Things We Don't Apologize For: Speaking Well

My last post was my 200th post. Slow clap for me! :)

Continuing on in our "Things We Don't Apologize For" series...

Yesterday: Never apologize for pursuing what makes you happy. Even if you need to quit your job, transfer schools, or move across country, always do what you really want.
Today: Never apologize for using proper English. Keeping it real doesn't mean speaking Ebonics.

Two years ago, I wrote a post called "I'm unique...just like everyone else." In it, I said:
I've been accused of "acting white" a lot over the years. We won't go into the whole debate on what it is to "act white" or "act black" they're both stupid terminology and I wish our society didn't condone the use of them. Anyway, what it usually boils down to is education level. I've pretty much always gone to predominantly white schools and I've been blessed enough to have also obtained some of the best education a person can get. People look at you differently when they find out you go to a private school. In high school I would avoid telling people what school I went to until I felt like they had a chance to get to know me.
Though I've been told I "talk white" or "act white" and even called "an oreo" for the most part in high school I was insulated from that stuff. I went to school with black students just like me, as far as academic abilities and intellect. I was surprised to get to college and find that suddenly, the same black folks I'd gone to high school with "felt some type of way" about the way I spoke. Suddenly, I wasn't black enough for my fellow private school educated black friends...

I've never spoken any differently than I do now. There are some words I use, like "buggy" that are very much Southern (and even regionally Southern) words. There are some phrases I use freely like "get it in" that are very much "urban" phrases and sayings. But my pattern of speech, the cadence with which I speak and my diction have always been the same: slightly influenced by both where I grew up and my culture, but mostly based on how those around me spoke.

I don't know how my mom grew up in west Alabama and never developed a stereotypical Southern accent, but she didn't. As a result, though I lived all my life below the Mason Dixon line, I (apparently) only have an accent when I'm drunk. Sometimes when I'm back home visiting my mom, I meet a new person who will ask me "where are you from?" and when I reply, they always look shocked and some even further question "did you grow up here?" the shocked look only becomes more obvious when I say "yes."

One thing I had to learn about people who will use how well you speak, against you is that that's their problem. Seriously. They have some insecurity that isn't your fault or your issue to deal with. Consistently I've discovered, either purposefully or by happenstance, that each and every person who has ever told me I was acting white or called me an oreo or otherwise tried to suggest something was wrong with me because I don't drop whole parts of my words (unless for dramatic effect or because I'm in that mood) did so because I made them uncomfortable and instead of addressing whatever it is about them that they felt was lacking, they pushed their issues back on me. I will never apologize for someone else's issues.

If I start making apologies for how I speak, I'm making apologies for where I grew up, for the effect of my mother's pattern of speech, for the care my teachers throughout the years took to ensure I understood and practiced appropriate English. To apologize for my speech is to apologize for many things I have no control over but have all worked towards my own betterment.

Having said all that, I don't apologize for speaking correctly not because I'm always cognizant of that very philosophical and feel-good thought, but rather because I'm not sorry. I'm not sorry that I don't have an accent (b'cept when I'm drunk); I'm not sorry that I know how to say things in accordance with commonly accepted pronunciation rules; I'm not sorry that I'm well read and well versed; I'm not sorry for being well aware that these skills and this knowledge base has served me well over the years. I'm not sorry at all, not one bit.

In high school, I ran for an elected office every year. I ran for 9th grade class President and accepted the loss because I was the new kid. I ran for 10th grade class President and would've coasted through, except 2 kids I asked to sign my petition decided to run and one of them won. I ran for 11th grade class President and lost because (sadly) my competition's mom died in a car accident shortly before the elections (it was later determined she committed suicide by purposefully driving into oncoming traffic). Every year I ran for an office and lost, I always thought to myself, if they made us debate, if they let me give a speech, I would win. The only offices that required speeches were student council President and Vice-President so I ran for one.

The students I was running against were all relatively popular and all had a VERY good chance of winning. Somehow, it broke down so that there were 3 guys running for President and 3 girls running for VP. 2 weeks before the election, 2 of the guys and 2 of the girls paired up and decided to "run together" (this had never happened before). I suddenly wasn't just competing against 2 other girls who I figured I was comparable with in terms of popularity but I was ALSO competing against 2 guys who were very popular and I had to figure out what to do about being automatically associated with the 3rd guy who -- bless his heart -- just wasn't going to win.

The week of the elections, one set of nominees showed up to school with water bottles and the other set, frisbees. Each item had the names of the respective team on them. That had never been done before either and I had nothing to fight back with. I had neither the money or the time to produce such a gimmick. I'll never forget my then-best friend looking me in the eye and saying, "I don't think you're going to win..." (in hindsight, she was a hater and let her insecurities leak out into my space). I realized then that I had only one shot to win this thing and that was with my speech. I had always intended to make it a bangin' speech, but I KNEW I had to put my foot in it.

I incorporated both of the shocking developments -- the "teaming up" and the frisbees and water bottles -- into my speech. I took 2 deep breaths at the podium and then lit it up. If I had known who Barack Obama was, at that time, I'm sure I would've later compared it to his rhetoric abilities (in my hubris). My fellow students applauded and since I was the last speech, the special assembly let out and the voting began.

Voting continued all day and I tried not to think about it. That night, I anxiously awaited a phone call from the then-Student Council president letting me know I had won but it never came. I showed up to school the next day hoping that I had at least gotten a significant number of votes and preparing myself to run for 12th grade class president. As I walked towards our student center, I noticed people smiling at me and then my fellow classmates began congratulating me. "What?" I thought. I turned on my heels and headed to the library. I checked my e-mail and the daily announcements were congratulating me! I had won!

I can tell you that whatever it is I would gain by altering the way I speak (as some people I know do regularly) it doesn't compare to what I know I've gained by speaking well. Oh and don't get it twisted -- I can code switch with the best of them, but I'm not permanently altering the way I speak just because speaking well makes some people uncomfortable.

So -- apologizing for using proper English? We off that.

Tomorrow: Never apologize for giving your best in a relationship that just didn't work out.


Akirah said...

Amen, girl! I've been told I sound white so many times and I'm sick of it. I am who I am, I speak how I speak, and I like what I like. And that's that.

A.Smith said...

It get's annoying after a while. Like... STFU with that already. I think anyone who's still accusing people of acting white makes themselves look extra stupid.

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Oh wow, I loved that story! Wish I could've heard your speech.

I know what you mean about the "acting white" tag often given to blacks by other blacks who speak proper English. It's bad enough when some whites act amazed that you're literate.

As for me, I love language, and feel no need to speak proper all the time. I learned a lot from Mark Twain and George Carlin about how it's used in class warfare. I switch up a lot in how I speak and write, depending on the combination of my mood, the topic, and the audience, and never apologize for it. I will, however, not use colorful naughty words around people who are offended by that out of respect for their space.

A.Smith said...


I happened upon that speech about a year ago on my mom's computer. I chucked as I read it to myself thinking about that whole situation. I think it's long gone now, though -- she got a new computer. :(

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