Posts Tagged ‘african-americans’

Code Switching Ebonics

April 30, 2017

Language is often a contentious issue, perhaps because the languages we speak are one of the most fundamental ways in nations and societies differentiate themselves from on another. Language is often at the core of our identity. It should come as no surprise, then, that the question of Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English as it should more properly be called, should be controversial, particularly since it involves race, another contentious issue in America. For this reason, this a has gotten more attention than it really should, particularly from Conservatives who want to feel outrage

 In classrooms across the country, students might be scolded for using “ain’t” instead of “isn’t.” But a UW-Madison student is working to erase the stigma against Ebonics, also known as African-American Vernacular English. UW-Madison junior Erika Gallagher conducted research about code switching, also known as code meshing, in which people change their regular speech tendencies to fit into the mold of what is commonly accepted as appropriate. Ebonics is a variety of English that is commonly found in the center of large cities that have been historically populated primarily by black people. It is commonly found in slam poetry, as well as hip-hop and rap music.

Gallagher, a Posse scholar, began her research during her time as an undergraduate Writing Fellow this semester. She said she realized, as she sat in her seminar class of predominantly white students, that she wanted to focus on standard written English and how it excludes marginalized groups. “I want to center the voices of the people who need to be centered,” Gallagher said. “As a Writing Fellow, as a white-passing person, I have a lot of power and privilege that should be shared.” Gallagher conducted much of her research through three interviews. She talked to UW-Madison student leaders from marginalized groups and asked how they felt about code switching. She said all three “overwhelmingly” said it felt oppressive—one said “it is the biggest form of cognitive dissonance that exists.”

She presented her research at the Collegiate Conference on Composition and Communication in Portland, Ore., earlier this semester. She was selected as one of roughly two dozen undergraduates from across the U.S. to participate in the conference, which is typically attended by graduate students and professors. 

Before going on to the topic of Ebonics, I have to point out that Ms. Erika Gallagher’s research is worthless. She reached her conclusion that expecting “‘marginalized” persons to speak Standard English is oppressive by interviewing just three people. Three individuals from a single university campus is far too small a sample size to make any sort of generalization. But then, Ms. Gallagher seems to have reached her conclusions before doing any research at all. The fact that this nonsense is getting any sort of credit is an indictment of our system of higher education.

Code switching is the term used to refer to the practice of multi-lingual people switching languages during the course of a conversation, often even within a sentence. Code switching can also occur might even be done by a person speaking two varieties or dialects of the same language, such as person who speaks an informal or nonstandard dialect at home and a more formal dialect at work. Paul from Langfocus made a video about code switching, not too long ago.

The controversy about African American Vernacular English centers of whether it should be taught in schools along side of or even instead of Standard English and whether African Americans ought to be encouraged to speak in Standard English. Ms. Gallangher seems to be of the opinion that it should and she hopes her research will encourage the teaching of African American student in their own language.

Gallagher said she hopes to develop her research into a nonprofit organization that “teaches teachers to teach,” with the goal that educators will eventually express disclaimers at the start of each semester that state they will accept any form of English that students are comfortable with.

She also hopes increased acceptance of different rhetoric will encourage the formation of a campus-wide diversity statement.

“Just because you speak a different way doesn’t mean you’re not smart, but there’s a huge stigma around it,” Gallagher said. “I want to teach [educators] a different rhetoric, teach them to be more accepting.”

Now, every language exists in different varieties which may be dialects, accents, and so on. Usually some varieties are considered to be more prestigious or more correct than other varieties and there is often one particular variety that is considered to be standard. In American English, that standard is the vaguely midwestern accent often heard spoken by politicians and television reporters. There is no objective reason to consider some varieties more proper than others and from a scientific, linguistic point of view, you can’t really say that a particular pattern of speech is superior or inferior to another pattern of speech. There is no reason “ain’t” shouldn’t be a proper word or that, “he is going” is better than, “he be goin'”. Since the establishment of a standard language is more due to the chances of history and geography, there is no particular reason speaking in a different way might be stigmatizing.

In the real world, however, people do judge other people by the way they speak, and a person who cannot or will not speak Standard English is going to be regarded as uneducated or stupid. This is not just a racial thing. If you speak in a deep southern accent or a West Virginia hillbilly accent, anyone you are speaking to is going to deduct 20 points from his estimate of your IQ. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD or graduated at the top of your class in medical school, he will still tend to regard your speech as uneducated. Similarly, an African-American who speaks in Ebonics will not be seriously considered for many well-paying jobs. His speech will confirm any prejudices against him.

For this reason, it is not actually helping “marginalized” people if they are not taught to use Standard English, at least in situations where more formal language is expected. Speaking solely in Ebonics will only make an African American more marginalized, since he may be denied opportunities that he might otherwise be able to take advantage of. Ms. Gallagher’s approach will not improve the lives of African-Americans. Her approach is also a little insulting. There seems to be the idea that African-Americans cannot really be expected to speak Standard English. It is just too stressful or triggering for them. Better for the rest of us to make accommodations. Ms. Gallagher demonstrates the soft bigotry of low expectations. Her approach is more about keeping a people in their place than helping to rise. It is about keeping them in their ghetto.

