Harry Reid and the Negro Dialect Thing

It’s been hard to miss the flap over Harry Reid’s unfortunate remark about Barack Obama’s lack of “Negro dialect,” quoted in the gossipy soon-to-be-released book, “Game Change.” Even in Mobile, a city recently humiliated nationally by a film depicting its strictly segregated Mardi Gras celebration, the paper sees fit to print a cartoon poking fun at the “racist” Mr. Reid.

Well, this is my take on “Negro dialect.” Twenty-five years ago I worked for an insurance company in Metairie, LA. There was a girl there, I forget exactly what her job was, but it was low on the clerical totem pole. “Brenda” was a willing & hard worker, never late, never grousing, and furthermore she was an excellent typist, which was important back in the days before personal computers. She dressed professionally. She got along with everyone in the office. In short, she was the perfect worker – except for her speech. Brenda spoke AAVE—not the occasional colorful bit of slang or turn of phrase, but pure “Ebonics,” as the Oakland School Board would describe it.  

Whenever an opportunity for promotion came along, Brenda would put her name in and interview, but she was never promoted – because every other job in the office involved dealing with the public, and her inflections and grammatical patterns did not fit the image the company wanted to present. “He be back around three o’clock,” may be perfectly regular and comprehensible to a linguist, but it didn’t Viagra 100mg sit well with our office manager. And so he’d promote somebody else.

As she was passed over time and again, Brenda began to grow resentful, certain that the manager was prejudiced. And he was – but against the color of her speech, not the color of her skin. We – the “girls in the office” – were all too terrified to actually tell poor Brenda what the problem was. We thought she would think we were bigots, and she may well have done. We left Metairie in 1988 and I never found out what happened to Brenda. But I still wish I’d found the courage to take her aside and tell her to “talk white.”

Harry Reid probably would have had that courage. As a politician, he necessarily is expert at assessing how a candidate presents him- or herself and judging how the public will respond. (In a less expert way, so is an office manager, which is why Brenda never got that promotion.) In a milieu where advisors are adjusting the “folksiness” level of George Bush and telling Hillary Clinton how to laugh, a remark about something as important as the dialect a candidate speaks is surely par for the course.

Although I feel sorry for the undeserved beating Harry Reid is getting, I’m glad this almost-taboo subject is getting some attention. Obama knew the way he talked might stand in the way of his getting the job he wanted. Poor Brenda didn’t.

9 Responses to “Harry Reid and the Negro Dialect Thing”

  1. Kathy says:

    I wish speaking well wasn’t considered “talking white”. There are plenty of white people whose vernacular would preclude their promotion in a professional office. It’s easy to understand why a black person would resist being told s/he needs to “talk white” to succeed. It’s worse than being told not to “talk country” because there are racial overtones on top of the value judgment.

    Harry Reid is, sadly, correct in his assessment. *sigh*

  2. Del says:

    You know, you’re right – I should have said “speak standard English,” without the quotes. Is it too late to change it?

  3. Kathy says:

    You can change it, but honestly I think the story has more impact as is. It’s very much a part of our collective psyche that speaking standard English = “talking white”, even though there are plenty of people of color who speak it much better than a lot of white people I know. Your advice, had you given it, would have been practical and to the point, a recognition of reality, even if that reality isn’t pretty.

    Ironically, we saw George W. Bush “dumbing down” his speech between running for Governor and running for President (there’s a YouTube around somewhere with footage of a gubernatorial debate where he sounds articulate and incisive, nothing like the Texas good ol’ boy twang he put on for his national campaign). And black politicians just can’t win. If they speak too well, they’re “getting above themselves”. If they speak in vernacular, the knuckle-draggers assume they’re dumb (fill-in-the-blank racial slurs). Jim Folsom gets a pass even though he sounds like he has a mouthful of molasses most of the time, but John Rogers is derided as stupid. Artur Davis is criticized as elitist, and I’m sure there are some people who feel the same way about Obama.

    I know Republicans are having a field day going after Harry Reid, but if his comments provoke more people to think about issues of language and our collective unconscious assumptions that white = the norm, that can only be good in the long run.

