Do White Folks Fear Violence When Black Folks Are Just Being Blunt?

A “confrontational cadence” can be familiar in black English, but it might also feed the sense among others that young black men are always about to “go off.”

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Why is it that black men, in particular, often sound so edgy when they’re just talking? Some have analyzed this as a general trait of African-descended people, and it is true that Caribbeans, in particular, will notice certain parallels.

But I also think of causes more local. For a people whose history has been so confrontational, maybe it isn’t surprising that their speech reflects it. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take on black male edginess is relevant here.

Also, after a while a culture just has a “grammar” because each generation learns from the previous one. It doesn’t have to be because of any outside factor. Some cultures happen not to talk much at all. Some happen to encourage interruption. In black American culture, mock anger may now just happen to be a key ingredient of communication.

It gets a lot done—but it may feed into the idea that black men are always about to “go off.”

I think more Americans should understand this, and we will do ourselves no favors by burying the topic under overwrought concerns about stereotyping.

If we can talk about it honestly, maybe some nonblack Americans will be able to hear black voices in a different way.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

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