Racing the Voice: U.S. Law and the Performance of 'Black' Speech


This essay evaluates the law as part of a system of racialization, a system that both regulates and produces race. It focuses on the project of speech, and explores the ways in which the elemental signifiers of race are physiologically transferred from the body to the voice, from variant physical signs to oral/aural markers through two key, legal moments in the United States over the past thirty years, both involving methods of teaching “Standard English” in the American public school system.

The way in which we speak reflects self, personhood, identity.
To tell people they cannot express themselves in the way
that comes naturally to them is to tell them they cannot speak. [1]
Mari Matsuda

We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs
In dis howlin' wildaness,
Fu' to speak some words of comfo't
To each othah in distress. [2]
Paul Laurence Dunbar


This essay evaluates the law as part of a system of racialization, a system that both regulates and produces race. As the scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant write, "racial formation" is a process of "historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized" and through the process of racial formation we witness "the evolution of hegemony." [3] Following Winant and Omi, this project also views racialization as a formative process that is dependent on the social and political moment.

I focus on the project of speech, and explore the ways in which the elemental signifiers of race are physiologically transferred from the body to the voice, from variant physical signs to oral/aural markers through two key legal moments in the United States over the past thirty years. Both of these instances start as debates about language in the schools and signify an effort to make "illegitimate speech" newly legible. The first is the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children's suit against the Ann Arbor, Michigan school board (1978-1979), a precursor to later debates over the validity of speech deemed black, often referred to as "Black English." The second is the Oakland County School Board's Ebonics resolution (1996), which exploded from a state issue to a national debate. Through my analysis of these two moments, I argue that the way we speak and the way we hear speech is central to how we structure and identify race. In the process I reveal the discrepancies and ironies in "color-blind" legislation, which asserts sameness by omitting the acknowledgment of difference. Legislation, I argue, produces certain kinds of speech as "black" or "white" by legitimizing certain voices while silencing others. I approach this analysis through a lens that considers language and identity intrinsically connected, and perceives the voice as a critical outlet for expression of the self. This idea departs from traditional race theorists' reliance on ethnicity, nationality, and class as primary signifiers of race. My hope is that by exposing political maneuvers that reinstate preexisting systems of dominance we can find a new way to consider the legibility of the individual.

Using Anna Deavere Smith's performance of Fires in the Mirror, a documentary solo performance about the 1991 Crown Heights riots, I will unpack the ways in which she views the connection between language and identity to illustrate that race can be found in the aural and the oral. The conversation between Smith's work, the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School case, and the Oakland Resolution will reveal how a strategic relationship between language, legitimacy, and the law produces conceptions of race.[4]


Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States' legal system grappled with how to legislate individuals it perceived as non-white. The crux of the courts' difficulty lay in how to define what constituted whiteness, and therefore also how to define those that fell outside these "white" parameters. The developing of these definitions was a reaction to the increasing immigrant populations and the emancipation of slaves, and the act of defining race instigated a series of attempts to legally fortify it through semantically constructed, categorical hierarchies.

The formative cases on defining race in the United States became knows as the "race pre-requisite" cases. Beginning in the 1800s, these cases famously drew on theories from science, history, and anthropology to develop tests that would determine the race of individuals wanting citizenship. Since citizenship was contingent on being "white," the courts used and changed these tests in hopes of finding a static device that would verify the defendant's race. The pre-requisite trials evidence this quest for a stable definition through a linear, bound approach to racial analysis.

The processes of the court required either/or codification: one could never straddle two categories regardless of her singular or mixed lineage.[5] In the first race pre-requisite cases, color, history, and lineage factored into the categorical assignment of race. For example, in the case U.S. v. Dolla (1910), a man of Indian descent was asked to lift up his shirt to reveal his skin. Determining that his skin was white, and that this whiteness did not conflict with assumptions about his country of descent, the court approved his naturalization.[6] Though the court no longer asks petitioners or defendants to lift up their sleeves, there are still cues that indicate one's race in the purview of the law. This essay focuses on cases that show the markers of race moving away from the body and onto language.

