Tuesday, December 2, 2014


When I was growing up, I was taught that it was racist to treat other people differently, because everyone is equal. And so I learned to treat black people the same way I treat white people.

My fiancée Katie says that Portland school district has a different race education program, called "Courageous Conversations". They believe the "treat everyone the same way" strategy is racist, because it ignores the differences and unique gifts that certain races have to offer. And so kids are taught not to treat other people the same way, but to recognize the differences between the various races.

One result of this is that white children are encouraged to talk to black children in ebonics, because that is more accepting of black culture, compared to forcing all black children to talk like white children.

I bring this up, because I'm reading the original Nancy Drew: The Secret of the Old Clock, and there is a chunk where Nancy meets a black man who talks in ebonics. For example, when he notices the house has been robbed, he tells Nancy, "Say, white gu'l, you tell me wheah all dis heah fu'niture is at!". Pretty much everyone has accused the book of being racist at this point. Not just because the black man talks in a stereotypical way, but because he's foolish, lazy, and drunk the entire time.

What do you readers think? Is it less racist, or more racist, that Carolyn Keene had her black characters talk differently from the white characters?


Emily said...

I don't necessarily think it's racist to make characters of color talk differently. That really isn't any different than having someone from another country talk with an accent in the book.
What is racist is to imply that a person talks differently because their race makes them inferior. A lot of times older books would use ebonics to make a black character sound ignorant compared to the white characters they were interacting with and that's where the problem came in.

Elentarien said...

To me, that sounds a little idiotic. Why would white people speak any different than black, red or green just because of skin colour? I would say how a person speaks would be more influenced by location (aka accents), education and personality.

The 'standard' black speak (what you're calling ebonics) is what was always used to depict the southern slaves during the 19th century. I always thought this was less a result of their skin colour/race and more a result of the southern accent, and their uneducated status. They weren't allowed to learn to read, so they couldn't see the words, so they 'approximated' them. . .quite possibly from the original slaves who may or may not even have spoken English when they were captured - and had to learn on the fly and managed to pass down the 'misinformation' to their children.

So, yeah, to classify a more modern black person speaking the same way is just plain silly. Most modern blacks, same as any other children have plenty of access to education and are taught to read and write, they have access to radio and TV which lets them hear speaking - and why would they speak like that? Unless they're from the southern US and for some reason have skipped out on learning the proper words.

I don't suppose its any worse, though, for them to categorize blacks that way, than saying all Asians speak that choppy way they can speak. (Although, again, they do have their own unique accents sometimes! Again, based on where they are from when they learn English)

So, yeah, I would say its somewhat racist. Not the worst type out there, though. Its possible the author *was* trying to portray a certain picture, no worse than setting up your villians and thugs to talk like a stereotypical 1940s gangster. Not really a whole lot different than an author trying to portray any sort of accent to give the character a more distinct speech pattern. (A trick that only works sometimes anyway, no matter who you're trying to portray!)

Sparksbet said...

Just a bit of info from a linguistics major:
The dialect spoken by modern African-Americans (which is now officially called African American English or AAE instead of ebonics) is not the same as the dialect that you show from Secret of the Old Clock -- though they're obviously related dialects, the language has evolved significantly. While I don't think it's racist to depict a black characters speaking AAE, there are things that make it at least worth pausing and thinking about:
1) Unless you grew up speaking AAE, you may not understand the dialect as well as you think, and your attempt to write it could then be not only stereotypical, but inaccurate.
2) A lot of Americans (even some who speak AAE) consider it to be "incorrect" or "ungrammatical" speech. Linguistics know better, but the general population isn't made up of linguists. Thus, an author making every black character use AAE seems offensive because it feels like the author is treated black characters as uneducated. This is obviously a problem with primarily white authors.
3) Writing out accents and dialects, regardless of their origin, is generally considered offensive and irritating. Offensive because it treats the dialect in question as lesser by transcribing it differently than the "standard" English, and irritating because it's cumbersome to read.

I think that Nancy Drew book is racist because it portrays the only black character as a stereotypical lowly, stupid, drunk black. The written-out dialect contributes to that, but it isn't its cause.

However, I'd like to point out that I'm not black so I'm not an authority on what is or isn't racist to black people. If I'm wrong, I'm so sorry.

Anonymous said...

I'm black and I don't find the stereotypical accent racist in itself. As Sparksbet said, it is the fact that the only black character is shown as an indolent, unintelligent alcoholic which offends me the most.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's racist. Carolyn Keene just wanted to put the character's way of speaking on paper.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting analysis.

How do we know that the slang way of speaking, even if associated accurately with how black people of that time and place spoke, is "ebonics"?

How would the Portland school district recommend addressing the following scenario:

Suppose it is common for black people to greet their friends with a statement "hey, nigger!" Is that proper ebonics? How would the Portland school district encourage black people greeted in such an "ebonics" vernacular to respond or feel when spoken by someone they don't perceive to be part of their black community?