As a college professor, I am seeing more and more black students who refuse—in their words—to “talk white.” What they mean by “talking white” is speaking proper English. Why black students think speaking proper English is “talking white” I don’t know. It’s not like all white people speak proper English. In fact, most don’t. But here is the rub. The most successful people, regardless of race, do speak proper English. An individual’s command of the English language is a key determinant of success in life. We tend to form our opinions of others in part by how well they speak. The ability to use proper English is a sign of an educated person. Then there is the role speaking properly can play in promoting effective communication. An especially important rationale for learning to use proper English in America is that sharing a common language is the best way to create common ground among people of diverse backgrounds.
What is even more disturbing than black students viewing the use of proper English as “talking white” is that an increasing number of these students are applying peer pressure to other black students to coerce them into rejecting proper English. It is as if using proper English is viewed as a betrayal of the black students’ cultural heritage. The distinguished journalist, Jason Riley, who happens to be black, told of an encounter with this attitude in an article for Imprimis (January 2015). During a visit with his sister Riley had a conversation with his niece, the seven or eight-year old daughter of his sister. She asked him, “Uncle Jason, why you talk white?” Then she commented to a friend, “Don’t my uncle sound white? Why he tryin’ to sound so smart?” In his article Riley relates that this episode jolted him. “I couldn’t help thinking: Here were two young black girls, seven or eight-years old, already linking speech patterns to race and intelligence. They already had a rather sophisticated awareness that, as blacks, white-sounding speech was not only to be avoided in their own speech but mocked in the speech of others…other black professionals have told similar stories. What I had forgotten is just how early these attitudes take hold—how soon this counterproductive thinking and behavior begins.”
Counterproductive indeed. As a college professor I interact with students from a variety of cultural backgrounds. I have taught students of Irish, German, French, American Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Czech, Indian (from India), Mexican, and Russian heritage, to name just a few, and never once met one who considered learning to speak proper English a betrayal of his or her culture. In fact, learning to speak proper English seems to be a high-priority among my foreign-born students. These students from a variety of cultural backgrounds view learning to speak proper English as a necessary step on the pathway to success. Consequently, for these students learning to speak proper English is a matter of pride, not something to be avoided or mocked.
I have a friend who is a successful entrepreneur and business man who emigrated to the U.S. from China. He and his wife—also Chinese—homeschooled their children at night to ensure they got a high-quality education, but sent them to public school during the day to ensure through total immersion that they would learn to speak English well. Their strategy worked. All three of the children are now highly successful professionals. It is sad to say, but black students who adopt a negative attitude toward learning to speak proper English are setting themselves on a path that will drastically limit their horizons in life. The language of the ghetto is not the language of the classroom and the language of the rap culture is not the language of the board room. Had Barack Obama refused to learn how to speak proper English, he never would have been elected Senator, much less president.
As to speaking proper English being considered “talking white,” nothing could be farther from the truth. As a white child of the rural South, I spoke a southern dialect so thick it smacked of azaleas and magnolias. I didn’t say “I am going to do something.” Rather, I said “I am fixin’ to do something.” I didn’t say “That isn’t right.” I said “That ain’t right.” For me and my friends, pretending to be asleep was “playing possum.” We didn’t wear pants or trousers, we wore “britches.” If we wanted someone to wait a minute we told him to “hold his horses.” When we didn’t have a stake in a dispute on the playground we “didn’t have a dog in the fight.” When a friend told us something that didn’t sound right we responded “that dog won’t hunt.” If a person appeared a bit addled or just was not too smart we would say “he doesn’t know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt.”
Most of the idioms sprinkled throughout the everyday speech of my childhood would not have been recognizable outside of the rural South. Consequently, I had to learn to speak proper English, something that came hard to a young boy whose roots were as country as grits and corn pone. Fortunately, my teachers from elementary school through college stressed that learning to speak proper English was a pre-requisite to success. Every year their message was the same: Speak any way you want at home, but in my classroom you will use proper English. We were drilled in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, alliteration, and even voice intonation and woe to the poor student who dared use slang or idioms in the presence of a teacher. Our teachers were not interested in preserving the language of our rural heritage. Rather, they were interested teaching us to speak in the manner of educated people as a necessary step toward improving our lives. Since most of us came from poor families, improving our lives was an endeavor to be taken seriously.
I thought of Jason Riley’s conversation with his niece recently when during a class break I overheard two black college students discussing their speech professor’s insistence that they use proper English in her class. One of them concluded the conversation by saying, “I ain’t talkin’ no white sh– no matter what dat b—-say.” These students did not view using proper English as a pre-requisite to success or evidence of a good education. Rather, they viewed it as a betrayal of their race and culture. Since this incident I have talked with other college professors, including several black professors, about the claim that speaking proper English means speaking “white.” They too had seen evidence recently that some black students consider speaking proper English to be “talking white,” and that to “talk white” is to sell out.
The black students who were angry at their speech teacher for expecting them to speak proper English were both athletes—basketball players. I doubt seriously either one of them would question their coach for insisting they run the fast break in a certain way or work hard to improve their scoring or rebounding averages. Athletes who want to succeed in their sports must be willing to do what is necessary to succeed. In sports there is the way of success and the way of failure. Life is no difference. There is a way that leads to success and a way that leads to failure. Learning to speak proper English is a component of the way of success. Refusing to do so is a component of the way of failure.
When students of any race reject the attitudes and behaviors that lead to academic success, they have chosen failure as their lot in life. Jason Riley spoke to this issue in his article for Imprimis. “Eighty percent of black kids in New York public schools are performing below grade level. And a big part of the problem is a black subculture that rejects attitudes and behaviors that are conducive to academic success. In other words, a big part of the problem is a culture that produces little black girls and boys who are already worried about acting and sounding white by the time they are in second grade.”
Recall that earlier in this column I raised the subject of “talking white” with several other professors—professors of different races. They too were concerned about the issue, but did not want to talk about it except in private, and then only in hushed tones. There is a palpable reluctance among people—both white and black—to discuss this important issue. According to Jason Riley, “Many whites fear being called racists. And many black leaders have a vested interest in blaming black problems primarily on white racism, so that is the narrative they push regardless of the reality. Racism has become an all-purpose explanation for bad black outcomes, be they social or economic. If you disagree and are white, you’re a bigot. If you disagree and are black, you are a sell-out.” This inability to have an intelligent, honest discussion about it may be the saddest aspect of the problem.
Until learned people—white and black—care enough about this issue to risk having to endure the slings and arrows of race hustlers such as Al Sharpton and his fellow travelers in the mainstream media, the problem described in this column will just get worse. Further, if viewing the use of proper English as something to be avoided and even mocked takes hold on a broad scale—if it hasn’t already—an entire race of people will be hamstrung as they try to compete for jobs and a better life in a world that just gets more competitive everyday.