Demanding Obeisance to White Culture Is Racism: Code Switching, AAVE, and Double Consciousness

by John Ellis

Growing up in the Deep South, I was surrounded by racism, including in my own heart, words, and actions. I was taught that Black people were “those people,” different and damaging to the fabric of our way of life if allowed free rein to be Black. It wasn’t stated in those words, of course. If they were to read my accusation, the racists of my youth would protest, using some variation of, “We’re not racists. We’ve given them equal rights, after all, and to be clear, we think they should have equal rights. But as a whole, Black people have failed to take advantage of the opportunities we’ve given them. They’ve failed to assimilate into our culture.”

You know how I know this would be their rebuttal? Because, as a kid growing into a teenager growing into a young adult, I watched almost every single authority figure and friend I knew and had categorize Black people as good blacks or as the n-word. The good blacks were described with words like “articulate”, “respectful”, and “grateful”. The others, the broader Black community? Well, every black face in a mug shot on the evening news, every perceived slight at the hands or mouth of a Black person in the grocery store, every screwed up order by a Black cashier in the restaurant, every unkempt lawn in front of a house owned by a Black family, every possible misstep, sin, and failure to conform to white standards were attributed to every Black person who dressed, spoke, and acted in any way different from us. “Those people.”

There are two things embedded in the perspective described above. Possibly three things. But first, defining terms is important. Most of us realize that, but few of us do it, especially in regard to race. Most white people do not allow for a differentiation between colorism, racism, and racecraft, which, in fact, is evidence of the pervasiveness of racecraft (a term defined below). We are so ensconced in our position of privilege and power that we don’t even see that in conversations about race we have a priori beliefs that are unassailable because we believe we have the right to dictate terms and conditions and, importantly, we fail to see, much less acknowledge, that those a priori beliefs translate into racism. Our white experience is the determining factor because our white experience is the ideal.

In their incredibly eye-opening book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, sisters and scholars Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields provide definitions that white people would do well to listen to and adopt. Stating the known yet oft-ignored fact that race is a social construct – “that the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis”[1] – the Fields sisters explain that, “Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race [emphasis kept].”[2] As part of their definition, it’s pointed out that, “Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. … Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once [emphasis kept].[3]

With that in mind, it’s easier to see the distinction between personal prejudice (colorism, in this case) and racism. Looking back to my imagined rebuttal above, I don’t have to dislike someone because of the color of their skin to be a racist. Even if unwittingly, as a product of my own social imaginary, I create categories that divide Black people based on my own cultural codes and cues, I’m engaging in racism because I’ve elevated the socially constructed culture of my existence to a position of normative while relegating another culture to a position of inferior, and with the added expectation that “good” Black people move from out of the category of “those people” and move into a category that operates with codes and cues that make me comfortable. And that’s racecraft. In the words of the Black women who coined the term, “Racecraft does not refer to groups or to ideas about groups’ traits … It refers instead to mental terrain and to pervasive belief.”[4] In other words, it’s the illusion of race produced by racism. And this circles me back to my two – let’s go ahead and make it three – things embedded in my imaginary-yet-not-imaginary defense and explanation in the second paragraph.

It became obvious to me that for every perceived slight, sin, or failure to live up to unwritten white-defined social cues and code committed by a Black person, the tally of white people committing slights, sins, and failures to abide by culturally constructed cues and codes was much greater. Yet, whites as a whole were never assigned blame for the individual parts. The unkempt laws of our white neighbors weren’t contributed to a deficiency in the white community as a whole. The rude white servers weren’t seen as representative of the white community. The white criminals were excused away as “bad seeds” who failed to absorb the lessons of the white community and not as the natural products of it. So, the first thing embedded is straight up colorism (personal prejudice). I make that accusation based on the eagerness to find fault with people of color and use their “sins” to define the “otherness” of the Black community, and I do so with the understanding that many of my white friends and family who utilize some version of my imaginary explanation would insist that’s not true. I believe it is, but I’m going to move on because my objective isn’t to confront colorism/personal prejudice, per se.    

Watching this as I grew into adulthood, my perception of the hypocrisy of it all grew, as did my understanding that racism was shamefully a part of my life and in my heart. However, even with that, I was still engaging in racism. While I began to be bothered by and openly rebuke the application of the “faults” of the one to the many, I was still categorizing certain things as “faults”. I had merely moved out of believing that “those people” were the majority of Black people to believing that “those people” were the minority. I was still privileging white culture as superior. Most Black people are articulate, I would argue whenever a friend or family member mocked Ebonics, for example. That’s an example of racism that allowed/caused me to retain the illusion of race even though I failed to see it. To be perceived as productive members of society, Black people had to sound like white people – an expected course of action, to lean on the definition provided by the Fields sisters. My perspective needed to be shifted and my definitions and categories challenged.

Thankfully, over the course of my adult life, I’ve had the privilege of having the racism I was taught (and accepted) as a youth and young adult challenged by a variety of Black men and women. Describing what W. E. B. Du Bois labeled “double consciousness”, Black people have told me the many ways in which they have to suppress their Blackness to avoid repercussions from the majority culture. However, instead of relating what others have told to me, I now point you to a recent episode of the As In HVN podcast. In the episode linked below, titled “Afro-Latino Contours, Code Switching, and Transitional Justice, Part 1”, guests Ameen Hudson and Jon Aragón provide a wealth of information, personal experiences, and thoughtful insights. Listen to them.

While speaking directly to their experiences as Afro-Latinos in a white majority culture, their reflections and insights are applicable to the larger discussion of racism and racecraft. The discussion of African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or as many whites pejoratively call it, Ebonics) and code switching may be especially illuminating to many white people, allowing us a practical view of what double consciousness means and looks like in practice. Guarding your heart against defensiveness, listen with a spirit of humility while praising God for the work He’s doing in and through Hudson and Aragón. And ask yourself, how do you respond when Hollywood uses the Southern accent as code for uneducated and/or racist? No doubt, if you’re like most white people, especially from the South, your response to Hollywood contradicts your expectations and definition of “articulate” and “well-spoken” when it comes to Black people. Demanding obeisance to our culture is prideful racism.

Click here to listen to the As In HVN episode “Afro-Latino Contours, Code Switching, and Transitional Justice, Part 1”

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso, paperback ed. 2014), 8.

[2] Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft, 17.

[3] Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft, 17.

[4] Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft, 18.

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