Sledd – Bi-Dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy

Sledd, J. “Bi-Dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy.” The English Journal 58.9 (1969): 1307-29. Print.

As evidenced by the title of his article, James Sledd does not hold any punches. Straight out the gate he defined bi-dialectalism as a method of reinforcing linguistic white supremacy. He historicized the move toward bi-dialectalism as a move of white linguists, educators, and administrators to appease and get funding from government and business entities content to maintain the status quo. He argued bi-dialectalism, teaching “standard” English in schools as a second dialect to those who are non-native speakers (read: predominantly Black and Brown children), was/ is a scheme with a faulty foundation:

“The basic assumption of bi-dialectalism is that the prejudices of mid- dle-class whites cannot be changed but must be accepted and indeed enforced on lesser breeds. Upward mobility, it is assumed, is the end of education, but white power will deny upward mobility to speakers of black English, who must therefore be made to talk white English in their contacts with the white world.” (1309)

He used the words of well known linguists and scholars to support his argument that bi-dialectalism is racist and oppressive at its core, and that even with adequate funding and teacher training it is destined to fail. Sledd included names, such as: NCTE, William Stewart, McDavid, Rogey Shuy, and William Labov, who he implied profited off of their research and push toward bi-dialectalism. According to Sledd, this “smoke screen” (1310) found favor with the government because it did not name or resist white supremacy:

“The bi-dialectalists, of course, would not be so popularwith government and the foundationsif they spoke openly of the supremacy of white prejudice; but they make it perfectly clear that what they are dealingwith deserves no better name. No dialect, they keep repeating, is better than  any other–yet poor and ignorant children must change theirs unless they want to stay poor and ignorant.”   (1310)

Sledd asserted that the level of success students subjected to compulsory bi-dialectalism would be minimally higher than if they were not. This raises questions regarding the sincerity of the efforts made toward helping “disadvantaged” students succeed. Sledd also demonstrated how these efforts were also undermined in the classroom. Despite teachers being directed to consider all dialects equal, the practice of privileging “standard” English over other variations sends a much different message. Sledd quoted the report Language Programs for the Disadvantaged (NCTE, 1965): “[Teachers] must still use all the adult authority of the school to “teach standard informal English as a second dialect” (p. 137), because the youngster who cannot speak standard informal English “will not be able to get certain kinds of jobs” (p. 228).

For Sledd, it is not the language of “minorities: that needs to be addressed, but the conditions that lead to the social and racial stratification in the first place. Social justice is the larger issue: “Nothing the schools can do about black English or white English either will do much for racial peace and social justice as long as the black and white worlds are separate and hostile.”

Placing an emphasis on the larger issue of social justice would change the focus on language education and perhaps do more good that bi-dialectalism:

“Bi-dialectalism would never have been invented if our society were not divided into the dominant white majority and the exploited minori- ties. Children should be taught that. They should be taught the relations be- tween group differences and speech dif- ferences, and the good and bad uses of speech differences by groups and by individuals. The teaching would require a more serious study of grammar, lexicography, dialectology, and linguistic history than our educational system now provides-require it at least of prospective English teachers.”

For his opponents that might claim the classroom shouldn’t be politicized, Sledd argued it already was; teaching bi-dialectalism maintains white supremacy.

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Fanon – The Negro and Language

Fanon, F. “The Negro and Language.” Black skin, white masks (1967): 17-40. Print.

In this chapter, Frantz Fanon used the example of the “Negro” in Antilles as an example of challenges that colonized people face regarding language. Blacks in Antilles, specifically Martinique, were pressured to speak French as opposed to Creole. By speaking French, Fanon explained that Blacks could become more “white;” achieve higher social status and think of themselves as being equal to whites in society as can be seen in his personal example:

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, ‘At bottom you are a white man.” The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship.” (38)

Fanon explicitly extended his example  of the “Negro” in Antilles to represent larger issues of colonized people. He broadly defined colonized people as “every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality” (18). Fanon detailed the process in which the colonized is expected and pressured to conform to the colonizer’s standards, particularly as it relates to language, and the types of alienation that can occur as a result.

Fanon argued that the European had a fixed image of the Black man (same can be said for whites in the U.S. and throughout the world in accordance to his colonial analogy). Language is used to reinforce this image: “to make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible” (35).

Fanon also pointed out the potential for upward mobility in race and social class through the acquisition of the colonial language  or language that bears more social capital, in this case, French. However, even when this mastery is accomplished, Fanon asserted that Blacks are still seen as suspect and outsiders:

“… what I am trying to say is that there is no reason why André Breton should say of [Aimé] Césaire ‘Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can.'” (39)