Why You Want Us Talkin' White?

by Ron Tracey

I was struck by a bolt of linguistic lightning a couple of years ago. It happened in my second year of teaching at Kettering High School, on the east side of Detroit, where the student body is nearly one hundred percent African American, most of whom live at or below the poverty level. One of my ninth grade students, frustrated and sick of verb agreement practice, asked in exasperation, "Why you want us talkin' white?" It wasn't a question really, more of an accusation. Immediately other students chimed in, "Yeah, what's up with that, Tracy?" I was shocked, and a little relieved that the bell was about to ring--I needed time to think through a response. 

The question struck me particularly hard because of my philosophy of language and my personal background. I am a descriptive linguist at heart, and I have tried to teach English from a pragmatic approach of preparing students for the world of work or college. We write journals, we have open discussions, and we practice process writing in writing workshops. Personally, I come from a school in Inkster, Michigan, where I saw lots of students, especially African American students, being corrected and even degraded over their English usage. I always thought that this experience would help me, as a white teacher who considers himself as "bi-dialectal," bridge the linguistic gaps between so-called "standard" English (SE) and the Black English Vernacular (BEV), or the more popularly known "Ebonics." Never once did I think that with all of my background that I was advocating "talking white" while working on the elusive correct rules of English grammar with my students. 

My students and I have had some enlightening discussions since then, and I've found that the problem runs much deeper than any one English teacher (really the idea that we're "teaching English" to native speakers sounds funny in its own right). Quite naturally, many of my students culturally identify themselves through their dialect and relate SE to being unnatural and "geeky," to be being a nerd, and even relate it to issues of emasculation. Several students maintained that the standard "sound gay"--most often the stereotypical character of Carleton of the Fresh Prince show comes up. They say that talking "proper" doesn't get you any "props" (respect)--it just makes you sound funny. In essence, many of my students were telling me that they're not only dealing with having to learn to speak and write "properly," but they also are dealing with the racial luggage and social attitudes that are stereotypically aligned with SE. I was faced with a career defining question: How could I teach SE grammar to BEV speakers who had little intrinsic motivation to learn about a dialect which to them is considered as socially restraining? 

Primary Pathways 

When I first tackled this question I was in the midst of my reading course, as well as a linguistics course where we were researching language acquisition and traditional versus functional linguistic grammar instruction. After five to six weeks of researching a variety of studies, I had concluded at least four things: 

    1. Traditional grammar instruction is ineffective in any classroom (Weaver, 1996, 1994). 

    2. I have to look at what my students--any students--know about language, first. 

    3. When it comes to teaching SE grammar to non-standard speakers, barriers result from the linguistic attitudes and the ignorance of teachers and students rather than from any cognitive weakness on the part of the student (Labov, 1983; Smitherman, 1981; Goodman et.al., 1987). 

    4. Students need choice in reading and need to have time to develop diverse, authentic responses (Burke, et.al., 1996).

From these basic findings I began to develop an idea that I came to think of as my "primary pathway" into helping my students acquire standard English as a second dialect (what Charlene Sato refers to as "additive bidialectalism"). I figured I would coach my students in writing workshops with techniques borrowed from Krashen and Terrell's Natural Approach to teaching English as a Second Language speakers (1978; 1985) . Simply put, I have since set out to immerse my students in reading and writing of their choice, while also picking mini-lessons for the class or in conferences, which would help build upon the emerging skills of my writers. 

Discovering Hate Speech 

I have to admit: I'm pretty pleased with myself. I've found plenty of directions to continue my learning and my coaching skills in the classroom. Now, you're probably thinking, among other things, "None of this sounds particularly hateful or spiteful." But a few things have happened in the last couple of years that have convinced me that present attitudes about dialect use really fall into the category of hate speech. 

  1. I was incensed by the ugly tidal wave of derision that swallowed up the Oakland, California Schools' movement to recognize the legitimacy of Ebonics (BEV)--a term which I'm hesitant to use because of the negative associations which have so quickly been made. Indeed, educators I know sarcastically ask me, "You'se be teachin' Ebonics?" in much the same tone as the radio shock jocks around the country who are having a field day asking the same kind of derogatory questions. Nor are students are not immune to this. In their own ignorance, the insidious nature of the beast looms when students tell their peers, "Man, you stupid--you be usin' Ebonics!"
  1. I started a writing process workshop built around Harste's Authoring Cycle Classrooms where helping students develop their multiple perspectives based their own ways of knowing is central (1996). It's a paradigm shift for me, but anything less now appears to me as simply unacceptable.
  1. Finally, a friend of mine, Jennifer Morrison working on her doctorate in rhetoric at Purdue and I talked about her plans to present on "hate speech" at the National Council of Teachers of English National Conference, which was held in Detroit two years ago. As she explained her premise, which holds that any act which infringes upon the speech rights of other people as "hate speech," I began to see my experiences and research in a whole new light, and was lucky enough to join her presentation.
Still, why hate speech? After all, what happens in my classroom and others around the country rarely would be described as hateful. Then again, that is the truly insidious nature of what I'm describing. Given Jennifer's definition, I submit that when we teach English from a prescriptive, standard English stance, we challenge and impugn the speech rights of our students--especially so our non-standard speakers. Consider the following: 

"These kids don't know how to write." 

"We was? We was? No. Excuse me--'We were." 

"But we have to teach kids standards--how else will the make it in the world?" 

All of these comments, though well intended, assume there is only one way--the standard way--to speak in the United States. 