Equal Educational Opportunity

In 1978 fifteen black school children from the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School brought a lawsuit against the Ann Arbor school district with support form the Student Advocacy Center. They petitioned on behalf of equal educational opportunities and argued that the school lacked the resources to help students with learning disabilities caused by economic, cultural, or social "deprivations."[7] The plaintiffs brought to the court's attention that two categories of students were being lumped into the school's disabled education program; on one side there were students with legitimate mental handicaps, while on the other there were students whose poor scoring was a result of social and cultural "disadvantage." The plaintiffs argued that this "disadvantage" was evident in their relation to language: "Plaintiffs assert that as a class of black economically disadvantaged children living in the social isolation of a housing project they speak a vernacular of English, referred to as 'Black English', which is so different from the English commonly spoken in the public schools as to constitute a language barrier which impedes their equal participation in King School's instructional programs."[8] The petitioners wanted the school to establish an additional program that would address the needs of these students.

To support their plea for a remedy, the petitioners claimed, and the court affirmed, that the state school board was in violation of Title 20, United States Code, 1703(f) by not addressing the language barrier. The statute states that:

No State shall deny equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, by…

(f) the failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.

The court ruled in favor of the petitioners, stating that the Ann Arbor School District Board was in violation of Title 20. Accepting the plaintiff's position, Justice Joiner's opinion states that the school board must reconcile these educational discrepancies by helping "teachers of the plaintiff children at King School to identify children speaking 'black English' and the language spoken as a home or community language, and…to use that knowledge in teaching such children how to read standard English."[9]

The transfer of race from body to language is strategically assigned in the plaintiffs' demand for equal education. They claim that what mainly distinguishes these students from their peers is not their color, a category also listed separately from "race" in Title 20, but the way they speak. Their speech is considered particular to their condition, a condition of being linguistically disadvantaged when placed in a non-black environment because of their cultural, class, and economic condition. The plaintiffs do not assert that the school's policies are racist, but rather that the school lacks the faculties to attend to these students' language. When the plaintiffs claim "suspect class" status, a legal classification under which race is highly protected, they base their belonging on these aforementioned conditions rather than on race. Since the basis for the claim is not on race, the court denies the plaintiffs suspect class status.[10] Though the children are all black, this evidentiary condition is ignored in their "suspect class" consideration. Their "blackness" is the elephant in the room.

When Justice Joiner demands that the Ann Arbor school board identify these disadvantaged students, the demand comes in the form of identifying the speakers of "Black English." Their disadvantage is located in their language, which is associated with race, an association made extraordinarily clear by placing "Black" in front of "English." Their race is still considered a disadvantage except in this case language is race. This relationship of disadvantage fortifies a hierarchy of speech, legally placing "Black English" below white English that is disguised by the term "Standard." Of course not all black students will speak the "Black English" referred to in the case, but it is clear in the writing that the speakers will always be black. In the court's maneuver, the body of the child becomes secondary to his voice. He is identified by his speech.

For the individuals involved in this case, the transfer of race to the voice creates a condition where the students' appearance, that of being black, is not responsible for their disadvantage. Rather, the other variables of their lives which manifest themselves in their speech become the target of disadvantage. This shift primarily affects the plaintiffs in two ways. Firstly, they benefit from the case in the ways they initially intended: the children are going to get a better, more attentive education by having extra government funding invested in their schooling, and therefore will be removed from classes aimed at handicapped children. These benefits appear to come to them not on condition of being black, but rather on the need for the school to provide equal opportunities for all students regardless of their class, economic, and cultural backgrounds. Secondly, the case comes to acknowledge "Black English" as a language as written into U.S.C. 1703. Though acknowledged, the case continues the stratification of language that confirms "Black English" as black and situates it inferiorly to Standard English. The court's ruling expresses the need to mend black speakers' disadvantage, their "barrier," by focusing on teaching these speakers the Standard so they can relearn how to speak: "In keeping with the terms of the statute the court holds that the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers of students which impede their equal participation in instructional programs when tied, as alleged, to race allege a violation of 20 U.S.C. § 1703(f)."[11]

As a continuation of Brown v. Board of Education,[12] the pillar case that deemed segregated schooling illegal, this case also purports to fight for access to equal education. The Brown decision confirms the misconception that the separate schooling of black and white children was equal schooling. This case sheds light on some of the results of this decision. In the process of desegregation, education policies and approaches did not change to support all the students: rather, the curricula remained geared to white students. The repercussions of this narrow focus evidence themselves in such maneuvers as lumping speakers of "Black English" into classes for mentally handicapped individuals. This placement reveals the inflexibility of teaching methodologies, which effectively push "non-standard" English speakers to the margins, or worse, out of the classroom. On a small scale, the result of this pushing is a kind of re-segregation based on the racialized voice rather than on the body.

