“How Come You Don’t Speak Black?”

11 Mar

Asked as if it ‘Black’ were a language. The question got me thinking of answers; perhaps because of my primary and secondary socialisation, maybe the institutions I was educated at, possibly the countries I’ve visited, but then maybe also, the influences of the media, which in subtle ways informed the way I speak. Language plays a pivotal role in shaping us and defining our racial backgrounds, which is why people often ask me this. I am proudly black, but do not possess black names, neither do I sound black. Many a time, at job interviews, for example, having only spoken with someone, but now physically meeting them, they look positively taken-aback as if I was a fraud.

Then, because racial talk is almost taboo here, they’ll ask me twice or thrice if I am actually the name on my resume (as if I don’t know who I am). The media are relevant because for example, comedians, are often guilty of fertilizing  the seeds of racial profiling with, I must confess, absolutely hilarious skits about different races. As we passively watch and drink in, and remember, how American Comedian Katt Williams jokes using a prissy ‘proper’ accent when referring to how white people are helpful if one misdials a number late at night. He then switches to a black ‘Ebonics’ ( ) accent when referencing how a black individual would behave when high on Marijuana. If he did the same skit using ‘normal’ English and without changing his accent, it wouldn’t have the rib-clutchingly funny, rolling-on-floor-laughing effect it has. Follow the link and note the nuances therein. .

Closer to home we have Trevor Noah, the Johannesburg-based comedian of mixed race origin (Xhosa mother, Swiss father). His show, “The Daywalker”  typifies how we associate different accents and use of correct or incorrect English (as well as slang), with either separate races. He pokes fun at the South African President Jacob Zuma’s manner of speech, which supports the misjudgement that if black people speak in a non-white fashion, they can’t be taken seriously. Granted, there are a few exceptions (i.e. ANC Youth Leader Julias Malema). Hence, of course, the masses’ uncertainty in the beginning regarding our president. Another local comedian, Loyiso Gola, does the same about Coloureds. 

Another example brings me back to my own University campus, where two highly educated black lecturers who we will call Dr. R. and Dr. W. lecture English and Media Studies, respectively. Controversy abounds among white students year after year over whether they should teach because the white students claim not to understand when they speak due to their heavy African accents. That justification unjustified since if we attend classes with a French white lecturer who has a heavy accent when speaking English, those same students will brush it off saying, “Shame, he’s French, it’s understandable,” but it isn’t when the lecturer is African? Double standard is what I’d call that. We are after all in Africa, and not Europe. Why is there a need for a black person to have the acceptable white South African accent throwing in the occasional “yah, bru”, and “it’s hundreds, man” and “that’s so sick!” ( at every turn. If a coloured person kept using white phrases like “yah, hey” or “totally kiff” or maybe a black phrase like “hey wena sana”, or an Indian person went around saying “Awe(h) bru!”, they would be considered confused. But if a black person went about using British slang like “i’n’it” or “long ting blood”, they’d be considered cool and well travelled, and would get a pat on the back for not sounding African.

So who’s to blame ; the media who spew out radio and television shows which encourage non-African sounding speech because it is associated with being rural, of limited education and plain uncool? Or is it us, the young people, who go about laughing about these shows and doing our darndest to balance a posh English accent with a traditional vernacular which has its own accent and expressions, and praying the two never blend? But on the flip-side, if one does speak posh English, is one any less ‘black’ for it?


Posted by on March 11, 2011 in Cultural


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23 responses to ““How Come You Don’t Speak Black?”

  1. catherine

    March 11, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Unfortunately its a byproduct of Coca Cola Imperialism. Everyone seeks “westernization” believing that it is modern or superior, and in that English has become a universal language. Unfortunately it makes people who speak english as a first language so much less tolerant. Even in my house, my father sometimes complains about the newsreader, when he “cannot understand a bloody thing!” But, your view is really interesting, and well expressed. It’s not easy to write about these things without offending someone, and you seem to have achieved that. Great article.

    • 1BlackSnowflake

      March 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm

      Thank you for your comment. It’s great that you brought up the Coca Cola Imperialism which really has affected many africans, black, white or other. I feel a blog related to that coming up…:o)

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