Speaking “White” AAVE & Black Hair Politics
Hello, I’m writing a web series based on the Sherlock Holmes series, but the main character is a black teen girl called Shirley Holmes. Her older sister Malin is also an important character, and as a white person, I just wonder if I’m overstepping the line when it comes to certain things. Her character doesn’t revolve around her race (she has goals, hobbies, a past, a family, strengths, weakness, etc. that are unrelated) but I might be commenting on her blackness and how she sees it?
Shirley wears her hair natural & uses some AAVE grammar and words. But Malin works in government – she’s working towards becoming prime minister someday – and straightens her hair and speaks like a very white Canadian. Even though none of the scripts directly comment on this, it’s mainly just a costume/dialogue choice, I feel like I might be inadvertently saying that if you’re black and working in government, you have to conform to these racist ideals, or I’m judging her for conforming to them despite the fact that my people are the ones who created anti-black standards in the first place?
I don’t know, I’m thinking of cutting these details out, but do you think I should take a different approach and directly comment on some double standards?
There is no such thing as “speaking white.” Whiteness is unfairly attributed as the neutral dialect with prescriptive grammar. Just because she speaks in the dialect of her population’s majority doesn’t mean she is speaking in a “white” way.
“Why do you speak/sound so white?” is a way White and non-white people alike have tried to scrub away at PoC’s identities, discrediting them as x race for not conforming to what they assume we should all sound like. At the same time, it applies they’re not really American, Canadian, or whatever it may be since this way of speaking is owed by White Westerners, apparently. You perpetuate this micro-aggression in the language of your ask, so I felt the need to address it.
Personally, as a Black American, I speak in the majority dialect of my Midwestern area, but I also speak AAVE at times when i’m with sisters, and fellow Black friends and family. This is called code-switching and it’s natural for everyone. You don’t speak the same way you do with your boss as you do with your mother, best friend, or crush. Depending on the relationship or environment, the language changes.
Malin isn’t necessarily conforming when she speaks the major Canadian dialect at work. Most people’s language would switch from casual to professional in a work setting anyhow. It could potentially be a more drastic change depending on how often she speaks AAVE in personal settings, but I don’t see these changes as being self-denying. Sadly, It’s called keeping a job in so many cases. Prescriptive grammar and language is expected in certain work settings, especially public, government and political ones. But hey, this may not be far off from how she speaks outside of work anyhow.
Like for me, majority of the time I speak the major dialect. That’s just how I was raised and the language I was taught and surrounded by at school in the suburbs, and in my father’s home. However, majority of elementary school was spent in the city where AAVE was spoken more, and appeared in my mother’s side of the family, in her home, and so on. My language is not a constant stream of AAVE in this X setting nor a constant stream of the Queen’s English in that setting. It’s a mix of both as I’ve grown up using both. And that’s just who I am, and many other Black people in America!
As for Malin’s straightened hair; does she feel the need to straighten her hair for work? Sometimes people just prefer to keep their hair straight. It isn’t always that deep. But if she does have a reason for it, such as feeling her natural hair is going to hold her back from reaching prime minister, address that. This is a legitimate concern that doesn’t make her a bad person; look at how much afro hair is demonized in society. Sometimes straightening one’s hair is about survival, back then and now. Black people have gotten fired, suspended and expelled for having locs and afros, or for refusing to straighten or cut said hair. I’d just read somewhere how Michelle Obama would not be nearly as successful or respected if she wore her hair naturally curly. That can’t be too far from the truth from the way even her children were called “unfit to represent America” when they had twists in. Children! Source + a useful article: Black Hair, Still Tangled in Politics.
You need to do more base research on writing Black characters to avoid harmful portrayals and language against us. I’d pursue our “Black” tags, research and resources pages.
And now for Lesya, who can give a Canadian perspective!
With how the Canadian government basically requires a university degree unless you’re working in the advertising department, and even then I’m not 100% sure a university degree isn’t required, her speaking like anything other than university attending individual would be eyebrow raising. There’s natural code switching, as Colette said, and so many people have a “work voice” that it would make sense from that perspective.
Honestly I’m not sure the percentage of AAVE in Canada, so I would be careful about just throwing it in the story under the assumption all Black people in North America speak AAVE in their communities. While I’m sure you know Canada is different from the US, I would very very very specifically look at black Canadian history to find out what the culture is like up here. From a quick wikipedia, a decent chunk of our Black individuals have Caribbean origins, so take that into account.
I would strongly suggest looking at the paths people like Michaëlle Jean, Rosemary Brown, and Leona Aglukkaq, who all reached very high levels of government. While Leona Aglukkaq is Inuit, there would be a certain amount of overlap in the general principle. I would also take a look at Viola Desmond, whose story highlights Canada’s relationship with segregation. We’ve done a very good job sweeping that under the rug.
Honestly, this looks very… American based. Which I get, because most social justice is from an American perspective therefore most knowledge of racial issues will be from that perspective, but something about it doesn’t jive with me. Part of this is because I am Native, not Black. But from the study of Canadian racism I’ve found, it tends to take on different forms here.
Canada’s racial history is much different from American racial history, so the relationships Black individuals have with their Blackness is likely going to be similarly different. We have our segregation rules, and we have our unofficial methods, but between the heritage differences and how there was less physical violence, there’s going to be some dynamic changes.
Just something to keep in mind as you research. Most Black issues that get publicized are American issues, and they are very important to cover, but I wouldn’t transplant the racial environment of one country to a different one. Look up Black Canadian issues specifically, and tell their story instead of a Black American story.
~ Mod Lesya