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I know about structural racism …. Racial oppression through entrenched systems in society through various public bodies, laws, corporations, the prison system, universities...you name it. But when the idea of racial oppression through use of language was introduced to me, I was suddenly taken aback. I had never though about it before-- was there such a thing as a linguistic hierarchy? After making some connections in my mind, I came to conclude that this is so. For the sake of making this blog entry brief, I will say that English is at the top of this hierarchy. I come to this conclusion because it seems like everywhere you go, you can find some sort of evidence that English is spoken there.
In a world where global politics are becoming more important than ever, how will people continue to communicate with one another? Will people continue to place an emphasis on learning to speak English as a common language, or will they attempt to broaden their horizons and learn to speak the language of others?
Some more things to ponder:
Have you ever stopped to think about the words you are using, or the way you are speaking in order to express yourself? How does your language or diction differ from that of other surrounding you? Do you think you speak "better" English than others?
Picture this scenario. It’s a stereotypical one at best, but it speaks to my point. An African-American child grows up in the ghetto where she learns to speak a form of colloquial English known to some as "Ebonics," or in more technical terms, Black Vernacular English. She grows up in a community where this is the dominant form of languages spoken. She doesn't think anything is wrong with the way she talks, it's just how she grew up. However, the outside world of "proper English speakers" would tend to disagree. The way she speaks is unacceptable and crude. She is accused of sounding ignorant and stupid because of the way she speaks and misses out on many opportunities in life such as being considered for job, housing, etc. How is this fair? Why isn't it OK for her to express herself in a way that feels comfortable for her? Why must she conform to certain standards of language in order to be taken seriously?
Geneva Smitherman, a university distinguished professor at Michigan State University, explores such oppressive parallels between the Black speech communities in both the United States of America (USA) and the Republic of South Africa (RSA). Though the culture, history, demography, legal structure, and other important elements of both countries have significant differences, there is a basis for comparing the Black politics in both countries as it relates to language (316).
Both the RSA and USA are attempting to adopt policies centered around the creation of the English language as an official and premier language of the country. In the RSA this would be a policy of “English Plus,” and in the USA “English Only” (316). This presents fundamental problems for all linguistic minorities, including those who speak African or Pidgin Languages in the RSA or Black Vernacular English (Ebonics) in the USA (317).
According to Smitherman, such impositions can be though of as modern day “internal colonialism” in both countries, similar to the extermination of Native Americans from the USA, the introduction of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to the global market, and the conquest of South Africa by the Netherlands and later Great Britain (317-18). Such internal colonialism is not just a polarization between and oppressor nation and a colonized people but an entrenched system of “racial capitalism” where Europeans are socially constructed as the “superior” race with superior qualities and characteristics (318). In order to do this, the Europeans created elaborate systems of law, education, politics, customs, and cultural belief sets to support the economic exploitation of the indigenous peoples (318). One can see how the European claim of superior language could greatly affect each one of these systems.
Linguistic colonialism in both the RSA and USA negatively affects the Black populations. The colonizers’ languages, English and Afrikaans in the RSA and English in the USA are considered to be much more prestigious than African languages or Ebonics. Such imposition of language makes it impossible for Africans and African Americans to experience life and learning, as they are forced to use a language that makes it impossible to properly reflect the real life of Black communities (320). Though Blacks share this major similarity, they do experiences some differences as well in their experience.
Africans brought to the USA as slaves were almost completely stripped of their native languages while Africans were allowed to keep their languages in the RSA. However, the British policy in the RSA regulated other African languages in the RSA as having a lower status by considering them “dialects” instead of “languages” (321). Africans who learned to speak English were given rewards by the British in form of allowing them to become part of a class of Black elite with special economic and social privileges.
On the other hand, African Americans developed a form of pidgin English in order to communicate with their masters as well as other Blacks who were brought to the USA as slaves. Their masters often mixed slaves who spoke different languages and came from different parts of West Africa together, and they developed their own forms of communication as a survival mechanism (322-3).
Presently in both the USA and RSA the legacy of internal colonialism continues to connect to Black language politics and pose barriers to moving toward a linguistic democracy. Blacks who speak primarily Ebonics or an African English are scrutinized for not speaking “good” English and award social and economic benefits such as jobs and mobility to those who can speak English properly (340). Language is being used to divide the Black community into groups competing with one another for material and social wealth, making it that much more impossible for Black people across the globe to stand in solidarity against the capitalist systems that continue to oppress them. At the end of the article Smitherman pushes for the Black community to unite and pressure the dominate white elite toward linguistic democratization (341).
One thing is for certain—these languages with their variations, history, and cultural influence aren’t going away any time soon. Both sides need to develop a way to make room for the diversity of people within them and the way in which they express themselves. If some happy medium can't be reached, future generations of Black people will be both physically and psychologically damaged by the internal colonialism of language heiarchy and its practices.
Another thing that certain-- respect should be given to all people, regardless of what words they choose to use. All language is sacred; it brings dreams and ideas to life, sharing the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of humans to the rest of the world.
Smitherman, Geneva. “Language and Democracy in the USA and the RSA.” Ed. Roseanne Dueñas González and Ildikó Melis. Language Ideologies: Critical Perspectives on the Official English Movement. Lawrence Elbaum Associates, 2001. 316-344.