YOUTUBE

In the aftermath of the Michael Dunn verdict, we’re talking again about how Americans process black boys as inherently violent. And they do.

Yet in an honest, and perhaps more productive, discussion of this topic, we have to allow something uncomfortable—the possibility that language plays a part in the stereotype. To whites, I highly suspect that often, black boys and men have a way of sounding violent.

Without meaning to, though, which makes it all harder to grapple with. Here’s an example:

Advertisement

The other day on the subway I heard two black men in their 30s talking about a misunderstanding that one of them had had at work that day. They were just unwinding after a long day, and yet there was what many might process as a tinge of impending battle in their voices, inflections and gestures. "Man, I wanted to ‘Mmmph!’ [jab of the arm, click of the tongue] Gimme a break! An' I was like … [putting on a challenging glare] don’t even start.”

And these were perfectly normal guys having a conversation, which, between black men, was perfectly normal in its tone. No black listener would assume these guys actually meant the hints at violence literally. To us, this way of talking just sounds like two guys letting off steam.

However, outside listeners can hear this way of talking as edgy. Men talking this way can sound like they’re about to start something. The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh once came up with a perfect term for this, in the context of writing about rap music and lyrics: a certain “confrontational cadence.”

Sponsored

Yes, trash-talking knows no race. But two equivalent white men talking about the same kind of thing are much less likely to have that particular confrontational cadence than black ones. This way of talking is more deeply seated in black culture, and researchers—sympathetic black academics—have documented it. An article by CUNY’s Arthur Spears, one of the deans of the study of black English, is a useful survey of what he terms black American "directness" in discourse.

“Speech,” Spears writes, “that may appear to outsiders to be abusive or insulting is not necessarily intended to be nor is it taken that way by audiences and addressees.” To grow up black is to know this subconsciously. The tone extends beyond men talking to one another. Spears quotes a father-child exchange: Father: "Go to bed!" Little boy: "Aw, Daddy, we’re playing dominoes." Father: "I’m gonna domino your ass if you don’t go to bed now."

No black person would read this as an actual physical threat, but notice that it doesn’t translate gracefully into “white,” where it might be (try to imagine somebody saying that on Modern Family). Nor would “fussin’ ” between women, or rituals such as capping and playing the dozens. There is a theatrical kind of grouchiness to all of this, paralleled by jokes such as Eddie Murphy’s routine about the mother throwing the shoe in Delirious, and even the in-group use of an abusive slur like the n-word.

However, if outsiders hearing it don’t get the joke and wonder whether black people, especially boys, are feisty souls, then the problem is less racism than an intercultural misinterpretation.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.