  4. Del says:

    I agree that describing the norm as “white” is wrong, both factually and morally. But I am afraid that, like Bill Cosby, I agree with the Oakland School Board’s much-misunderstood and vilified opinion that, while AAVE is a legitimate dialect deserving linguistic respect and preservation, public school students ought also to be taught to communicate in Standard English. Too many Brendas are still growing up without opportunities they might easily have had while we wait in vain for the general public to embrace the richness and diversity of our cultural heritage.

    For that matter, I don’t want my own kids to speak in either the newly-celebrated “Yat” dialect of my native city or the storied Cajun dialect of my husband’s family heritage. And certainly not like Jim Folsom.

  5. Kathy says:

    Yikes! I apologize — I didn’t mean to chastise you, but it sounds like it came across that way.

    I agree with the Oakland School Board’s much-misunderstood and vilified opinion that, while AAVE is a legitimate dialect deserving linguistic respect and preservation, public school students ought also to be taught to communicate in Standard English.

    I agree with this as well. And God knows I don’t want my kids growing up to sound like Jim Folsom, who gets a pass around these here parts but would, if he were not the son of a famous governor and well-known in his own right, have to deal with the “southerners are dumb and they talk slow” prejudice every time he leaves the south.

    Honestly, and I don’t mean to be co-opting any real oppression here, I almost feel like I’m bilingual — writing and speaking one way at work or out in public (or on stage, of course) and relaxing more when I’m at home or on the blog. And I’m not just referring to swearing, Bill. :) It seems to me to be in line with dressing appropriately, being polite to coworkers even when I don’t feel like it, and other basics for success in the business world. I work in a multi-racial environment, and I’ve noticed that all of us try to put our best foot forward when we’re dealing with the public. That’s just part of the deal, and its certainly not too much to ask.

  6. Del says:

    Oh no, I knew you weren’t meaning to chastise me, just pointing out that, although everyone knows what “talk white” means, it shouldn’t be a description of correct speech any more than “act white” is of scholastic diligence.

    But yes, we do have a standard of “professional” speech as well as a standard of dress, and although it may be typified by middle-class whites, I think dismissing it as “oppressive” is wrongheaded. My mother-in-law speaks of how the nuns, um, disciplined her older sisters for speaking Cajun French at school back in the 30s—but she’s glad that they had options besides living in an isolated community of fishers and trappers, no matter how delicious the jambalaya and sprightly the zydeco. (Of course, the nuns might have found a gentler way to inspire the children.)

    And yeah, the bilingual thing. It’s just because we’re performers, Kathy :) A while back I was talking to my neighbor and said something about an old friend back in New Orleans, and the neighbor said, “Uh, you realize your accent just changed.” I hadn’t, though. Kind of creeped me out.

  7. Kathy says:

    A while back I was talking to my neighbor and said something about an old friend back in New Orleans, and the neighbor said, “Uh, you realize your accent just changed.” I hadn’t, though. Kind of creeped me out.

    I catch myself doing the same thing! I tend to pick up the accent of the person I’m conversing with, and then I notice and wonder if they think I’m mocking them. It is a little creepy — somewhat chameleon-like.

    I do mourn the passing of many of the regionalisms I used to hear from my mother and grandmother. “Well, I’ll swanee!” was always a good one.

  8. Helen says:

    I appreciate the use of both “talk white’ and “standard English.” I still remember a Saturday afternoon ‘All Things Considered’ report on an airline stewardess who was holding classes for girls from less privileged backgrounds. She touched on language, dress, how to interact with others in a business setting. I too regret not being more open with a colleague at UAB over 20 years ago. She was totally competent and smart, but needed to work on her writing skills.

    Del, as for not being oppressive, I believe such standards often can be very helpful instruments of holding an otherwise competent person down at work or school.

    One thing kids need to know is that it’s ok to be bi-/tri-dialectal, speaking one way at home, another at work, and maybe another way with friends, for example. It shows respect and does not then force a false choice between giving up parts of their culture for the ways of the dominant group.

    Those who use terms like “good” and “proper” send the message to young people that their speech is inferior, which can also be taken as a criticism of them and their community.

    I love southern speech and especially the great expressions (thanks for the new one, Kathy–I had to look it up).

    It is a shame that people feel the need for accent reduction classes and that the outside world does not always give a southern accent its due (I learned that during my programmer days when my office was patronized by visiting North-eastern troubleshooters, who waltzed in smugly only to be brought up short when they understood there was a real glitch in their MIT-produced software).

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