This relocation of race determines a shift in responsibility. Race, as historically connoted, is removed from the scapegoat position: the plaintiffs "do not contend that defendants harbor a racially discriminatory motive for these alleged acts and omissions."[13] The move to the voice is a remedial turn, elevating the plaintiffs from a static position (of being bound to race) to a malleable position (that of a disadvantaged speaker). The focus on speech becomes something "fixable" while if the case remained engaged with the disadvantage of, say, color, then the plaintiffs would remain unchangeable. For our understanding of race, this example performs the conceptual pliability of race. It enacts its nebulous nature in the ways in which it can strategically be placed on, taken off, and moved into the mouths of various bodies.

Oakland, California 1996

The Oakland School Board Ebonics Resolution was formally passed on December 18, 1996. Like the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School case, the stated reason for such a resolution was to address the discrepancy in academic achievement between African-American[14] students and other students in the district. As in the earlier case, the Oakland school board also determined that this differentiation was based on a communication problem. It suggested that these students' poor performances were largely due to the language barrier between their "home" language and the language utilized in the current teaching methodologies. Basing the Resolution on tests conducted by linguists and teachers in other areas of the country, the school board determined that a new approach to teaching African-American students that took into account their language, referred to as Ebonics, and their culture would ultimately make these students more academically competitive.

In the resolution the school board equates speaking Ebonics with being African-American. In the first draft of the resolution they write that the ability to speak Ebonics is linked to genetic inheritance. Unlike certain English as a Second Language (ESL) programs that can have students from differing ethnic background speaking the same first language, the resolution states that Ebonics is spoken only by African-Americans. The resolution contends that the adoption of African-American language principles will help to teach Standard English to "Black English" speakers. The Ebonics resolution eventually achieved part of its stated goal of developing government funded programs that employed Ebonics in the curriculum.

The use of the term "Ebonics" symbolizes the Oakland Resolution's transfer of race from the students' body to the voice. Developed by a group of black scholars in 1973, the term "Ebonics" attempts to shift the perception of "Black English" in two ways.[15] "Ebonics" refers to a unique, legitimate language that is not a derivation (or bastardization) of English, which the "Black" in front of "English" implies. Secondly, the "ebony" prefix of "Ebonics" announces a prideful position, unstigmatized by a history of subjugation and inferiority. "Ebony" connotes beauty and strength unmarred by the historical weight that the term "Black" bears. "Ebony" is self-assigned, while "Black" was first a given title.[16] The use of "phonics" as the root of "Ebonics" infers a scientific, rational relation to sound. Therefore the totality of the name denotes a unique and valid language that is not a sub-par derivative of English. This switch from "Black English" to "Ebonics" enacts a move away from "blackness" as a visual stigma, and a move towards linguistic legitimization instigated from the "inside."

For the individuals involved in and affected by the resolution, this transition changes their perception of black inferiority by linking these students' learning disadvantage to improper teaching as opposed to improper language skills. Contrary to precedence, the school must change to accommodate these children rather than the children having to accommodate the school's standard teaching. Through teaching methods based on Ebonics theory, these students will learn Standard English as another language, thus reaffirming their own way of speaking without challenging it as right or wrong. This reforms "Black English" from slang into a valid language. "Ebonics" becomes legitimated, removing the element of shame prefigured onto "Black English."

Theresa Perry, an African-American language scholar and a proponent of Ebonics, writes that "Black Language is the last uncontested arena of Black shame."[17] She suggests that the liberation of "Ebonics" from its indexical relationship to poverty, laziness, and ignorance will end "Black shame." In this assertion, the liberation from the shame of speaking "Black" would be the removal of the shame of being black. She asserts that this legitimization will alter the way the world perceives blackness, alleviating it from its formerly stigmatized position and ascribing it with a new value.