As I've thought about this topic, I've decided that as teachers we have become trapped. Trapped by a paradox? A Catch-22? Trapped by a national lie. We hear about diversity, yet we are bound by conformity. Honestly, I'm not here to question the efficacy of conformity. Assimilation and "standards" have some real practical advantages. But for a few moments, let's leave the "real" and go back to the "ideal." 

Here's something to ponder. Americans will protect freedom of speech at most any cost. In the name of freedom of speech and the Constitution we have public Ku Klux Klan rallies. We have Gangsta rap and heavy metal rock blasting on the airwaves. We even strive to protect pornography on the internet. We always protect what is said by law. Yet socially, few are hardly as accepting of our rich variety of dialects and how we say what we have to say. 

Let's go back to the "real." How many times have you or a colleague said, "Bright kid. If only he had some language skills." Isn't that an infringement upon one's speech rights? Isn't it crazy? If the student didn't have "skills," how could one glimpse that student's intellectual splendor in the first place? Clearly, it would appear, as Goodman & Goodman, Labov, Smitherman, and a host of others suggest, that teachers, like much of society, are working from a deficiency model that marginalizes the language of non-standard speakers, minority or otherwise. 

A perfect example of what I mean is found in a paper written by Sharita, one of my students who came to believe she was a writer. In response to a mock job interview with a classmate, Pierre, she had written a follow up letter in which she pretends to recommend Pierre for the position he had sought. 

Dear Mr. Basket, 

I am going to hire Pierre Because he Is nice; He had expices and his field of work He bring a resume and we can use his help He had good eye contact and he no what he talking about and He look like a very good man so I am going to hire him Pierre. 

It would be simple to discount Sharita's letter. Words are misspelled, periods are non-existent, and there is little in the way of subject-verb agreement. However, I would argue that Sharita wrote a strong, persuasive piece explaining why her firm should hire Pierre. She pointed out his experience, his resume, and his eye contact, all of which are excellent reasons to hire someone. Amazingly, when she read it aloud, she paused in all the right places, though she'd not written a period on the page. By looking for what she knew and at what she wrote, I was able to teach Sharita to use her "monitor" to do read- alouds of her papers and to insert periods in accordance with her vocal pauses. Furthermore, I determined that while she had no problems with participial -ing endings, she could look at how the dialects treat the agreement -s marker differently. Not surprisingly, it turned out that Sharita didn't make a phonemic distinction with the -s marker. In fact, using "He brings a resume..." sounded pretty funny to her. 

Because of Sharita, and many other students like her, I believe, as NCTE Vice President-elect Jerry Harste stated, that "What we really need to understand is that we're creating a school system for a very diverse population in a democracy. We need to have forums that don't wipe away minority voices but that allow those voices to contribute to the overall conversation" (November 1997 Council Chronicle). 

In other words, maybe we need to question how accepting we are of our students. It might be time to find out how our students know and how they express their knowledge. For me, it's been a matter of class experiments, such as tape recording students in order to find out who uses, or even recognizes the variations in dialectal usage of the third person -s agreement marker. It's also been a matter of establishing and teaching about the rules of BEV, hence raising students' awareness of the viability of their dialect. And, it's been about learning to invite students to acquire a new dialect-- "book language"--while utilizing their own as they learn to code switch and express themselves in a variety of manners as they choose

Some of you still might be thinking, "Why bother worrying about this? "Assimilation is the name of the game, and to talk in terms of 'hate speech' concerning grammar instruction is crazy." Well, let me leave you with thoughts from the experts. 

"While minority speakers may recognize standard grammar and the institutionalized prestige of standard English, most speakers are 'fiercely loyal' to their own variety." Charlene Sato 

"Any exercises that deny the individual will result in students who do not acquire the target language." T. D. Terell 

"[Students] have the ability to read but they choose not to read, and I think it's a very conscious choice. Students feel they have to choose between what is the life of the school and their lives outside school, which to them seems to have very little to do with school in general and reading in particular." 

H. Roskelly 

Everyday non-standard speakers' rights to their dialect are infringed 

upon unmercifully. The natural result is that like the readers Roskelly mentions, non-standard speakers choose not to embrace the standard rather than adopt a dialect under some duress, or at the very least, under conditions that relate very little to their home life.  

I think that my students demand to be heard and grow in their own voices. But then, they can explain this better than I. There is Deandre, who maintains, "I use 'nigga' because of what it means to me--it's not about what you think." Then there are Terrice and DarIsha who explained to me during a "code-switching" debate that, "We speak Ebonics with you because we accept you." And finally, there is Pam, who liked literature circles best "because we get to discuss thing in our own words--you know, the way we talk." When you hear the real experts, my students, break it down like that, how can you see any infringement upon their speech as anything less that hate speech? 


Burke, Carolyn, Harste, Jerome C., & Short, Kathy G. (1996). Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Krashen, S. (1978). Individual Variation in the Use of the Monitor. In W. Ritchie (ed.), Principles of Second Language Learning. New York, NY: Academic Press. 

Labov, William. (1983). Recognizing Black English in the Classroom. In lInda Miller Cleary &Michael Linn (Eds.), Linguistics for Teachers (pp.149-173). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 

Sato, Charlene J. (1989). A Nonstandard Approach to Standard English. TESOL Quarterly, 23, 259-82. 

Terrell, T. D. (1985). the Natural Approach to Language Teaching: An Update. Canadian Modern Language Review, 41, 461-79. 


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