AAVE and learning to speak like yourself

| Senior Forum Editor
HN Hoffmann

Once, I asked a friend what race she would think I was if she heard my voice only. “I don’t know,” she said to me. “You don’t really sound like anything.” 

I grew up shuffling between a catalog of different voices. At home, my parents would mask their Jamaican accent with a more proper American one so my brother and I wouldn’t end up sounding different from our peers. (Although, naturally, their Patois would slip out every now and then — that’s the reason why sometimes, I’m not sure whether or not to pronounce the “th” in “thyme.”) This was the voice I spoke most of the time, although with my cousins and close family, we’d sometimes break into Patois to joke with one another. 

I had another voice, though, that only came out when I was in majority-white spaces. Often the only Black person in any given group, I realized that some people liked it when I sounded a certain way. Sassier, more audacious and indignant. I was Black — Jamaican-American. That distinction mattered to me, but not to my white peers, who wanted me to sound like the Black people on TV. So I obliged, digging into AAVE (African American Vernacular English), into terms and caricatures that I thought might make me fit in. If I had something funny to say, I knew they’d laugh just a little harder if I wrapped my voice in a little bit of Madea cosplay. 

Because I was Black, I thought it was fine. I had as much a claim to these words as anyone else. But that wasn’t my voice. It wasn’t the way I spoke at home, with my closest friends or in my safest spaces. Not only was I not speaking like myself, I wasn’t speaking for myself, either. And I was reinforcing stereotypes (ones that were harmful to my own self) while doing so.

This experience, though not quite the same, is what comes to mind when I meet white people who punctuate every thought with “on god” and had a “periodt!” phase last year. I wish I could ask them: How did you speak before social media convinced you that you needed to sound like a walking Urban Dictionary? When you punctuate a joke with a little bit of AAVE, what — or who — is the punchline, really?

In my case, I hoped speaking AAVE might help me fit into spaces that I never felt included me. It was both a tool to fit in and a source of guilt and confusion. But, in my experience, the non-Black people who use it do so because it’s trendy or fun. Because the culture and humor and spirit of AAVE are enviable when taken out of the context of a culture that generally considers it to be a substandard language and its speakers ignorant for using it. It’s ironic that the only people who seem to be able to use AAVE without experiencing guilt, derision or other social consequences are non-Black people.

When that friend told me that I didn’t sound like anything, I suspect that what she really meant to say was that I sounded white — presumably, the default way to speak. But when I really sit down and try to imagine a person who doesn’t sound like anything, I don’t think of someone who “sounds white” — I think of people who have a gap in their vocabulary where the newest trending AAVE phrase resides for two to three weeks at a time.

The way we speak isn’t something God-ordained, bestowed upon us at birth and impervious to change. In my experience, it’s more like a series of very small, almost-unconscious decisions, like the way you form a habit. If you’ve ever tried to remove a problematic term from your vocabulary or struggled to stop starting every phrase with the word “um” or “like,” then you know that you can choose to speak however you want to. Why not speak like yourself? 

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