The Oakland resolution and its repercussions continue the precedent set by Brown v. Board of Education that demands equal education. Unlike the Brown decision, the resolution implies that re-segregation might be a necessary step towards equal education if an integrated setting disadvantages Ebonics speakers, who according to the terms of the resolution are all African-American. Both the Oakland resolution and Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School v. Ann Arbor School District highlight the bias of integrated educational policy. Though integrated, the teaching methods in the schools are mostly geared towards and created for white students even though they claim to be neutrally based. "Neutrality" becomes synonymous with majoritarian wants, and merely fashions an illusion of objectivity. As the critical race scholar Ian Lopez points out, the law that imagines neutrality as white must bend to accommodate this "other" through a veil of objectivity and neutrality.[18] This imagining demands that those outside of the majoritarian frame, those that are considered "other," conform to it in order to succeed. The Ebonics resolution tries to break this tradition.

Hearing Oakland

During the 1997 special Senate hearing on Ebonics before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations held in Washington, D.C., Reverend Amos C. Brown, a proponent of Ebonics, spoke about issues of fluency and transitivity in being African-American.[19] In his testimony Reverend Brown discusses the necessity of bilinguality. He recounts the condition of two-ness that is part of the struggle of being black in/and America(n). Using Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example, Brown encourages a fluency in this two-ness. Brown writes, "And in the words of W.E.B. DeBoise[sic], he was trained to see reality through two eyes, through our twoness, and I think that is what we have got to enable our young people to do to function in this country, have the currency and the facility to function, and we need to do that in a holistic way."[20]

Following the philosophy of Ebonics education, Brown's holistic approach does not valorize speaking "Black English" among non-speakers, but rather encourages pride in "speaking Black" that must first be generated within the black community. With that pride, he suggests that one should learn fluency in Standard, "white" English so that one's thoughts can reach beyond the insularity of the black community. Brown's approach both reveals the dichotomous existence of being "black" in America, and his attempt to appropriate this two-ness into a positive attribute. As opposed to the dominant group that is versed in one language and one culture, black individuals have two: two ways to see and be seen, two ways to hear and be heard, and two ways to speak. Those on the margin can exist in multiple spheres, permeating the boundaries that confine the majority with a fluency that only those on the margin can possess.

On the opposition's side at the Senate Hearing, Senator Larry E. Craig spoke on the benefits and necessities of having one, "official" language in the United States. His argument, one that is also used to support English Only legislation,[21] argues that a nation that speaks multiple languages will be a divided nation. His argument implicates not only speakers of non-Standard English, but anyone who speaks languages other than English. He associates a common language with unity, insisting that having multiple languages in schools will cement the already existing separation between individuals from different backgrounds. From his perspective, Standard English is the model language. He does not connect the standardization of English to the standardization of the English speaking body. He refuses to see how this demand of sameness requires an acculturation to an American ideal at the expense of one's own heritage and customs.[22] The legislating of language idealizes a kind of imaginary citizen who not only speaks this language, but embodies all its implications.

Reverend Brown's and Senator Craig's testimonies and the conversations and legal battles sprouting up around the Oakland resolution challenge our understanding of race by using language to stand in for race. Ebonics is not only a language; it is also a professed cultural expression. Therefore, the legitimization of Ebonics through legislation simultaneously legitimates African-American-ness. I would argue that this legitimating of African-American-ness is actually the heart of the resolution. Ebonics subsumes all dialects of "Black English" into one language, revealing its own politics. Though claiming to represent a unique language, under Ebonics all black dialects are legitimated. Therefore the focus is on validating African-American voices, regardless of their language.

Hearing Aids

The Oakland resolution became fodder for television talk shows, radio shows, comedians, magazines, and newspapers. The media went into an anti-Ebonics blitzkrieg while scholars across multiple disciplines responded to the resolution. In this media frenzy, the stigma affiliated to "Black English" became grossly apparent. Ebonics became the butt of numerous jokes, deflating its complexity into curse words and street slang. Misconstruing the Oakland resolution, numerous media personalities were up in arms about teaching Ebonics to students. Fantasy classrooms were inscribed with language lessons that considered the butchering of Standard English as Ebonics. On one Ebonics joke site, the gag is framed around "Leroy's" vocabulary test. When asked to write a sentence with the word "Disappointment," Leroy writes: "My parole officer tol me if I miss disappointment they gonna send me back to jail."[23]

These Ebonics jokes reveal a fear that through the legitimacy of Ebonics, Standard English will lose its status. Through their derogatory nature, these reactions reveal a desperate clinging to the current social structure. Pinning "Black English" onto criminals and indigents refuses to acknowledge the beauty and poetic possibilities of non-Standard English as represented by Paul Laurence Dunbar in the epitaph. Additionally, these jokes play on the most offensive, racist black stereotypes, yet go largely uncontested as racist jokes. Since the attacks are directed at Ebonics, the individual body is seemingly guarded from the assault. Therefore, the jokes can continue under the guise of neutrality. But the body never disappears behind language; language is the body. An assault on Ebonics is an assault on the speaker.

