CLP Discusses the Role of Language in the Black Lives Matter Movement

By: Amanda Egan, Staff Writer

Think about racial profiling. You’re probably envisioning very specific images: a black man being eyed by an officer as he walks down the street, a woman in a hijab receiving not-so-discreet stares at the airport. It’s common to view the issue of racial profiling as something solely visual, but it is equally — if not more — important to think about the role of language. At a CLP organized by the Student League for Black Culture, Dr. Nicole Holliday, a sociolinguistics professor from Pomona College, came to Furman  Nov. 19 to discuss her work on how conceptions of language relate to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Holliday began her presentation with one question to the audience — can someone “sound white” or “sound black?” There were mixed responses around the room, and laughter followed from the confusion. After all, we have all heard these phrases before. If you’re a person of color, you have perhaps even been a recipient of such a statement. Holliday assured that ambiguity was the correct response, because the answer is both yes and no.

Of course, labeling someone’s voice as a race is not only ridiculous but insulting, especially because people of color are almost always the recipients of such remarks. However, it is true that people will speak differently depending on the community that they grew up in. From repercussions that stem back to slavery, different varieties of the English language have formed. The problem, Holliday explained, is that members of the African American community are often taught that their use of language is wrong and inadequate.

Through using a video of President Obama at restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington D.C., Holliday demonstrated the nuances of African American language. Looking at Obama’s use of

language in this setting, using phrases such as “Nah, we straight” showed how he uses language differently depending on his audience. Holliday points out that he would never say this at a White House function because it would be deemed as sounding uneducated and unprofessional. Obama is deliberately “code-switching” or changing his language depending on his audience. Holliday expressed to students that just because there is a dominant language ideology does not mean it is the only correct one, and that the negative stereotype of African American language being improper or uneducated fuels discrimination.

“It’s really hard because we learn our ideologies about language when we’re really little, like even before we go to kindergarten,” Holliday said. “We have these ideas about language, and we see them in the media a lot too.”

Holliday also shared studies she has conducted in attempt to discover what features distinguish someone “sounding white” or “sounding black” and if a people of color are likely to change their voice depending on who they’re talking to. In short, the answer was no, which to Holliday was an interesting finding. In a study observing black and mixed-race men talking to their friends, it demonstrated the men’s security in their identity. However, Holliday did find that mixed-race men, who identified as mixed, spoke more “standard” white American language as opposed to mixed-race men who identified as black. This opens up an interesting conversation on how closely language is tied to someone’s identity. This further reinforces the importance of understanding and respecting language diversity, especially in college.

“One of the things that [first generation college] students have told me is, ‘I don’t even know the way people talk here. I showed up and people commented on my accent or told me that I didn’t sound smart,’” Holliday said. “I think when you have a predominantly white institution or a

predominantly affluent institution, sometimes people aren’t really very thoughtful about the comments they make about language and how language is tied to inequality.”

So what can we do as college students to put a stop to language discrimination?

“Give other people the benefit of the doubt that they’re trying to communicate effectively and trying to communicate in good faith. Give them a moment, and ask them questions if you don’t understand what’s going on,” Holliday said.

Seeing language as something complex and evolving as opposed to something with rigid rules can be hard to grasp. After all, we are taught our entire lives that there is a correct way to speak and write. While many think that language standards are a necessity in society, what is not necessary is invalidating an entire community, especially one that has been systematically oppressed. Recognizing that the way someone speaks is deeply linked with their sense of identity is imperative in learning to respect and appreciate language diversity. It’s a tricky conversation, but one that needs to be had. After all, understanding is the key to communication, and communication is the key to harmony.

Want to learn more? Here are some resources provided by Dr. Holliday:

Podcasts — Lingthusiasm, Lexicon Valley Blog –

Book — Articulate While Black by Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman

Follow her on Twitter! @mixedlinguist


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