Culture and Education: Micro-aggressions Causing Macro Harm
How do we create a culturally inclusive, nurturing classroom for African American students? Well, one way is to actually embrace, respect and honor their cultural norms, preferences and attitudes. Another is to normalize and de-stigmatize their unique language patterns and ways of communicating.
Many of us know the commonly held criticism of “sounding White”- in reference to being educated and speaking traditional English. We are also familiar with the label of “ghetto” speaking styles referring to African American vernacular- meant to be a disparaging comment referencing both the cultural and socio-economic background of a person. The linkage that has evolved of European norms equaling intelligence and wealth and African American normals equaling ignorance and poverty is a damaging one indeed and when it plays out in the classroom it can shape a young person’s view of themselves and their culture.
The unique speech patterns of African Americans have their origin in West Africa combine with English based Creole of the Southern United States. There are known unique grammatical, vocabulary and accent features of African-American Vernacular English. It has consistent internal logic and grammatical complexity, and is used naturally by a group of people to express thoughts and ideas. Our phonology has a
different melody. Grammatically there can be a difference in tense, aspect and negation and some elements mirror those found in Russian, Hebrew and Arabic. Our vocabulary is influenced by West African languages, and has itself influenced contemporary language in popular American culture.
Use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) carries racially affirmative political undertones as its use allows African Americans to assert their cultural identity and upbringing. Ridicule or discouragement of it’s use achieves the opposite- it denies political agency and assertion of culture. African American students may see education as a “White” privilege, thus making African American students perceive themselves as undeserving and incapable and their culture as somehow unintelligent or anti-academic.
In 1996, Oakland Unified School District made a controversial resolution for AAVE, which was later called “Ebonics.” The Oakland School board approved that Ebonics be recognized as a language independent from English (though this particular view is not endorsed by linguists employed by the status quo), that teachers would participate in recognizing this language, and that it would be used in theory to support the transition from Ebonics to Standard American English in schools. This program lasted three years and then died off.
Not only do schools perpetuate cultural negligence and aggression but this continues on in the work place-further cementing the myth learned in school that one culture is more important than all others. “Professional” demeanor is equated with European styles of dress, hair styles, speech patterns and vernacular. Globally, dress codes are symbolic indications of different social ideas, including social class, cultural
identity, attitude towards comfort, tradition, and political or religious affiliations. The requisite dress code for professionals (including the teachers that students interact with daily) projects European ideas, traditions and values.
School culture is the pre-cursor to professional culture. African American students have historically been denied the agency and confidence that comes with culturally affirming education. For those that actually survive this negligent environment, they then go on the endure the same psychological assault in the workplace.
We aim to restore the sense of comfort, inclusion and agency that African American students have in the classroom. You feel me? Join Us!
Lasha Pierce MD
Executive Director AFRE