"Working On" the Word

The performer, actor, and author, Anna Deavere Smith, generates theatrical work that walks along the critical bridge between the individual and the individual's voice. Smith's project sheds light on the interconnectedness between speech and race—on what I would call the orality/aurality of race. Often quoting her grandfather's mantra, "If you say a word often enough it becomes you," Smith's project catalyzes her audience to rethink how the uttering of words and race are connected. For Smith the "word" is integral to identity; the "word" is you. In light of the debates surrounding Ebonics legislation, this theory supports arguments that illegitimating a group's speech illegitimates the speakers as well. Therefore, when speech is racialized so are the speakers.[24]

Smith's professed artistic project is a quest to learn about people through their language. She defines language not only as words, but as the pauses, the sighs, and all the personal embellishments that surround the words to make them uniquely expressive. To her, one's articulation of speech is as singular and identificatory as a fingerprint. She founds her work on the belief that the essence of an individual is accessed through the expression of his speech. One's means of speaking creates the body of the speaker. His pauses, breaths, and inflections all cause bodily fluxes that inform how he is perceived. In her quest to know, Smith attempts to say her interviewees' words "often enough" in hopes not of becoming her interviewees, but of being able to perform their uniqueness.

Smith's performance of Fires in the Mirror illustrates the inextricable dependency of individuality on language.[25] In 1991 Smith conducted a series of interviews of Hasidim and blacks within the Crown Heights community after riots broke out between the two groups. The tensions within the community had been progressively getting worse, but when a car in the Lubavitcher Grand Rebbe's caravan veered off course, hitting and killing a seven-year-old black child, Gavin Cato, the tensions came to a head. Angered by the incident, a group of black Crown Heights residents retaliated by attacking and killing a visiting Hasidic history professor, Yankel Rosenbaum. These two incidents sparked racially fueled riots in the neighborhood. Smith's interviews record many sides of the story, offering an alternative to polarized accounts that were as seemingly black and white as the interviewees. Less then a year after these riots, Smith performed these interviews onstage, inviting her interviewees and members from all communities to attend.

Smith's performance process begins with going into the community and recording interviews. She listens to the interview over and over until she can repeat the words and all the moments between them. She allows these words to act upon her, letting them cue how her body relates to the language: the cadence, accents, breath, and volume of her interviewees' speech helps determine her posture and her gestures. She then performs parts of these interviews, costuming herself to resemble her interviewee. Her performance of Fires in the Mirror garnered much criticism for her depictions, accusing Smith of acting caricatures rather than people. These critiques are often truncated because they express disappointment when Smith does not visibly become her interviewees. They see this as a failure of her performance even though Smith does not promise to physically morph into her interviewees. Smith places more emphasis on the voice, using her own to channel the voices of her interviewees. Smith has talked about herself as a vessel, a conduit through which other voices speak.[26] In her process the body of the interviewee separates from the voice, and she uses her own body to replace her interviewee's. It is not a matter of becoming the interviewee, but rather of providing an "other" body through which the interviewee speaks. She does not claim oneness with her interviewees, but rather celebrates the gap that her performance highlights between herself and the interviewee. For instance, when we see and hear Smith perform the Lubavitcher Rabbi Shea Hecht Ovens our sense of her is challenged. Underneath the yarmulke, the tzitses, the accent, and the words is Smith. Yet, this character is always also not Smith. Our sensory discernment of Smith as black female performer is confronted by her appearance and sounding like a white, male rabbi. The aforementioned gap is the impossibility of the collapse between Smith and the interviewee; it is the clear space in which she hopes we can get a glimpse of both. The gap is not Smith's failure, but is a productive space where the audience can examine how they sonically discern identity and race.

