The Ebonics Game, by Kimberley Jane Wilson

One of my high school teachers back in the day desperately wanted his students to like him. Although our parents paid good money for us to be taught a prescribed curriculum, this teacher frequently chose to do his own thing.

For example, on most days we got a free-flowing “rap session” instead of science as he spouted off his largely uninformed opinions on politics, religion, dating and whatever else happened to be in the newspapers. He often tried to use the same slang we kids were using, and most of us thought he was a fool.

My silly high school teacher came to mind when I read that the San Bernardino City Unified School District last year toyed with the idea of incorporating Ebonics into its reading curriculum. It eventually decided not to, but – like the monster in a slasher flick – this stupid idea refuses to die.

Ebonics must be a tempting concept. Instead of taking responsibility for and trying to improve academic underachievement, school administrators, teachers and parents are given a free pass by the Ebonics movement. Any teacher can claim, “Hey, it’s not my fault your kids can’t read! I need to be trained to speak their language.” Parents can say, “Hey, it’s not my fault my kids can’t pass an English exam. The school isn’t addressing their unique language needs.”

Ebonics isn’t a language like Japanese or Aramaic. It’s just highly colorful slang used mostly by young people. Black teenagers of this generation don’t speak the way I did when I was a teen, and I certainly didn’t speak the way my parents spoke when they were young.

The expression “fo’ shizzle,” for example, didn’t exist 40 years ago. Thirty years ago, if you called a black man a dog (pronounced “dawg”), you would’ve been visiting a dentist and possibly a surgeon afterwards. Now, it’s a term of admiration rather than an insult.

When my dad was 15, he used “coolcat” the way my nephew now uses “straight-up soldier” (pronounced “so-jah”). My parents used to go to the “hop” while I used to hit the go-go and my white friends attended raves. In other words, we all went to dances. Slang is like a spinning wheel. The minute the old folks catch on to what the kids are saying, the kids start using different terms.

The study of how slang constantly changes and evolves and how dialects are born, flourish and die is fascinating if you happen to be an English or history major, but we’re not talking about a college linguistics course here. Instead, we’re talking about teachers humiliating themselves trying to “get down” with the kids, and children are being robbed of a useful education.

I once watched two black teenagers apply for jobs at the restaurant where I was having lunch. Both of the boys had obviously just finished playing basketball and were covered in sweat – a huge strike against them in my book. But the real killing blow came when they began talking to the manager. Although obviously American, their English was poor. They were speaking loud enough to attract glances from the restaurant’s patrons, but I could barely understand what they were saying.

The manager kept a neutral facial expression as the pair filled out application. He wished them a good day as they left. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I doubt they were hired. The inability to speak proper English may have done wonders for those boys’ self-esteem, but I’m sure it didn’t help them get an honest job.

The Ebonics movement is based on two things. First, it is based on the quiet, well-intentioned kind of racism that assumes black people are too dumb and too crippled by the slavery of our long-dead ancestors to function like everyone else. It also thrives on intellectual laziness – a laziness on the part of those people, including teachers, who promote Ebonics.

Teaching is hard and sometimes unpleasant work. The Ebonics movement allows everyone to feel good and look busy while doing nothing.

Whites involved in promoting Ebonics get to feel smug and virtuous. Blacks get to feel like they’ve done their part to combat “racism.” The kids, however, end up unprepared for the real world and will one day receive diplomas as worthless as Ebonics itself.

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Kimberley Jane Wilson is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and a freelance writer in Northern Virginia. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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