My whole life, I have known that when I walk into a classroom, there is an expectation that I leave a part of myself at the door. Stripping my vocabulary of the “improper” parts has always been central to making sure that, in a room filled with non-Black people, I can be taken seriously. Like most Black people in the United States, I am bilingual.
African American Vernacular English, otherwise known as AAVE, is the language I was born and raised in. Decidedly improper and treated as such, I, alongside countless others, have curated a vocabulary specific for the spaces I enter, a measure to ensure that I too can be professional and competitive. Yale is no exception — the institution epitomizes the way that language is used to decide whose voice gets to be heard, and then, whose is taken seriously. For every paper written that says in three sentences what can be said in one and every comment dismissed for its brevity lies a nod to the exclusionary nature of academia.
There exists a contradiction in Yale’s proclaimed interest in intellectual diversity and institutional refusal to allow space for language beyond Standard American English. The idea that Standard American English should be the default in education is inherently racist and classist because it implies that Standard American English is the only English worth being taken seriously. It is a limitation on expression — a lifelong effort to strangle expressions of Blackness and maintain a status quo intent on locking out Black people who dare to embrace their identity in an academic or professional space.
In the spring of 2020, I made a conscious decision to use AAVE in classroom settings. It was an exercise in curiosity, the first time in my life I had broken from what was expected of me in the spaces I occupied. It went exactly how I expected — curious side eyes and shared looks I pretended I didn’t see. Where I was used to being part of a dialogue, I found my comments cut out and set aside, unacknowledged. The way I chose to express my thoughts made a world of difference in how seriously my peers took what I had said — no less relevant to the material and no less developed, but dismissed nonetheless.
Then, more than ever before, the myth of AAVE’s simplicity was laid bare on the seminar room table. I was using my language for the wrong audience. Here a group of people unfamiliar with AAVE’s intricate rules of inflection and word order, epitomizing a larger pattern in academia, one that found any reason to dismiss Black voices. The erasure and dismissal of Black voices is systematic and unequal, one that privileges straight, cis, male identities, that elevates those with lighter skin in ways that enact explicit violence on others. AAVE is just one of many factors used to erase the work and presence of Black people in a world that rewards not only proximity to whiteness, but explicit distance from Blackness.
This should be no surprise — history has shown more than once that who speaks and how they say it makes all the difference. One of the greatest affronts to intellectual diversity has been the way that Black people — especially Black women, dark skinned and LGBTQ+ Black people — have been cut out of the conversation entirely by the explicit refusal of non-Black peers to listen. For centuries, academia and the professional world has failed to train its subjects in listening to anybody who does not walk and talk like them as an added excuse to explain the sobering dearth of Black voices. Brilliance found in Black communities is left to live and die alone in the dark, intentionally cut out of a conversation that finds itself debating Black humanity as little more than an intellectual exercise. The question of whether or not Black lives matter is tied intrinsically in the eyes of millions to how properly we ask for the right to live free of state sanctioned violence.
If we are to take our cues about whose words are worth listening to from history and tradition, we find ourselves actively upholding legacies of white supremacy. Pay attention to who you pay attention to, who you extend your grace to in the classroom and how you interact with their words. While we can’t look to the implied rules of professionalism to guide our interactions, intentionality can redefine what is acceptable in the spaces we occupy. Now, more than ever, is the time to fight for Black voices in all of their iterations.
TIYA PROCTOR-FLOYD is a rising sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.