predator. He decides to follow the less-than-legal path to adulthood, since no one believes in him anyway. He’s now grown; another character calls him “articulate,” expressing condescension.
This isn’t just in the movies. One of my friends conveyed his frustration with people who have “low expectations of African American boys and are impressed when one comes to them with the King’s English and home training.” A counselor—with apparent surprise—called his (African American) son “eloquent.”
A friend of one of my family members is a highly educated, well-respected individual in the community. Many people seek her counsel. And yet, when she visits her family, they ignore her and refuse to respond to her unless she speaks broken English.
Several weeks ago, I met with a speech therapist. In the course of discussing my son’s difficulties with certain letter combinations, I mentioned his habit of pronouncing “the” as “duh.” She gave me a few ideas, then noted, “it’s a dialect issue. Not your dialect, though, so we could work on that.” I asked what she meant. “We’re not allowed to correct dialect. But like I said, it’s not an issue for your son.”
Beginning to cotton on, I asked, “whose dialect would keep that sound?” She finally admitted that her team guidelines would not allow her to correct an African American child who pronounces the “th” as a “d” sound.
I can’t tell you how this made my blood boil. Not a literal 212 degrees, of course, because I wouldn’t be here to write…but I was MAD.
“So, you’re telling me that if I’d adopted an African American child, you would leave that mistaken pronunciation well enough alone?” She nodded.
How did speaking unbroken English become “white” and uneducated speech “black”…does no one else see the problem?
Education is the key to success. Hubby and I correct our children’s speech; learning to speak up, enunciate and articulate with clarity is a constant and consistent lesson. They happen to be white but we’d do the same for ANY child.
Have we forgotten history? In every case, oppressors limit education of the oppressed.
Illiteracy and inaccessible (or below-standard) education ensure tyrranized parties remain in “their” places.
This feels like a reasonable statement: literacy is liberty; education is emancipation; clear speech leads to success.
Am I wrong?
How about this.
Imagine two presidential candidates of the same skin color (any color you like).
Candidate A studied and researched our country, our laws, our beginnings, our trends, our popular votes (and I don’t mean people’s choice music awards), the reasons behind our legislation and the current state of the union. This candidate makes eye contact, speaks with clarity and authority, exudes confidence in his or her own ability to communicate.
Candidate B speaks broken English with a strong accent (country bumpkin or ghetto; your choice). Displaying a spectacular lack of understanding about the country, this candidate stumbles and mumbles through the campaign, mispronouncing words with rampant incoherence.
Please tell me: would you vote for articulate candidate A or unintelligible candidate B?
Being educated in general, not just in speech—and allowing that education to show—just makes good business sense for those who would like to succeed. (And yes, I know there ARE people who excel without clear speech, just as there are individuals who dropped out of school, skipped “standard” education and made piles of money.) As a rule, education and clear presentation are the best foundation for success.
And yet, as a country, we are telling young African Americans they should stay uneducated. By “we,” I mean the intellectual fops who decided incorrect speech is a “dialect,” the individuals who expect less of a child due to skin color, the people who don’t support a child’s furthered education and the jerks who make fun of an African American child—or adult—who is “ARTICULATE.” Since when is speaking well a detriment? It’s ridiculous.
Here’s my (arguably simplistic) view of what’s happening:
White people: “Stay dumb, kid, and make sure you don’t communicate well, so you’ll never be able to fight for your rights. Or at least, you won’t win.”
Black people: “Don’t talk like a white person. You’re not white. Be true to who you are.”
Professionals: “We don’t want to tip the balance of anthropology and sociology, so we can’t ‘fix’ incorrect speech.”
Kids: “I worked hard for my education. I am well-spoken and confident. But I still have to deal with snobbery and surprise at ‘how well’ I’ve done for myself; plus I am stigmatized by my friends and family who assume I think I’m ‘bettter’ than they are. Is it worth it?”
And here’s my (also simplistic) solution:
Can we just call it Standard English Education?
Because honestly, I know white people in Alabama who don’t meet the definition of “ARTICULATE” (no offense if you’re reading this). I mean, really. And I’ve got white friends in other parts of the country I can barely understand. Is this “white” speech?
I mean, they’re white, and they’re speaking, so…
And then there are the blue-eyed, blonde, Casper-white people who speak as though they just stepped out of the ghettos of New York and can give any rapper a run for his money.
Is that “white” speech? Because you, know…they’re definitely white.
What if we all just close our eyes to color and listen only to the words?*
What if, instead of “white” speech, we say “standard” speech?**
What if we provide equal education and protect all children from both derision and snobbery?
What if we allow, indeed elevate, children to truly attain the potential they possess inherent, rather than lowering our expectations based on melanin-to-epidermis ratio?
What if we remove the boundaries?
Maybe this is a tall order, but we can fill one ticket at a time.
And you’d better believe this: if we ever adopt again, that child will receive every possible service needed, including speech therapy…and if the therapist won’t help my child enunciate, I’ll find a way to do it myself.
Education is emancipation. Literacy is liberty. Clear speech brings success.
Am I crazy? What’s your opinion?
*”Closing our eyes” won’t remove racism. My point remains: can we put politics aside to focus on education and what’s best for ALL our children?
**Edit: As you can see below, one of my favorite blog buddies made a very good point. Instead of calling it “educated” English, “Standard” English is probably a better term.
If you live outside the US, do you see this issue as well? If a man from Ethiopia learns to speak German without an accent, is he speaking “white” German? If a girl in Cameroon fluently communicates in French, is she speaking “white” French? Or are these individuals simply well-educated in the standard language?
Do you agree with me? If not, feel free to rant about my idiocy below. I know that sometimes my view of the world is much too simple.