Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been accused of a lot, but the latest charge is especially piquant. Apparently, the new representative of some of the most multiethnic neighborhoods in the United States has engaged in “verbal blackface.”
The supposed offense occurred when she spoke to the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network last week and sprinkled some elements of Black English into her speech. “I’m proud to be a bartender. Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” she said, also stretching “wrong” out a bit and intoning in a way sometimes referred to as a “drawl,” but which is also part of the Black English tool kit.
John Cardillo of Newsmax tweeted, “In case you’re wondering, this is what blackface sounds like,” while Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire charged that Ocasio-Cortez, in this speech, “speaks in an accent that she never uses.” Lawrence Jones, a Fox News contributor and black American, shared a Twitter hashtag, #WedontTalkLikeThat.
The criticism of these sentences uttered by someone trying to connect with a black audience is evidence of an ignorance about the nature and use of one of the most interesting developments in America’s linguistic history—an endlessly fascinating dialect too often treated as a collection of mistakes, an albatross condemning unlucky people to failure, or some kind of performance. At a time when increasing numbers of serious public figures are going to be using Black English as an element in their oratorical palette, it’s high time we wised up on the likes of “Ain’t nothing wrong with that.”
Ocasio-Cortez was engaging in what linguists call code-switching. Few find code-switching surprising when Latinos do it between English and Spanish, alternating between the two languages within a single conversation or even sentence. The concept perhaps seems less familiar when done between dialects of the same language, but this, too, is extremely common. For example, what an unfortunate number of Americans think of as black people slipping into “errors” when they speak is, in the scientific sense, people code-switching between standard and Black English, the latter of which is an alternative, and not degraded, form of English.
Ocasio-Cortez’s critics seem to assume that since she is not black, her use of Black English must be some kind of act. This, however, is based on a major misreading of the linguistic reality of Latinos in America’s big cities. Since the 1950s, long-term and intense contact between black and Latino people in urban neighborhoods has created a large overlap between Black English and, for example, “Nuyorican” English, the dialect of New York’s Puerto Rican community. To a considerable extent, Latinos now speak “Ebonics” just as black people do, using the same slang and constructions, code-switching between it and standard English (and Spanish!) in the same ways.
This means that Ocasio-Cortez, as a Latina, was not using a dialect foreign to her experience. She grew up around it; it would be surprising if she did not have it in her repertoire to some extent. “I am from the Bronx. I act & talk like it,” she tweeted. Anyone who would riposte that she isn’t from the black Bronx in particular would miss that Black English stopped being a black-exclusive dialect in the Bronx decades ago.
The dustup also reflects another misimpression about Black English: that only uneducated people can be considered “authentic” in using it. This partly reflects a sense that Black English is a mere matter of grammatical flubs, a legacy of inadequate education. That analysis of Black English has been resoundingly refuted by shelves and shelves of research by linguists. Yet even someone who acknowledges that Black English is not broken language might suppose that it is rooted solely in being black and, roughly, poor.
President Barack Obama, for example, came in for much criticism—some from black people—for using some Black English when speaking to black audiences. His critics assumed that, because he was an educated person, Obama’s Black English could not possibly be “authentic” and was therefore condescending.
However, poor black people are by no means the only ones who code-switch into Black English. Worldwide, people code-switch into nonstandard dialects as part of the general palette of human expression: The nonstandard dialect can connote warmth, surprise, anger, flirtation, intimacy. Obama and Ocasio-Cortez are no less authentic in their use of Black English than people such as Cornel West and Keegan-Michael Key, educated black people who code-switch constantly and beautifully.
To be sure, Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t go about speaking Black English continuously. Code-switching, however, is often about seasoning, sprinkling, decoration. Quite a few black people, for example, do not speak Black English in its pure form over paragraphs of talk, but use it to add filigrees to their speech, or to sound certain notes. Hence critics such as Lawrence Jones miss the point in objecting, “We don’t talk like that.” It’s true that few black people say, “Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” exclusively, never saying, “There isn’t anything wrong with that.” But the “we” in question quite often talk “like that” in sprinkles and hints. A white person with multiple advanced degrees might say, to strike a certain familiar, folksy chord, “Ain’t gonna happen!” Yet Ryan Saavedra would not accuse any politicians of being phonies because they don’t use ain’t as a consistent substitute for isn’t in their daily speech. The analogy with Ocasio-Cortez’s homey utterance is almost exact.
A final objection seems to be that Ocasio-Cortez is being cynical in using Black English to connect to black audiences. But the dialect is not non-native to her. More to the point, why would it be wrong for a politician to seek to connect to black audiences by sprinkling her speech with some of their dialect, which she grew up hearing and using herself? After all, language is fundamentally designed for connection. People often note that their speech tends to meld itself to the speech of those around them, such that they end up having a multilayered linguistic identity. Ocasio-Cortez has one.
So: “How dare she use Black English to try to connect with black people!” someone harrumphs. But her doing so only qualifies as condescending if Black English is broken—but it isn’t—or if Ocasio-Cortez didn’t grow up with it in her linguistic repertoire and environment, which she did. Notably, the audience at the National Action Network didn’t mind her Ebonic notes—“Go on, girl, go on,” one man said. The potshots at Ocasio-Cortez make sense only if we parse the black people at that event as too dim to understand that they were being spoken down to. There is no need to parse them that way.
Public language in America is becoming less formal practically by the week, and Black English is increasingly a lingua franca among American youth. In our era, as politicians are minted whose only memories of the 20th century were formed as small children, we will hear ever more use of Black English in public, with its warm, demotic flavor. It would be too easy to end this piece with “Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” and so I won’t—except, actually, I suppose I just did.
This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.
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