Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Linguistics as (not so) Hidden Racism?

In the past, I’d never really thought of linguistics as an inherently political field of study. Yet as we see in the readings, our understanding and privileging of certain linguistic habits is tightly intertwined with our perceptions of what is “right” and “correct” - and these perceptions are themselves built upon cultural hierarchies.  The result, I think, could be that the longstanding forms of structural discrimination that we've been fighting for many years may actually be continuing (at least at a cultural level) through the marginalization of dialects.


Unfortunately, many people do not perceive social hierarchies as cultural constructs - instead, these hierarchies are seen as “natural” expressions of economic, educational, or cultural status. Language usage has always been a marker of difference in this regard - most modern societies feature privileged forms of the language used by the wealthy and educated - but I think it remains one of the few markers of difference which people see as a legitimate marker, the kind of marker which allows or even requires social discrimination. Alim quotes Bourdieu in describing out language education is used as part of developing a “national consciousness” - and then quotes high school teachers who see “combating” the “non-standard” African-American dialects as part of their social role.

I think that part of the problem stems from the fact that languages grow and evolve over time, and that the evolution occurs at different rates and in different ways among differing social groups. In Smith’s article, his discussion of how “fixing to” has led to the grammatical construction “finna” is illustrative of the social boundaries between grammatical usage. Although the “new” construction has been developing within American English since the 1800’s and there are antecedent constructions dating back to England in the 1600’s, these constructions have emerged among Southern and African American cultural lines. There’s still a huge amount of resistance among the privileged classes though because this isn’t a construct that they grew up with, and now it becomes a convenient means of recreating the types of discrimination which are no longer politically correct.

The resistance of white society to African-American dialects is really just a new expression of structural elitism/culturalism/racism. If you can’t discriminate based on skin color, then use language to weed out those who resist the “inevitable” fact of white privilege. And we can see the double-standard of this when we consider the ways that political figures like Sarah Palin are able to use specific lower- or middle-class white dialects in order to present the facade of cultural identity - and then be applauded for this use - while ordinary students who imitate the African-American dialects of millionaire rappers find teachers “combatting” their attempts to reinforce their cultural identities. Or, if we examine the political sphere further, we find that President Obama has himself been roundly criticized for switching to an African-American dialect when speaking with African-American audiences - somehow, his use of the underprivileged dialect is perceived as evidence that he is somehow “pretending” to fit with white society, or that he’s “pandering” to different groups through his ability to switch dialects. These criticisms however elide the that fact that all speakers use dialect in order to establish membership within a particular cultural group. Whether we talk like friends “back home” or lose the accents of our immigrant parents, we are all establishing ourselves as bona fide members of our chosen cultural groups. But when a speaker chooses a dialect which is not favored by one’s own group - especially if it’s a dialect whose members are typically unrepresented in the state-purchased grammar textbooks - then it’s a simple matter to simply label that dialect as “incorrect” instead of recognizing it as a valid expression of cultural self-identification.

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