The Perils of Speaking in Color

The Perils of Speaking in Color for urban faithPerhaps Harry Reid’s words were a bit outdated, but he told the truth. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to speak honestly about race in America today without offending some, or giving others ammunition to take you down.

“Could you talk a little more ‘Black’?” — White theater director at my first professional acting audition

“Why you talkin’ all white?” — Black classmate of mine in junior high school

“Two things everbody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves” — Zora Neal Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Senator Harry Reid has come under fire, with calls for his resignation, due to a racial comment he made in private that was recounted in Game Change, the new book about the 2008 presidential campaign that’s dropping all sorts of juicy political bombs.

During the ’08 campaign, Reid was quoted as saying Barack Obama would probably be successful as a candidate because he was “a light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Well, geez! Me and countless, and I do mean countless, other African Americans said the same thing! Because we’re racist? No. It’s out of an awareness of the social climate we live in, and what facilitates success in a racialized America (and by “racialized,” I mean race consciousness, not racist).

As a student enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s theater program, students were required to take voice and speech classes. Because the program was dedicated to training students who could perform the Classics (i.e., Shakespeare, Chekov, Moliere, the Greeks), we went through arduous training to not only learn other dialects, but also to unlearn any regional dialects we may have brought with us. The idea was that if we were to perform the classics with our “native” dialects, some from Brooklyn, “Nu Yawk,” England, Latin America, Texas, Russia … Well, no one would really accept us as authentically living in the worlds we were trying to portray on the stage. We would lose credibility. As a foundation, we were all taught “Standard American English” (which most Americans do not even speak).

Some African American students resented being “stripped” of their dialect, which they saw as a part of their cultural identity. They took it as an attempt by “The Man” to coerce them into assimilating into “White” culture. Actually, I think they did us a service by preparing us to be more skilled in our chosen field. We understood the distinctives of Black dialect, even if not all of the African Americans spoke in it.

Although I’m disappointed that people equate “Black” dialect with a lack of intelligence, I know that, in many circles, no one who speaks poorly or has a weak grasp of proper English will be viewed as smart and professional, fair or not (and it is unfortunate).

And yet, there is a need to be able to connect to the masses on their terms and in their vernacular, or as the apostle Paul advised, to “be all things to all people, that you may win some.”

The truth is, most people, including Senator Reid, understand that not all African Americans speak in “Black English.” We know that many African Americans speak in “proper” English, and that those who can use both when necessary. Reid simply acknowledged this fact, which only highlights the ridiculousness of pretending we don’t know what he was talking about when he speaks of a “Negro” dialect. Perhaps it wasn’t the most elegant choice of words, but let’s be real: Reid is a 70-year-old White man. There are 70-year-old Blacks who still use the term “Negro.”

The Perils of Speaking in Color for urban faith

U.S. Senator Harry Reid addresses the media.

I, for one, as well as many African Americans I spoke (and joked) with during the last presidential campaign, commented on how Obama would go in and out of his “Black-cent” based on the audience and the message he wanted to send. So, attacking Reid for saying out loud what we were already thinking (come on, admit it) is hypocritical.

African American conservative John McWhorter, a scholar, author, and linguist who’s fluent in at least five different languages (including “Black English”), had this to say about the Harry Reid controversy in The New Republic:

In mentioning that Obama doesn’t speak in “dialect,” Reid acknowledged something many blacks are hot and quick to point out, that not all black people use Black English. Okay, they don’t — and Reid knows. He didn’t seem surprised that Obama cannot sound black when he talks — he was just pointing out that Obama is part of the subset of blacks who can. He knows there is such a subset. Lesson learned.

Indeed Reid implied that black dialect is less prestigious than standard, such that not speaking it made Obama more likely to become President. That is, he implied what we all think too: Black English is, to the typical American ear, warm, honest — and mistaken. If that’s wrong, okay — but since when are most Americans, including black ones, at all shy about dissing Black English? And who among us — including black people — thinks someone with what I call a “black-cent” who occasionally popped up with double negatives and things like aks could be elected President, whether it’s fair or not?

McWhorter adds that Reid shouldn’t be censured for what he said unless we’re ready to censure ourselves as well. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be openly honest about the daily truths of race in America today without either offending some, or giving others fodder for their political battles.