Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Autobiography Pt. 4: Sociolinguistics

I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism.  In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back.  Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress.  This is part of my story.

I somehow managed to not take a linguistics class in my undergraduate or graduate studies.  As I attempted to join the professional world of ESL teachers, read scholarly journals, and discuss grammar with colleagues, I was often aware of my lack of terminology.  So one year into a doctoral program in I decided it might be a good time to fill in the gaps in my knowledge by taking an introductory linguistics course.   

The first few weeks of the course were mostly uneventful.  I reveled in the new terms revolving around morphology and phonology.  I drilled myself on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), something I always felt was missing over the years, especially when my ESL students all knew it and I didn’t.  But my favorite topic of them all is sociolinguistics.  

I think I should mention at this point that while the professor was once at the top of her field, she was at this time having some short-term memory issues.  So sometimes we got the same PowerPoint presentation three days in a row, for example.  By the time the professor launched into the sociolinguistics portion of the course, I was a little frustrated, to say the least.  One particular incident stands out in my mind that revealed my deep commitment to sociolinguistics, as well as an underlying antiracist streak that surfaced with unexpected passion. 

During the second half of the semester, we arrived at the part in the textbook which dealt with dialects.  There were several activities that asked students to “translate” British English into American English; the phrases were all Harry Potter excerpts.  On the next page, students were asked to “translate” similar phrases from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to Standard American English.  These phrases were almost indistinguishable from popular slang as seen on TV, with a few example of AAVE grammatical structure thrown in.  

I didn’t pay much attention to these activities, but our instructor was fascinated. During one particular class period, we spent the majority of the time going over the answers.  She spent several minutes reveling over the different idioms from British English, asking us if we were familiar with each phrase.  “Do people really say this?”  The students seemed a bit confused by her questioning.  “Um… Mrs. Weasley does?”  

After spending a few minutes trying to explain to her the differences between the British phrase “to knock something up” and the American phrase “to get knocked up,” we moved on the AAVE phrases.  Again, the instructor repeatedly asked if we had heard these phrases and whether Black people really talked like this.  

After several rounds of this game, I finally commented, “I don’t know if we are the best people to ask about this, since we are all White.  I mean, we have heard these phrases, but…” 

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “You probably don’t really hear this kind of language since you are at this university and most people at this university are very educated.”

I felt slightly ruffled.  I should have known to take it easy on the arguing, since the turns of conversation would soon get lost in her fading short-term memory, but I went on, “Well, I don’t know if it has anything to do with education.  I mean, like the textbook says, dialects have to do with group solidarity and identity.  And every dialect is a fully comprehensive language, capable of any thought possible to humans, right? It’s only that some dialects are afforded more power than others" (Smitherman, 1985). 

“Oh, yes, that’s true.”

She didn’t seem very convincing, so I kept going, “And someone who is educated could use this dialect. In fact, most Black people who use this dialect code-switch to Standard American English.  That actually requires more mental resources than just speaking one dialect. 

“Oh, yes, code-switching, that’s right.  But of course, it’s mostly less educated people who speak this way.” 

At this point, I was having a hard time listening to what she was saying.  I was becoming agitated, mentally contemplating how to respond as the words came out of my mouth, “You know, I am finding your comments to sound really racist.”

“Oh, no, I'm not racist.  You are misunderstanding me.  I am just trying to explain… it’s just that these people don’t really make it to this university.”

I was now shaking.  Almost in an out of body experience, I saw myself packing up my books even as I thought, “Am I really going to walk out of the class?”  The instructor was still talking, but I was no longer contained within myself.  As if in a dream, I was up and walking across the room, as I mumbled something like, “I’m sorry… I’ll come back when I calm down.” 

I was across the lawn, walking fast before I realized I had actually left the building.  As I walked into the other building, the adrenaline let down but I was still shaking, my teeth chattering slightly.  I must have looked upset because the two instructors in the copy room stopped talking and asked what had happened.  I recounted the incident quickly, still shaking. The instructor shook their heads, “Wow, she is really losing it.  You know you don’t say those things.”  

“Right…” But there were questions looming in my head.  Wasn’t what she said wrong to believe, too? And why wasn’t anyone else upset at all?  Was I going crazy?  I felt crazy, but I also remembered the feeling I had in class.  What if there had been a Black student sitting there listening to the instructor go on and on?  How would that student feel?  And why did I feel the need to defend this hypothetical Black student?  

A few days later, I sat in the department chair’s office.  I had met with the chair a few times this semester to talk about how the class was going.  This time, I explained to him that I had walked out and why.  I wasn’t officially reporting this instructor, since I knew she wouldn’t remember what exactly had happened; in fact, a week later she didn’t recall the details of the incident.  As I finished the story, the professor leaned back in his chair, folded his hands and looked pensive. 

“Well, now, let’s think about what she actually said,” he intoned. “Nothing she said was factually wrong... but you were upset, in any case.  In my experience, the African-American students who have come to this university have been… well, deficient in their education.”

“But that has to do with the education system.  There are fewer opportunities in poorer neighborhoods and fewer schools to choose from… and discrimination…” I was fumbling for arguments that weren’t formulating clearly or quickly in my mind. 

“Yes, but everything you just said were reasons why they might be deficient. You haven’t disproved my initial statement.  Now, I know that that there are physical differences between the races, like a wider nose and lips.  I don’t know if there are mental differences,” he paused and stared at me intently. “I don’t think you do either.” 

I was painfully silent.  I didn’t know.  I couldn’t argue against him, even though his logic felt instinctively wrong to me.  The arguments were elusive and slippery.  I was surprisingly calm this time, as I felt resignation wash over me.  

Later someone congratulated me on walking out.  But I really felt inadequate and helpless.  I didn’t really feel proud of verbally sparring with an aging professor who was really very sweet and confused.  At the same time, I wondered why the other students in the class weren’t upset.  I also felt that there had to be some way to refute the argument that the department chair presented, but I just couldn’t work it out.  It wasn’t until much later, after several courses on racial identity, discrimination, and the social construction of racial difference that I started to put things together.

While I had a good foundation laid in sociolinguistics, I was sadly ignorant about the way racial difference is constructed socially.  Over the next summer, I saw Race: The Power of an Illusion, which documents how new genetic evidence has completely debunked the premise of essentialist racism, the idea that different "race" are biologically distinct and hierarchicalAs it turns out, only about 2% of our genetic make-up accounts for the way that we look, or our phenotype.  "Race" has been and is socially constructed through daily interactions and laws that determine who fits into which category.  Those categories are essentially arbitrary and have changed over the course of history, affording privileges to White people and denying privileges to everyone else.  So in this way, "race" has real consequences in terms of opportunities and life outcomes. 

That day, I was kind of like an untrained cannon firing wildly.  I didn’t have a plan of action to refute those kinds of comments in a more effective, less accusatory way. Sometimes it’s hard to anticipate those very physical and emotional reactions, though.  Maybe it was good for the other students to see my reaction to those comments, even though they didn’t seem to understand why I was upset.   The biggest lesson, though, was that I needed to get educated, so that next time--because there will be a next time--I will have something to say when it matters.

Autobiography Pt. 5: Protestants and Jesuits

  • Herbes-Sommers, C., Strain, T. H., & Smith, L. (2003). Race: The power of an illusion [Television Series]. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel & Independent Television Service.
  • Race: The Power of an Illusion Website. (2003). PBS. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.pbs.org/race/   
  • Smitherman, G. (1985). Talkin and testifyin: The language of Black America. Wayne State University Press.  

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