“Talking Black in America” panel discusses language discrimination

Ashley Barletta, News editor

In honor of Black History Month, Campus Involvement partnered with the World Languages Department to host a showing of the documentary “Talking Black in America.” The showing took place on Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. in the Mercy Heritage Room. The documentary was followed by a panel and discussion with members of the Mercyhurst community Vydalia Weatherly, Jessica Hubert and Jeffrey Rozier. The documentary presented both past and present issues surrounding African American English.

Some Black people are told they “sound white” based on the way they talk to others. How-ever, that is not the whole picture. Many Black people “code switch,” meaning that where they are and who they are interacting with provides the basis for how they will talk. “For Black individuals, code switching occurs mostly when they are switching from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) when talking to another Black individual to standard English when talking to a white individual,” Vydalia Weatherly, a sophomore criminal justice and political science double major and history minor.

During the panel discussion, this was compared to how college students talk to their professors versus their friends, known as “style switching.” Code switching, though, is different. “Everyone, in essence, style shifts,” said Weatherly. “Code switching is more complex, and, to simply put it, occurs when an individual alternates between two or more languages depending on who they are speaking with. Weatherly continued, “Code switching is something that comes naturally to a large portion of Black individuals in the country; most do it without thinking. You learn how to do so at a young age, and it just becomes an unconscious procedure afterwards.”

Another topic that was dis-cussed is how Black people who talk in AAVE are seen as uneducated. This is a stigma that is simply not true, but many Black people are still forced to learn and use standard English. During the panel, the Black professors here at Mercyhurst acknowledged the fact that they may not have gotten the jobs they currently hold if they had used AAVE during their inter-views. When asked if he thought there would ever be a point when he did not have to code switch, Jeffrey Rozier, a professor at Mercyhurst’s Booker T. Washington campus, had a sad but truthful response. “I honestly believe we will not reach that point, sad to say. We are living in a time where critical race theory is being thrown out of classrooms because it’s more forward thinking. So, for me to never have to code switch again would be great, but I do not see it going away.”

Weatherly talked about code switching as “giving up a part of yourself.” She feels that this is something she does every time she must code switch to standard English instead of talking in the manner in which she grew up speaking. This is not the only perspective on code switching, just as there is not just one Black experience.

Sherez Mohamed, Ph.D., was constantly corrected for using AAVE in school while she was growing up. She soon learned where and when she could use AAVE and when she needed to use standard English. “I’d say, at this point, it’s not that I’ve given up part of myself for my career, but rather, I think having to constantly navigate different spaces has impacted my identity,” said Mohamed. “It’s hard to put into words, but I’ve been having to code switch and put away parts of my Black identity way before choosing my career.” Mohamed continued, “These things are embedded in you starting from elementary school, so you grow up knowing what version of yourself you have to bring to different spaces.”

One of the things mentioned during the panel discussion was that AAVE is more widely accepted if you are famous. Sometimes, white people will use it without knowing its origin, and this is typically seen in rap music. This has been criticized widely in recent years as more and more young celebrities find themselves using AAVE without knowing its cultural roots.

“Yes, it is more widely accepted in a sense that everyone can rap the lyrics. But that too is a setting when it is feasible to use AAVE. But what comes into play is when you use that same language outside of those lyrics to make yourself seem cool. That is in fact not the case as you don’t truly know the meaning behind the language you are speaking,” said Rozier.

There were many other ideas that were discussed during the panel presentation, but it would be difficult to go into depth for each and every one. In the words of Jessica Hubert, Multicultural and Inclusion Coordinator, “Do the work.” By saying this, she means that, if you want to help Black people to feel more included, it is important to educate yourself on things like AAVE and its origins, which are not always taught in schools.

The internet alone has so many resources, let alone presentations like this that the school offers to broaden student perspectives. “At this point, the older I get the more I recognize that it’s a privilege for others if I’m using AAVE with you because that signifies that I feel I can be 100% authentic with you and you are getting the real, unaltered me. And that person is pretty dope, if I may say so myself,” Mo-hamed said.

To learn more about the Talking Black in America Project, visit https://www.talking-blackinamerica.org/.Make yourself uncomfortable to make sure that others don’t have to feel the same way just for being who they are. With documentaries like this, it is not critical to educate ourselves but, in doing so, we are changing the world and doing our part to make it a welcoming place for all. While this is one documentary of many, there are plenty out there for all to watch and learn from.