Confessions of a Code-Switcher: 'Talking White' as an Accent

05/15/2015 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

Growing up, my Black friends said I talked "white" and my non-Black friends said I talked "ghetto." When I'm with non-Black friends, in the classroom, or at a job interview, I automatically turn on the "taking white" switch. When I'm with my Black friends, I reset to my normal south-side Chicago diasporic slur. Pretty soon, I was both the accuser and the accused in the racial speech witch trials. But as I grew older, intellectual maturation and social awareness showed me the role language plays in our society, how it helps us, and how it hurts us. I learned that assuming everyone from a certain race does or should talk the same way is problematic. But, I quite often found rebuttals to this generalization are even more problematic than the accusation. Here's why:

1. Using the phrase "Talking (insert Race here)" is problematic.

One of our double-edged swords as humans is we tend to like to generalize and associate. It requires less thinking and simplifies our understanding of the world around us. And yes, many people from the same race, class or geographic location tend to speak similarly. But saying someone talks black, white, brown, red or purple is problematic. While we may speak similarly as another from the same culture, a racially monolithic way of talking is simply not possible. We deserve to give each other room for cultural background and experience, and should not force each other to conform into our conceptions of their group.

Languages and accents aren't stagnant either. For example, English was heavily influenced by German and French. The regional American accents we speak English with were created as colonists came in contact with the Spanish, French, Native Americans and Africans from the African Diaspora. "Where you at?" is a long ways from "where art thou?" The amount of dialects, accents, pidgins, slang, colloquialisms, etc. there are in the English language alone is staggering. Speech changes over time and space.

2. But when people use words like "educated" and "proper" to describe speech or as a rebuttal against "talking white," it can be even more problematic than the accusation.

As frustrating as it is to be accused for talking a race, our responses can be just as, or even more, problematic. Whenever I hear my Black peers assert that they talk "proper," not "white," it makes me cringe. I assume their intention is to rebel against a one-size-fits-all "Blackness," to assert that speaking "properly" has nothing to do with race, and that they are enunciating sentences with proper syntax (.i.e. saying "I watch cartoons each weekend," instead of "I be watchin' cartoons eh' weekend").

But whether it's an accusation or a rebuttal, describing speech in "proper" terms subtly plays to the idea that "talking Black" equates to being inarticulate. The policing of Black speech is historically an extension of oppression, and one of the many tools that helped racism and classism reify each other.

Let me give you an example: A Black boy born and raised in Englewood, Chicago lives and interacts with only Black people (since Chicago is so segregated), all of whom speak the same way. When he sees another Black kid speak "properly", he may assume they "talk white," because he has only one reference to "Blackness." He's making the (problematic) observation that the other kid speaks with what he thinks is a "white accent" (intonation, inflection, hard consonants, types of slang, fully pronouncing words with -ing, etc.) It's an ignorant (in the denotation of the word) generalization, but his problem is that he thinks Blackness is statically one thing. But if you or I assume what he is implying or really means is, "You don't speak inarticulately like I do, so you're not Black," that's much more problematic. And it reveals way more about us than it does about him.

Why do we use the term "proper English" in America? Imagine a woman from London visiting a classroom in America, and witnessing a teacher chastising a student for saying"lid-duh-ruhlee" instead of "literally." As someone who speaks the language in the place it was created and has probably pronounced it "lih-truh-lee" their whole life, would she understand why the child was criticized? But as Americans, we use "proper" when we almost always mean "standard." And that's where the issue lies. Who sets the standard? Who is conforming to it and why? How is it negotiated over time? And is that Black boy from Englewood at the negotiation table?

3. Speaking "clearly" or "proper" is subjective.

Speaking "clearly" to you or me may sound confusing to another. If you visit Paris and speak French, they may not be able to comprehend you, because you are saying French words, but not enunciating them how French people do. In that moment, you are speaking "clearly," but to them, you sound funny. Bringing it back to America's regional accents, the same applies. In my opinion, the twangy Southwestern accent is unbearable. But if I was born and raised in the heart of Texas, I highly doubt I would believe that. How Texans talk is "not normal" to the rest of America, but I surmise no one equates twang to stupidity.

In the summer of 2014, I lived in Cape Town, South Africa. People there often responded with "Huh?" when I spoke, scrunching up their face in a confused manner. In my opinion, I was enunciating my words very clearly, but some couldn't understand what I was saying. It was a tad bit annoying, but my annoyance was very "American," because we typically don't see ourselves as having an accent. We forget or remain oblivious to the fact that how we generally speak English is not how English is generally spoken anywhere else on the globe. And what may be even more difficult to conceptualize for many of us is that white Americans have an accent too. I visited Indonesia for Spring Break, and our guide curiously asked me, "Why don't Black people talk like other Americans?" When I asked him to clarify, he responded, "I mean, why don't they talk like white Americans?"

So although we approach speaking "properly" or "clearly" as a universal concept, we have to be aware of its parameters. Normalizing the way we speak is not the same thing as the way we speak being normal. One is a social construction created and policed by the majority, the other is a passive-aggressive myth.

Again, it is very problematic to imply that everyone from a specific race talks the same. I'm certainly not trying to dismiss that. But if you are a non-white person accused of "talking white," don't automatically assume they are saying you speak intelligently. They might only be saying you pronounce words the way white people do. Both are bad generalizations, the former is arguably much worse. And if you are a white person who sees the way you talk as objectively proper or normal, you may be unknowingly othering minorities, and perpetuating the political role of language by arguing for an artificial standard that serves the goal of conformity.