Kimberly Wilkins, April Williams, and Antoine Dodson (i)– You probably don’t know their names, but have likely laughed at their expense. The story behind the meme is important, but instead of hearing those stories, the value of what they said was negated because they spoke a dialect other than Standard American English (SAE).
Standard American English. Dominant American English. “Proper” English.
These terms have become synonymous with what we called “talking white” where I grew up; talking white meant that you were trying to be something that you weren’t. As a poor, Black girl from the north side of Minneapolis with two working-class parents and one who didn’t finish the 9th grade (all while having this far-fetched dream of college), I guess they had a point. I didn’t view myself as trying to be something that I wasn’t; I was just trying to be something more than I was. I saw my language as something that could either hold me back or be used to my advancement.
This brings me to the point we debated in my graduate class a few years ago, and that was reprised when an academic said that those who teach Standard American English are ‘policing’ their students: Is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) a valid language? That all depends on how you define valid. It has rules, so linguistically speaking, yes it is. Is it valid such that I can feel comfortable speaking AAVE and not worry about having my intelligence dissected? Absolutely not. The truth is that when you come from where I do, whether it be for an interview with a potential employer or in the courtroom, there are so many barriers to cross for our advancement– and language is a big one.
About two years ago, the BBC wrote about a study that showed it takes just thirty milliseconds of hearing someone speak before forming thoughts about their background. It’s not a secret that the southern accent is perceived to be dumber than the northern one, just like it’s not a secret that AAVE (often called ebonics) is perceived to be inferior to SAE (ii). In the classroom, validating AAVE as a dialect of English is one very important concept for self-realization, but telling your Black students (or those who speak another dialect) that that conventions of standard English don’t matter is a misguided, dangerous, and patronizing attempt at cultural relevancy. There is a standard for “professional” English no matter how we try to spin it. If my students can read and write proficiently in academic language, then I have done a small part in making sure that they can have access to a future beyond what society tells them they can achieve. In this way, I subvert the dominant narrative of Standard American English being a marker of intelligence through a critical pedagogy.
If you’re not a person of color, you have probably never had to really internally grapple with what it means to speak a non-standard dialect of English because the way you speak at home is more than likely the same as those in positions of power. Just like you can discount the importance of standardized tests because you’ve never had to worry about passing them, you can also purport, in essence, that “all language matters” because the reality is that speaking another dialect of English will never directly impact your future.
This why I focus on the quality of my instruction and ensure that what and how I teach my students will give them access to spaces where there aren’t many people that look like us; I can provide them with an education that allows them to change the narrative. I can’t achieve this if ignore the conventions of written English. I can’t push along a 9th grade student who reads at a 3rd grade level by giving them a graphic novel, thereby allowing them to interpret images instead of grappling with a written text. When young Black girls are being strip-searched for laughing and Black boys are being forced to cut their hair because it violates a dress code, I have to give them a chance in a world that gives them no chances. And right now, what the majority of schools are giving them– that ain’t it.
To be clear, I’m not advocating that “proper English” not be seen as a social construct. I’m advocating that we really dissect what we think it takes (and what we know it actually takes) to break through barriers for Black students and other students of color. When someone tells me it’s unfortunate that I grew up in North Minneapolis, or they laugh at me when I let my guard down and say “finna”, every day I am faced with the reality of what is expected from people that look like me. I refuse to discount the impact that my command of standard English had on my success, and I won’t discount it for my students, either.
i) I haven’t been able to find any updated information on April, but after going viral, Antoine moved his family out of subsidized housing and currently works in a school, and Kimberly Wilkins has appeared in a number of small commercials and films.
ii) Standard American English is sometimes referred to as dominant American English.
iii) Read more about the link between code-switching and academic achievement.
This is an updated version of a piece written by Jasmine in early 2019.