African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a dialect of English that Black people speak in America. It sounds different from Standard American English (SAE), the English taught in our schools. Although AAVE has its own comprehensive words and syntaxes, it’s widely ridiculed in society. Dominant culture often infers that people who speak using AAVE are less intelligent and capable than those who do not. Most people, regardless of race, do not speak Standard American English, yet AAVE is the most stigmatized and debated (AfroPunk).
Our education system reinforces these perceptions that consistently shame students for using AAVE (The Atlantic). It’s also enforced by editorial standards. The AP Stylebook avoids AAVE in its definition of prescriptive grammar (Daily Utah Chronicle). And this can have serious consequences. A study found that speaking AAVE makes it more likely that jurors will view Black people as guilty of a crime (Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice).
• Pay attention to microaggressions that use derogatory statements around speech and grammar. Use tips in the newsletter – and do additional research – to respond.
• This week, pay attention to the media you consume. Notice where you hear AAVE and who is speaking it.
This was on full display in the George Zimmerman trial. Rachel Jeantel, a then 19-year-old Black woman, was on the phone with Trayvon Martin in the minutes before he was murdered. Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defense, while Jeantel insisted he was the instigator. Her knowledge made her a star witness to the trial, but her testimony was dismissed by jurors because of their prejudice against AAVE. (Stanford offers a legal take, and CNN has a video of an anonymous juror expressing her biases).
Speech recognition technology also fails to recognize AAVE. A Stanford study analyzed five major speech recognition technologies. On average, the systems misunderstood 35% of the words spoken by Black people, but only 19% of those spoken by white people. Each had error rates nearly twice as high for Black people than for white people – “even when the speakers were matched by gender and age and when they spoke the same words” (Stanford). The problem stems from a lack of representation: the machine learning systems used to train speech recognition systems likely rely heavily on databases of English as spoken by white Americans. If you read our report on the racial bias in facial recognition software, this likely sounds familiar (Anti-Racism Daily).
Many of us think of speech recognition software when asking Alexa to change a song, or telling Siri to “set the alarm for 7 am tomorrow”. But what will happen when everyone uses it to drive hands-free cars, support surgeries in hospitals, and identify themselves at airports (Future of Everything)? And how well is this tech supporting people with disabilities, who rely on voice recognition and speech-to-text tools for essential functions (Scientific American)? Also, some automated software already associates negative sentiment with posts using AAVE language, even if they’re positive (People of Color in Tech). How can that be manipulated to infer criminal intent or aggression in forms of tech policing?
As a result of all this, many people that speak using AAVE are fluent in code-switching, or, adopting different patterns of speech and behaviors in different social contexts. There’s a wide range of examples on code-switching (NPR, who started a podcast on this topic, has a list of user-submitted examples). For today, we’re focusing on how many Black people code-switch to navigate the stereotypes related to AAVE. Because of the issues mentioned above, it should come at no surprise that studies show Black students selectively code-switch between standard English in the classroom and AAVE with their peers. Black people are taught to code-switch to survive police interactions (Harvard Business Review). We’ll look at code-switching in full in another newsletter, but it needs to be referenced here.
The racial bias against AAVE is a social construct built to protect whiteness. There are no historical or grammatical grounds for discrediting any type of English, let alone AAVE. In fact, correct language is relative to its time and setting, and native speakers are the ones who decide what is acceptable (JSTOR). Take the idea of double negatives, something that AAVE is often criticized for with terms like “ain’t nobody.” Those fell out of favor in the eighteenth century but were once loved by Chaucer and Shakespeare. In French and Ancient Greek, double negatives are critical in expressing negativity (JSTOR).
The modern truths about language: language changes constantly; change is normal; spoken language is the language; correctness rests upon usage; all usage is relative.John Ottenhoff, The Perils of Prescriptivism: Usage Notes and The American Heritage Dictionary
AAVE is trending in popular culture despite all of the harm Black people experience because of the racial biases around language. Most of the slang the “cool kids” use these days is terminology made common in the Black community and has been throughout time (JSTOR). This is another example of cultural appropriation: how dominant culture can wield the culture of marginalized people without honoring it, or experiencing the same discrimination and harm.
Thug Kitchen, an anonymous blog that went viral in 2013, used AAVE and referenced Black culture alongside vegan recipes and tips. It wasn’t until their first book release that it was revealed that the creators are white. Bryan Terry, a Black author, and food advocate, wrote a comprehensive op-ed on the issue for CNN. And it wasn’t until June 2020 that the founders decided to change the brand name (VegNews). There are countless other examples of this – consider that the word “twerk” (and the dance that goes with it) had been around for decades, but became a cultural phenomenon by Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs in 2013 (USA Today). Zeba Blay at Huffington Post has a whole other list for you and your “basic” “squad” and your “bae” to “turn up” to on “fleek” (HuffPost).
Language is fluid. So there’s not necessarily anything wrong about white people using words popularized by Black culture and now part of the accepted lexicon. Some even argue that it shouldn’t be considered cultural appropriation at all (National Review). But the popularization of Black slang doesn’t translate to the safety and celebration of Black people. Thug Kitchen was being praised by Gwyneth Paltrow (Epicurious) in the same news cycle that called Rachel Jeantel “dumb and stupid” while she testified against the man that murdered her best friend. Until we embrace AAVE as an equally valid language, its appropriation is more of a miscommunication than anything else.
• AAVE is as valid of a language as SAE.
• There is no logical grammatical argument against AAVE.
• Despite AAVE being popularized in pop culture, it’s still ridiculed in workplaces, classrooms, and other parts of society.
• Black people often experience discrimination and harm when using AAVE.