English, Mothafucka!


I don’t see racism play itself out as starkly as it does in movies. I can count on my hand the number of times someone threw a racial slur at me, and each time, the situation didn’t call for the automatic ass whipping that we’d assume would happen when someone crosses that line. One extremely angry Mexican called me and my group of friends chinks once, but we were outside of a wake for our just-deceased little homie. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t really support jumping someone outside a damn wake.

I can’t understand why I thought so level headed then, but I got into a fervor about an wayside statement in a Polk Street bar. I think I was pontificating on something about the Niners, something along the lines of “Mofuckin’ Culliver sucks muhfuckin nutsack,” which an acquaintance then asked me “why do you talk like you’re Black?”

The fuck do you mean “why do you talk like you’re Black?” This how I fucking talk.

Of course, it’s unfair of me to assume that it was coming from a strictly prejudicial place. Maybe the guy was wondering why someone who’s so obviously middle-class Asian-American would be talking in a way reserved for people who grew up in the hood. Maybe he thought I was being a poser.

Still, it brought to mind something that I’ve been finding problematic.

If you can’t speak “properly,” there’s less of a chance of people taking you seriously. It’s a common argument to throw out against people who’ve never been schooled in proper grammar and syntax. “I can’t even understand you right now. Your English is so bad.”

It’s the debasing of someone because they’re not well-versed in the ways of the majority. The way most white people have talked has been the official way of speaking in America, but I can’t help but think that the ebonics and slang that continues to cultivate itself in America’s ghettoes is just as legitimate of a dialect.

It’s just language, a means of communicating with people who’ve grown up just like you. It’s not inherently better or worse. But since our brains work to create prejudices and discrimination for things we’re either too lazy, too stubborn, or too scared to find the truth behind, we judge the way others talk.

“Jesus Christ…nobody can understand you. SPEAK ENGLISH.”

It’s those last two words. “SPEAK ENGLISH.” As if their way of speaking the language is the right way.

This might be blasphemous coming from a lifelong adherent to the English language, but there is no right or wrong way. To judge someone’s English by its proximity to the ironclad rules of grammar and intonation would bleed the legitimacy from all the localized dialects and tongues that give the language its cultural spirit. Even the broken English of my parents carries valuable lessons and insights that I wouldn’t hear from anyone else. There’s just communication and a willingness to listen and understand beyond what’s easy to process.

But as evidenced by the expansive divide between ethnicities and economic classes in this country, I don’t see much effort from many people to reach beyond their own cultural upbringing to grasp things outside of their common understanding.

Since it was Martin Luther King Day this week, I figured it was appropriate to quote a good passage from “I Have a Dream”:

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

There is no footnote saying that little white boys should continue to act and talk like little white boys and little black girls should continue to act and talk like little black girls. Dr. King didn’t say that we all had to stay strictly faithful to our cultural norms to connect with each other. Yet we expect everyone we meet to speak in the same way as we do, as if that was the prerequisite for connecting with them on some intellectual level.

To me, Dr. King’s message is evident in the imagery – that we all look past everything: skin color, linguistic keys, fashion, etiquette – to hold hands with someone. To get to the core of a person and unite with the precious few commonalities that all of us share as humans.

The one thing that unites everyone in America is that English is the lingua franca of America. When you get all of these different people and different cultures together, that English will mold and evolve to fit the needs of each community. The ebonics of the inner city, the Spanglish/Konglish/etc. of immigrants, the proper English of the educated class, they carry the same potential for nuanced thought and insight that you’d expect from someone speaking your own preferred English.

Even if the words that come out are unintelligible, I would think that Dr. King would agree with me when I say that intelligence and insight are universal.

I’ll conclude with a story I’ve told before. When I brought up my girlfriend at the time to San Francisco to show her the city that I love, I witnessed a conversation between what seemed like a well-to-do white man and a working-class black man.

They spoke in the way that was comfortable for them. The white man spoke “properly,” the black man spoke “ghetto.” And yet, they connected on a level that almost any American can relate to – how shitty their in-laws could be. There was no judgment from one person against the other, it was two men speaking on the same level and granting each other the respect despite their differences in speech and appearance. It was pure communication, despite the divergently different styles of English.

“Man, this mofuckin brother of mine, this bitch ass ***** always tryna take mine, you feel me?”

“I totally understand. But family is family, right?”

“Yea, yea you right. Family is family, but sometimes you just gotta look out for you and yours, right?”

“You’re right. Sometimes I want to punch my brother-in-law in the face too.”

“SEE? I know this dude gets it. Sheeeeeit.”

This was in 2008. I haven’t seen anything like that since.


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