Sometimes the drastically different individuals seen in the gap makes audiences uncomfortable. One reason for this discomfort could be that Smith is a black woman on stage performing black characters. Another reason could be that Smith is a black woman on stage performing white characters. In the former, Smith performs individuals who infrequently make appearances on the theatrical stage. It is abnormal to hear various kinds of black voices non-fictionally represented in the theater, especially when the voices are all coming from one body. Because this site/sight of the many differing black voices channeled through Smith is not the norm it can be frightening and uncomfortable. Just as the jokes responding to Ebonics reflects uneasiness and fear about hearing marginalized voices legitimated, the responses to Smith's performances echo a similar discomfort:

Those in the margins are always trying to get to the center, and those at the center, frequently in the name of tradition, are trying to keep the margins at a distance. Part of the identity of a place is the tension between those in the margins, and those at the center.[27]

Critics call Ebonics slang and Smith's work caricature because validating them requires a shift in the social paradigm. It is easier to dismiss them as jokes than to consider them as real instigators for change.

Perhaps more challenging for audiences is the latter case, Smith's performance of her white and Jewish interviewees. Though Smith argues that she is not performing whiteness or blackness, but rather individuals, critics default to accusations of minstrelsy. These responses to her cross-racial verbalizations highlight the difficulty in hearing beyond the body. We expect to hear certain voices coming from particular bodies, and any kind of disassociation from these expectations makes us pause. Hearing her sound like a white, Hasidic woman while seeing her only resembling one creates unease which quickly slips into accusations of caricaturing as if Smith was performing in white face. (If Smith's project was a radio play and we never saw her body, I believe there would be less criticism of her work because there would not be a body against which we could juxtapose these voices.) By making her body present in the work, Smith performs a more radical act. Since her body stays the same, (there is only one Smith), yet we see and hear a whole range of individuals from various backgrounds, Smith's project enacts the critical expression of individuality through the voice.

Smith's solo performance stages multiplicity through both her "failure" to seal the "gap" between herself and her interviewee and her success in recreating her interviewees on stage. Her inability to "become" them, yet her understanding of them through her oral performance, points to their individuality as inhabited through voicing rather than through visual appearance. Smith writes: "The Black people didn't all come from one place, and neither do the Hasidim. One looks closely and one sees that not every hat is the same kind of black hat and not every yarmulke is the same kind of yarmulke. Multiple languages are being spoken."[28]

Fires in the Mirror speaks back to the legislation of "Black English" in numerous ways. In the political realm, Smith's embodiments give voices previously denied an audience access to the public stage, just as the placing of Ebonics on equal footing to Standard English attempts to give voice to marginalized speech. More importantly for this project, Smith's performance demonstrates how intrinsically connected the voice is to identity. She shows that it is not only what we say that gives clues to who we are, but how we say it. Smith's project relies on this dictum because the voice is her primary conduit for all these individuals. Smith does not put on white makeup to depict a white woman. She merely has to speak in the inflections of her white interviewee, and we, the audience, know who she is performing without ever seeing a picture. The "race" of the individual is not revealed in makeup, in a literal coloring, but rather through Smith's voice.

The Ending

The way one speaks tells a story of the individual. In one's accent and inflections there is an indication of one's history. The critical race theorist Mari Matsuda writes:

Your accent carries the story of who you are—who first held you and talked to you when you were a child, where you have lived, your age, the schools you attended, the languages you know, your ethnicity, whom you admire, your loyalties, your profession, your class position: traces of your life and identity are woven into your pronunciation, your phrasing, your choice of words.[29]

One's inflections, the way one accents her speech, unveils the trajectory of that person's life. If "the story of who you are" is embroidered in the language one uses, then every moment of communication is also an exposure of identity.

The privileging of certain ways of speaking over others also privileges certain identities over others. Matsuda continues to write that, "Your self is inseparable from your accent. Someone who tells you they don't like the way you speak is quite likely telling you that they don't like you."[30] This connection between identity and speech means that the regulation of language privileges certain speakers over others. Legitimacy stands in for affirmation, and literally gives one the power to be heard. When one's speech is legally illegible, it becomes silenced. The solution to multiple languages is not to make them conform to a standard, but rather to embrace their diversity. Just as color-blindness is an illusion at the expense of diversity that sacrifices individuality to imagined neutrality, the enforced standardizing of English reduces the social sound of America to a dull monotone.[31]

Sarah Kozinn is an actor, playwright, and scholar. She is currently a PhD student in Performance Studies at New York University where she was the recipient of the 2005 "Performance Studies Award". She is the author of And I Love You, a one act play that was produced in the American Living Room Series at HERE Art Center in Manhattan and published in the Good Apple Magazine. Her most current work centers on the interplay between pedagogy and performance.

