I spent fall break in Alexandria visiting my cousins with my brother and sister. As we drove through the city with my cousins, who are both black, the Uber driver, also black, kept looking at us in the rear-view mirror. Finally when our conversation died down in the back seat, he spoke up.
“Where Y’all from?” he said. His voice cloaked in that deep Virginian accent.
We told him we hailed from the Midwest and were visiting DC for the weekend.
“Okay,” he replied, “It’s just. . . y’all talk so strange.”
He went on to say that when he’d heard my cousin over the phone, he arrived in his Uber car looking for a group of white people.
“I had to do a double take to make sure y’alls was really black. Sounds like I’m drivin a bunch of white folks.”
He was laughing as he said this because to him it was so outlandish that a group of black youth were talking like white folks. We laughed too because we know our accent is odd considering how we look.
It’s problematic sometimes, being black and talking white. What’s hard about it? Relating to black people. Well at least in my case.
Is it just me or do they look at me funny because I don’t speak like them?
What’s annoying is when people ask me if I speak Ebonics.
“Can you talk like, you know, a real black person.”
Again with the word “real,” it confuses me.
“You mean do I use African American Vernacular?”
“Yeah you know . . . like gettin your sass on and all.”
Let me note that black people never ask me this. It’s just my white friends who are curious about my background. #understandable
I use to feel bad because I couldn’t speak Ebonics. It was just another thing that removed me from the black community. But I had to ask myself if it was something people should assume about me.
“Oh your black, so can you dance like Will Smith?”
I suppose this was something they could assume. As a kid I assumed all Chinese could do Karate, all Hispanics could dance Salsa, and all Indians liked super spicy food.
Assumptions can be easily replaced with curiosity. #CuriosityIsKey
“So I’m curious, why don’t you speak like most people in the black community?”
This is a question I would be happy to answer, because it gives off a vibe that the one posing the question is eager to learn. This approach puts me in a comfortable position. Otherwise my explanation of why I don’t talk a certain way comes out in a more defensive manner.
Why do I talk like a white girl? Well, first of all I don’t. What I speak is Standard American English, a dialect that is linguistically equal to Ebonics. It is what my mother and father speak and the dialect of almost everyone around me.
My parents understand that society deems this variety of English as more educated than others and therefore as kids we were not allowed to use African American Vernacular.
Imagine if society didn’t demean certain varieties of English. Imagine if all dialect and varieties were societally equal. Communication is the purpose of language, so there is no ethical values in using one variety.
For the record, I love hearing people speak Ebonics. It intrigues me in how it combines words, removing suffixes and adding prefixes. I’m fascinated by the rise and fall of the speech patterns. It makes me envy the ability some have to code-switch and therefore comfortably communicate with two different people groups. So, yes, though I can’t speak it, I recognize Ebonics as a valuable means of communication.