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Race: Are we so different

A blog looking at the changing face of race around our region, created in cooperation with Pacific Science Center, the University of Washington Department of Communication and the City of Seattle Race and Justice Initiative

November 18, 2013 at 12:01 PM

Race project | African American English a valid dialect

“I was worried that I wasn’t welcomed because I didn’t talk properly,” said Alicia Wassink, as she described her experience as a kindergarten student in 1973. “At the same time, I was worried that I would be scrutinized even more . . . because people were waiting for me to fail.”

“Switching back into African American English is something that I do to show my community membership. It’s an important part of my identity.” – UW Professor Wassink (Photo by Wassink)

“Switching back into African American English is something that I do to show my community membership. It’s an important part of my identity.” – UW Professor Alicia Wassink           (Photo by Wassink)

Wassink is now a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Washington.  She grew up in a working-class community in Philadelphia, raised in a Jamaican family who spoke Jamaican Creole and African American English.Both language varieties are often stereotyped as being ungrammatical, or “broken.” But linguists, like Wassink, know they are valid dialects because “they come from somewhere.”

“If you study [African American English], you see very clearly that there are grammatical structures and sound structures that come from Caribbean Creoles,” Wassink said.

The core of African American English sounds more like Southern dialects because the majority of the slave population resided in the South. After emancipation, many black groups made their way to the North, bringing with them their way of speaking.

Wassink’s Philadelphia community stigmatized her ‘Island’ way of speaking as an indicator of living slowly and with less intelligence.

She was nervous about speaking up in class, not only because Wassink was introverted, but also because she didn’t think that she talked “right.”

“I sounded like a poor black kid when I was in kindergarten,” Wassink said.

The professor thinks this is one reason why members of her school board visited her house when she was in kindergarten. She still remembers hearing the conversation from up in her bedroom as her parents talked with the visiting board members.

“They didn’t want me there,” Wassink said.

They (the visiting board members) said things like: Wouldn’t she be happier in a school that has more people like you? They were worried that Wassink wouldn’t be able to understand the mainstream U.S. English spoken in the classroom.

Wassink said she “excelled in school” and didn’t have any problems learning to speak mainstream U.S. English.

She continues to speak in what she calls her “heart language” with her family back East.

“Switching back into African American English is something that I do, and do to show my community membership, it’s an important part of my identity,” Wassink said.

She explained that it’s important that people continue to speak African American English because it communicates trustworthiness and something of a shared history and cultural past of a people who went through slavery on plantations.

“It has a sense of the food and the values and the importance of family that are very important to African American families,” Wassink said. “That’s an important reason why it doesn’t go away.”

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