This morning I was browsing Instagram when I came across a post made by my fellow Bozeman social media friend, Hilary Parker. I’d already seen the post, but this time it was a comment below the post that caught my attention. The picture is of a graduate’s mortar board decorated with a photo of a white woman who recently earned meme status by calling 911 to report a group of black people who were actually just doing regular, non-emergency people things and certainly didn’t need emergency intervention (BBQ Becky.) Unless you’ve been under a rock or perhaps climbing one out of cell service, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The text on the mortar board reads, “HI 911, THEY OUT HERE GETTING DEGREES.”
When I saw this photo, originally posted by Instagram user @nyc4revolution, I thought it was cool. I had a brief moment of internal cheering for this witty graduate. Today, though, the comment I saw caused me to pause and think a little more. The commenter made a quick correction of the grammar used by the graduate in the photo and a small jab as to whether or not the graduate was deserving of her degree. I don’t think he was intending anything particularly unkind with the comment, but that’s how structural racism works. Hilary pointed out that it was most likely a dig at the “now meme-famous woman” and that there wasn’t a lot of room on that mortar board, but I think there was something else going on here too.
By dropping the “are”, this graduate is using a dialect called African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and I’m betting it’s intentional. I recognized this linguistic feature, but I wasn’t sure what to call it and since I’m always curious about language and I’m off work for the next two months, I spent a little time reading Wikipedia entries this morning. Now I know what it’s called: zero copula, a “linguistic phenomenon whereby the subject is joined to the predicate without overt marking of this relationship”. It’s a feature of AAVE, but it’s also a feature of a Ugandan language and I suspect that’s why it’s a feature of AAVE. Often, speakers of a second language will continue to use the grammar of their native language, so it seems really possible that AAVE developed as African slaves learned to speak English–especially when you consider the historic social segregation that would help with both the creation of a dialect and the sustained use of that dialect over time. I don’t know that this is the connection for sure–just guessing–I’ll have to read more Wikipedia articles later.
There’s a long, and racist history of assuming that users of AAVE are uneducated and in need of correction. AAVE is not the English of academics, but it might have a more accepted place in academics if people of color had not been systematically denied access to adequate education at all levels since the beginning of educational systems in America. Of course, losing one’s accent or dialect, especially in writing, is often a key step toward academic success across the board. Weird, huh?
On the flip side, a dialect or accent is a glue that helps hold a social group together and a marker that helps define boundaries between social groups. When you speak a certain way, you instantly know that you share at least some social background with others who speak the same way as you do. They understand your language, they understand you, and you belong. To manage acceptance and belonging in multiple groups, people engage in code switching–a phrase I’m using here to describe the practice of switching dialects (and sometimes behaviors) based on the social situation. A person might use AAVE, for instance, at home with friends and family, but switch to a more a academic version of English when they’re away at school. This is actually a very common practice. Which makes the mortar board decoration all the more interesting to me.
The graduate pictured most likely engaged in plenty of code switching in order to earn her degree. She clearly learned how to proficiently speak the language of academia at some point, but by choosing to follow a different set of grammar rules in the language on her mortar board she’s indicating that she still belongs to another group too. She’s making it clear that these groups can overlap and that she can occupy multiple roles at once. A person can be educated and Black in America–a statement that sill, sadly, needs to be made in this day and age. I’m almost positive she’s making the greatest possible impact in the small space of her mortar board with her politically strategic use of language. No corrections needed.