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AAE Humor Perpetuates Racist Misconceptions About AAE

April 24, 2010

African American English (AAE), sometimes referred to as “Ebonics,” has often been the source of racist humor.  In his book Beyond Ebonics, John Baugh discusses Ebonics jokes that have arisen in the past.  One website, “The Ebonics Translator,” allowed people to send in a body of text and receive an email with the text translated into Ebonics. In one instance, the translator provided an Ebonics version of the Lord’s Prayer, which was offensive to African Americans as well as Christians.  Mad Magazine published an article, “Hooked on Ebonics,” a play on words on “Hooked on Phonics.” Ebonics jokes have also appeared in comics such as Non Sequitur, Mallard Filmore, and Doonesbury. In one comic, a child has written on the blackboard that 7 times 3 equals 16, and he is shown telling the teacher that it is “mathabonics.”  John Baugh points out that stating that 7 X 3 = 16 is wrong, whereas a better way to represent it would have been 7 X 13 = √441.  In this representation, “the answer would not be wrong but it would be nonstandard”. The point is that AAE is not wrong, it is just nonstandard.

Jokes about Ebonics have been used to perpetuate the idea that AAE is the “wrong” way to speak.

We can see this perpetuation today when we look up “Ebonics” on websites such as Urban Dictionary, a website where people can post their own definitions of words.  Chances are that some people who use this site have also seen Ebonics jokes in some form.  Though 98 definitions show up, the whole first page is full of racist misconceptions that Ebonics is “slang” spoken by “gangsters” and that adding “izzle” to any word makes it AAE.  The ironic thing is that many of the words themselves that are defined on Urban Dictionary are slang. If you look further on in the definitions though, there are those who have written more accurate definitions of “Ebonics,” calling it a “dialect” of English, tying some of its features to Southern English, Creoles, and West African Languages.  As stated before in this blog, AAE is not “slang,” it is a rule-governed non-standard dialect of English. AAE jokes have no doubt played a role in spreading the (untrue) notion to the public that AAE is “incorrect” or “broken” English.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Ayeska permalink*
    April 24, 2010 11:53 pm

    It’s disturbing how the public seems to prefer misconceptions and distorted definitions over correct information. What’s even further alarming is how the media propagates these false notions. I had thought “yellow papers” were a thing of the past before learning just how biased and deceitful media (including newspapers) was in disseminating information regarding African American English to the general public. I personally think they’re to blame for the negative connotations associated with African American English.

  2. Brittney permalink
    April 25, 2010 9:51 pm

    People don’t realize (or maybe they do and just don’t care) that joking about or making fun of a language or dialect is not just about the langauge or dialect. It’s also making fun of the people who speak it. It’s mocking and insulting an entire culture and sending the message to them that their culture is inferior, so they as a people must be inferior also. Language is embedded in culture, and culture is a way of life.

  3. Louisa permalink
    April 27, 2010 5:03 pm

    I completely agree Brittney. I often overhear people making these kinds of jokes and I find it affecting their view of other cultures. These thoughts cause people to build negative stereotypes. Popular culture allows these kinds of jokes and gives an outlet for people to explore this degrading and hurtful behavior.

  4. Morris permalink
    April 28, 2010 4:54 pm

    I also agree with Brittney, but I’d like to ask the question, what can we as individuals do about it? Do we point out how these jokes are racially insensitive when we hear them? That sort of course of action isn’t likely to be very effective. More likely you’d get a response along the lines of “Hey, It’s Just a Joke, don’t get all bent out of shape about it.”

    Given attitudes towards Humor as “non-serious” with the implications that humor doesn’t have a capacity to effect serious changes in thought how do you address the problem?

  5. Elizabeth permalink
    April 29, 2010 10:10 pm

    I agree with every one. I also believe when some one jokes about how someone speak your making fun of that culture it self. When we hear people joking on the dialect of others, in this case AAE, people just laugh not aware, or maybe not even caring what that is doing. Every one tend to accept the negativity of that dialect, accepting the misconception of that dialect. It is hurtful to hear others make fun the dialect it degrading and wrong. We all just have to ask our self what can we do about it, what can we do to make people accept and not criticise AAE? maybe start changes with the media and see where that leads to.

  6. Ayeska permalink*
    May 4, 2010 10:13 pm

    directed towards Elizabeth, but anyone else is free to answer:
    How do we change the media? It’s a major multi-billion dollar institution that seems to thrive on incorrect public perceptions.
    I guess this blog is one step towards helping change how people perceive AAE, but how do we manage to do that on an even larger scale?

  7. Zeke permalink
    May 13, 2010 2:10 pm

    How do we change the media? The education system. If teachers told kids that making fun of how someone talks is mean, it’d probably stick on some level. Look at race sensitivity: in the wake of the civil rights movement, political correctness demanded that school boards across the country address how they dealt with race in their curriculums. Today, while people are still pretty ignorant about race as a social construct, they know they’re not supposed to be “racist” and feel guilty if they sense they are acting that way. So while it’s tough to eliminate ignorance, education’s probably our best shot at it.

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