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The Minstrel Show

June 5, 2014

I would have thought that the job of a history teacher at a middle school was to actually teach history, that is the various events that happened in the past. For example, a teacher might wish to mention racist practices that were accepted in the past, such as slavery or minstrel shows, that now are unacceptable because attitudes have changed for the better. However, according to this story at Yahoo News, teaching about past racism is now considered racist.

A middle school history teacher in small-town southeastern Michigan has been placed on paid administrative leave because he informed students that white entertainers used to paint their faces black to imitate black people and showed kids a video about it.

The teacher is Alan Barron, reports the Monroe News. The 59-year-old teacher has taught in the local school district for well over three decades and is retiring in just two weeks.

The suspension occurred after an assistant principal observed Barron teaching an eighth-grade class. Barron’s topic for the day was racial segregation laws during the Jim Crow era. The lesson included a video which showed how white actors commonly used theatrical makeup known as blackface — a practice which began in the nineteenth century and lasted over 100 years.

The unidentified assistant principal concluded that Barron’s lesson about how entertainers used to be racist was itself racist, according to the local paper. The assistant principal also apparently ordered that Barron stop the video as it was being played.

Parents with kids at the school have overwhelmingly opposed the suspension.

One parent, Adrienne Aaron, who has a daughter in the class, spoke with the Monroe News.

“It had nothing to do with racism,” Aaron (whose husband is black) said. “History is history. We need to educate our kids to see how far we’ve come in America. How is that racism?”

“He’s one of the best teachers we’ve had,” Aaron added. “We can’t believe that this is happening.”

Other parents have taken to social media. In a missive on Facebook, a frustrated parent called Barron a “great” teacher who “has changed many children’s lives.”

A school district spokesman, Bobb Vergiels, refused to say that Barron was suspended. Instead, Vergiels said, Barron is “on leave.”

“Mr. Barron has been on leave for about a week while we look into a reported situation in his classroom,” a school district statement obtained by the Monroe News reads. “Because this is a personnel matter that is going through the teacher-contract required steps, we cannot comment any further.”

As a result of the suspension, Barron cannot attend any school functions including an annual banquet during which he and other retiring teachers will be honored.

I really do not understand what the problem is here. Should Mr. Barron not teach the truth about the history of race relations in the US? Should his students not learn about aspects of American culture that may not be acceptable now, nevertheless did play an important role in our cultural development? The minstrel shows were terribly racist but they were very popular in their time and influenced White perceptions of African-American culture and contributed to the development of other forms of popular entertainment.

In a way it is a shame that the minstrel shows are so toxically politically incorrect by today’s standards. The minstrel shows were a uniquely American art form and the earliest American contribution to the theater. Although White actors blackened their faces to portray Blacks at least since the early 1600’s, the minstrel shows, featuring supposed slave on plantations began around 1830-1840. While most of the actors were Whites, there were minstrel shows featuring troupes of Black entertainers, in black face,  particularly after the Civil War. These all-Black troupes claimed that that their acts were more authentic representations of Black culture. They could be popular, but Whites often resented them if they became too successful.

Minstrel PosterBillyVanWare

Minstrel PosterBillyVanWare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The shows themselves usually consisted of three acts. The first act was a song and dance number as the troupe of entertainers came on stage and introduced themselves to the audience. There was an interlocutor who acted as a sort of master of ceremonies and was the straight man for the jokes. The second act had a structure somewhat like a variety show with music or acrobatics. Often there was a stump speech or oration given in Black dialect for humorous effect. This speech could be nonsense or perhaps something like a stand up routine, or it could be about a social issue, done in the guise of an ill-educated Black man making a fool out of himself. The third act was often a skit set on a Southern plantation. Sometimes the actors played parodies of serious drama, such as Shakespeare. Just before and during the Civil War, skits based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin became popular.

The actors generally portrayed stock characters such as the Old Uncle, the head of the slave family, the simple-minded, happy-go-lucky slave, the Dandy or Black man who imitated Whites and thought himself their equal, and during the Civil War, the Black soldier, more accustomed to retreat than fight. Female characters, usually portrayed by men or boys in drag included the Mammy and the Wench. Blacks were, of course, always shown as being dim-witted, lazy, and generally content to be slaves. They always spoke in Black dialect, and the Dandy trying to speak in standard English was a source of humor.

These shows were undoubtedly racist and offensive to African-Americans but they could also be subversive. The fool making the stump speech could make social criticism that might have ended with him being run off the stage if he had played it straight. The black face enabled audiences to accept such criticism since it was only an ignorant Black who was speaking. The minstrel shows introduced Whites to Black culture, though an introduction filtered by prejudice. It is not certain to what extent the song and dance numbers were authentically Black in origin, but the minstrel shows had a powerful influence on the development of American popular music, even among Blacks.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the minstrel shows were eclipsed in popularity by the development of vaudeville. Even so, new trends in theater and the emerging film industry often incorporated themes from the minstrel shows, especially with Black actors who often found themselves restricted to minstrel show type roles in the early years of the movies.

As I said, it is a shame that such a uniquely American and influential form of entertainment should also be so racist and politically incorrect. Perhaps the fact that these shows were so popular in their day doesn’t say much that is good about the history of race relations in America. Then again, perhaps these shows made Whites somewhat more sympathetic to Blacks than they otherwise might have been. In any case, it is surely a sign of progress that such blatantly racist entertainment is not tolerated today.

 

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