End Notes

  [1] Mari Matsuda, "Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination law, and Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction," Yale Law Journal. 1991: 1329.

  [2] This is the first stanza of an antebellum sermon by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit, eds., The Real Ebonics Debate (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998).

  [3] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (New York: Routledge, 1994) .

  [4] I am intentionally excluding issues over accent discrimination, such as those present in Arizona's "English Only" Article 28, a state article that permits the prevention of speaking any language besides English while at work, in order to devote more time to the condition of race as it is manifest in the speaking of English rather than the relationship of citizenship to language. The case arguing this statute was Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona 520 U.S. 43 (1997).

  [5] In Re Camille (1880) 6 F. 256 is one of the earlier "race" cases that came before the court that dealt with an individual of mixed parentage. In this particular case, the court left him category-less. Rather than considering him white or Native American they say he is neither. I would argue that this "neither" is in the same realm as "other than" white. In other words, the court is really only dealing with two categories: white and not white.

  [6] U.S. v. Dolla 177 F. 101 (1910).

  [7] Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District. (1979) U.S. dist. Lexis 10198 and (1978) 451 F. Supp. 1324.

  [8] (1978) 451 F. Supp. 1329.

  [9] U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10198

  [10] "No law or clause of the Constitution of the United States explicitly secures the right of plaintiffs to special education services to overcome unsatisfactory academic performance based on cultural, social, or economic background. For purposes of an equal protection analysis plaintiffs are not a suspect class. Furthermore, plaintiffs have not identified a fundamental interest which is being infringed by defendants' activities. Education, as important as it may be, has been held not to be a fundamental interest" (451 F. Supp. 1324 (1978).

  [11] 451 F. Supp. 1324 (1978)

  [12] 347 U.S. 483; 74 S. Ct. 686; 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954).

  [13] 347 U.S. 483; 74 S. Ct. 686; 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954).

  [14] I am switching between different terms to identify race to reflect the ways each case used the terms.

  [15] The scholar Geneva Smitherman writes in her article "Black English/Ebonics: What it be Like?" in The Real Ebonics Debate that a group of frustrated, black scholars created the term "Ebonics" at the 1973 "Language and the Urban Child" conference.

  [16] This is not to discount the reappropriation of the term and its use to symbolize strength and power, but rather to point out the original lack of agency in such a titling.

  [17] Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit, eds. The Real Ebonics Debate (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998)

  [18] Ian López, White By Law (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

  [19] United States Senate, Ebonics Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations. 105th Congress, Jan. 23, 1997.

  [20] See footnote 19.

  [21] One of the main cases contesting this English-Only legislation occurred was Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43 (1997).

  [22] In regards to Arizona's "English Only" Article 28, the legal scholar Susan Serrano writes:
By reintroducing this vision of American as racially white, anti-immigrant and anti-racial minority, and by demonizing immigrants and cultivating perceptions of an American culture overrun by hordes of non-white immigrants unable or unwilling to learn English, English Only proponents use Article 28 as a vehicle to determine along racial lines who belongs in American society and who does not. As these examples suggest, blatant racial representations and interpretations of racial dynamics extend racial meaning to Article 28. More difficult to detect are those racialized agendas cloaked in seemingly benign cultural assertions. In those situations, supporters ideologically mean race, but speak in the rhetoric of 'culture.'
She points out that "English Only" legislation cloaks racism in a veil of unity and nationalism. Susan Serrano, "Rethinking Race for Strict Scrutiny Purposes: Yniguez and the Racialization of English Only." Hawaii Law Review. 19: 221, Spring 1997


  [24] Louise Meintjes book Sound of Africa: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio (2003) also explores the ways in which words and sounds inform and construct ethnicity and race. Meintjes looks specifically at the recording studio as a site to examine this performativity of identity.

  [25] Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror (New York: Anchor Books, 1993)

  [26] Carol Martin, "Anna Deavere Smith: The Word Becomes You." TDR, Vol. 37, No. 4; Winter, 1993.

  [27] Smith

  [28] Smith

  [29] Matsuda

  [30] Matsuda

  [31] Robert Post, Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).



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