The One Phrase You Should *Probably* Stop Saying to BIPOC
“You speak so well.”
Newsflash: This is not a compliment, and it can have harmful and problematic connotations. Follow-up thoughts like, “Why are you speaking ‘white’?” or “You don’t act/talk like ‘them’” perpetuate this racist dialogue even more. So why are BIPOC (aka Black, Indigenous and People of Color) tired of hearing this? Here’s everything you need to know.
A super short history lesson about African American English
We can’t talk about how problematic this phrase is without breaking down what it means to “speak so well.” So, we have to start with why some believe “speaking Black” is “bad” vs. “speaking white” is “good.”
So, what exactly is “speaking Black”? Well, it’s actually its own dialect. Ebonics, otherwise known as “black speech” was coined in 1973 by Black scholars who sought to give the complex language—which has its own distinct rules and grammar—a name and remove negative and racist connotations associated with it. Now, known more widely as African American English (AAE), linguists believe this dialect evolved from slavery and segregation and became a way to communicate, connect and express oneself.
Long story short: Despite the fact that AAE is its own complex dialect, there is a history of non-Black individuals casting it as wrong or bad. From the education system, which discourages students from talking in this dialect (with fear that they won’t be able to communicate “correctly” in the future) to the music industry, which has repeatedly written off hip-hop despite its massive contributions to pop aesthetics and sounds—take Billie Eilish’s misplaced critique of rap artists in her Vogue cover story—AAE is wrongly equated to mean that the person speaking it—if they happen to BIPOC (we’ll get to that…)—is poor, dangerous and/or uneducated.
But not all Black people use AAE
Spoiler alert: Not all Black people use AAE, and not everyone that speaks AAE is Black. So, a discussion about language that is based solely on race is just straight-up wrong. Saying so just creates more misperceptions and prejudice remarks.
All Def, a media company that specializes in comedy, hip-hop, poetry and social justice, put the “speaking white” to the test in a YouTube series called Is “Talking White” Really A Thing? where the hosts put on blindfolds and listened to people’s voice to determine if they were white or not. They were shocked to see some of their predictions were off and how they relied on how a person spoke to figure out their race.
When people assume that an entire social group talks in a specific way, it makes those who don't feel like they are outsiders (or in some cases “sellouts” within their own communities). Just think of the phrase, “You don’t act/speak like them,” which ropes Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx or other people of color into categories they might actually not identify with. This can lead to harmful impacts of identity crisis, isolation and mental health issues.
I remember the first time Iggy Azalea accepted an award and forgot her blaccent.? George M Johnson (@IamGMJohnson) October 8, 2018
Folk love playing pretend in our culture https://t.co/ytHs1pgSlX
The Blaccent Controversy
Blaccent—essentially a “black accent” adopted by non-Black people—is a newer term that has sparked controversy and turned AAE into a machine for profit, popularity or stereotyping. The act has been viewed as “verbal Blackface” because it mimics how people perceive all Black people talk yet can also award the non-Black speaker for the exact thing that Black people are punished for.
Take celebrities like Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea and Awkwafina who have been called out for using a Blaccent for monetary gain and popularity. They’ve been known for switching back and forth from “speaking Black” to using their regular voices, especially when it comes to who they’re interacting with or performing for. For example, The Washington Post published a deep dive into how Azalea uses a Blaccent for her musical persona.ß
This double standard goes beyond major celebrity, though. In everyday conversation, when a non-Black person uses words like “lit,” “yas” and other terms that originated in Black communities, it’s viewed as cool and edgy. If brands and influencers use this language, it’s a-OK, because they need to grow their following, gain profit and spark humor. So why is it unprofessional when Black people use the words and language they created? Well, it’s not.
OK, so why is “You speak so well” so harmful?
When you say “you speak so well,” you’re saying anything other than “proper English” spoken by a BIPOC individual is unprofessional, uneducated or ghetto. The phrase is also condensing especially when, often, you’re complimenting a grown adult on something they’ve done their entire life. It’s almost like you’re undermining a person’s intelligence and entire personal history based on how they pronounce words, use grammar or communicate to make you feel comfortable.
And, let’s really be honest here, when have you ever told a white person they speak so well?
But what about codeswitching? Isn’t it just like Blaccent?
Short answer: no. While Blaccent is used for profit and popularity, codeswitching is a survival tactic. BIPOC use codeswitching to feel comfortable in certain settings and to avoid future microaggressions. The last thing a BIPOC individual wants to feel is singled out and treated like other. They aren’t using it to boast their careers or ridicule a language.
So what should I say instead?
Just don’t say anything. Don’t criticize, correct or applaud someone for how they speak. Talking properly shouldn’t equal to “talking white,” just as “talking Black” shouldn’t be looked down upon. And if you’re on the other end of the situation, don’t ever let anyone force you to sound a certain way to appease what they want you to be.