As a college professor, I am seeing more and more black students who refuse—in their words—to “talk white.” What they mean by “talking white” is speaking proper English. Why black students think speaking proper English is “talking white” I don’t know. It’s not like all white people speak proper English. In fact, most don’t. But here is the rub. The most successful people, regardless of race, do speak proper English. An individual’s command of the English language is a key determinant of success in life. We tend to form our opinions of others in part by how well they speak. The ability to use proper English is a sign of an educated person. Then there is the role speaking properly can play in promoting effective communication. An especially important rationale for learning to use proper English in America is that sharing a common language is the best way to create common ground among people of diverse backgrounds.
What is even more disturbing than black students viewing the use of proper English as “talking white” is that an increasing number of these students are applying peer pressure to other black students to coerce them into rejecting proper English. It is as if using proper English is viewed as a betrayal of the black students’ cultural heritage. The distinguished journalist, Jason Riley, who happens to be black, told of an encounter with this attitude in an article for Imprimis (January 2015). During a visit with his sister Riley had a conversation with his niece, the seven or eight-year old daughter of his sister. She asked him, “Uncle Jason, why you talk white?” Then she commented to a friend, “Don’t my uncle sound white? Why he tryin’ to sound so smart?” In his article Riley relates that this episode jolted him. “I couldn’t help thinking: Here were two young black girls, seven or eight-years old, already linking speech patterns to race and intelligence. They already had a rather sophisticated awareness that, as blacks, white-sounding speech was not only to be avoided in their own speech but mocked in the speech of others…other black professionals have told similar stories. What I had forgotten is just how early these attitudes take hold—how soon this counterproductive thinking and behavior begins.”
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