W.E.B. DuBois has asserted that “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” What is the color line? Was this true all over the U.S.? And what about the 21st Century? Have we overcome the problem of the color line?
For the early part of the 20th Century, in the South, Jim Crow laws made the color line very explicit: Blacks were excluded from white public spaces: drinking fountains, sections of the bus, etc .
But these explicit laws permeated the North as well. There were “White’s Only” clubs, like The Cotton Club, even in Harlem.
What about the 21st Century? Does a color line remain? Of course. While there may no longer be Jim Crow laws on the books, there are still implicit ways in which an individual’s race is monitored in public. One key mechanism for this monitoring is what I call the linguistic color line.
Everyday, individuals in the United States modify the way they act and talk when they are in the presence of white people. This is not simply a matter of being “polite” or adjusting one’s talk to fit into certain social situations. Sometimes, it is a matter of “Talk like white people or you will be brutalized.”
This was depicted recently in a brilliant satire of a police stop, performed by Larry Wilmore as commentary on Sandra Bland’s arrest in Texas.
At point 4:16, of the clip linked below, Wilmore identifies precisely the linguistic color line that Sandra Bland was being asked to toe:
WILMORE: I mean, it’s easy to say, “Black people, why aren’t you acting like the Dowager Countess when a cop pulls you over?”, right?
WILMORE (Channeling Dowager Countess in English Accent): Oh, hello, officer. I’m so pleased you’ve unexpectedly dropped in on me. Would you like some tea I brewed in my glove compartment here?
Apparently Sandra Bland was not allowed to act and talk certain ways in her own car when addressing a police officer.
As Wilmore sums up, “We live in a world where black people have to strategize so they’re not brutalized by police.”
And, much of this strategizing involves modifying one’s language.
The linguists Nicole Holliday, Rachel Burdin, and Joseph Tyler, in their detailed and revealing blog post on the linguistic nuance of this encounter, have, with irony, labeled Sandra Bland’s crime, “Talking While Black.”
As the Sandra Bland encounter illustrates, while we may have fewer explicit laws about where black and white people can congregate, we continue to have tacit rules about ways black people are allowed to talk and act in certain spaces.
This, lately, has been dramatically illustrated in the case of police encounters. But it is often also the case in schools, where certain (white) ways of talking and acting are expected from all children—even (especially?) when most or all of them are not white. Schools have been legally desegregated, Jim Crow laws have been abolished, yet, as soon as any student steps across the threshold of a public school, they are expected to talk and act in certain ways that match white notions of polite and proper.
This is the linguistic color line. Enforcing that color line in classrooms may not be so dramatic as the Sandra Bland encounter, but it can, for children, be silencing.
Have you encountered the linguistic color line? Have you witnessed it being enforced? In institutions? In schools? In service encounters? In social activities? Is it time to lift what W.E.B. DuBois called “The Veil” and let people speak?
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