“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” These words by Toni Morrison perfectly capture the futility of trying to legitimize racially stigmatized linguistic practices, such as Black American Sign Language and African American Vernacular English (AAVE), both of which are stigmatized in the United States. Morrison’s exposition is central to my own analysis, which pinpoints how the linguistic practices of speakers of both these linguistic forms are systematically stigmatized, regardless of the extent to which each language variation corresponds to standardized norms.
AAVE, sometimes called “Black English,” relates specifically to a vernacular form spoken principally by working-class African Americans. It includes linguistic and phonetic markers such as copula deletion, cultural references, and a range of distinctive verb tense and aspect markers. Both Black Americans and non–Black Americans use, adopt and perform Black English. Significantly, Black English operates as a racializing characteristic among Black Americans that suggests both foreignness and familiarity in a US context.
Somewhat similarly, the linguistic features of the variety of American Sign Language (ASL) that people call “Black ASL” include concrete, measurable differences in relation to other forms of ASL. These differences include handshapes, non-manual signals, word structure, movements, choice of signs, syntax, and rhythmic patterns in signing.
Anecdotal reports from signers describe Black ASL as having a “thuggish” or “street” component (Bayley et al 2017). These familiar adjectives have also been used to describe African American Vernacular English, but there is little evidence that the same unique linguistic features that form “a Black way of signing” can be identified in the distinctive linguistic features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
It is true that at the lexical level, evidence suggests that Black ASL vocabulary includes expressions borrowed from AAVE such as DANG (“I feel you” or “I know that’s right”) and GIRL PLEASE (Hill 2012). However, the American Deaf community regards these expressions as mainstream English (Bayley et al 2017). That is, those expressions are not perceived to constitute a particularly “Black form” of English, but are instead viewed merely as parts of standard American English.
Given the lack of lexical similarity between AAVE and BASL, the curious fact that both forms of communication get described as “thuggish” or “street” is less a function of the linguistic features of each form of communication, and more a function of the racial backgrounds associated with users of each language. It provides strong evidence of how Black linguistic forms are socially stigmatized.
The emergence of Black ASL itself is a testament to race’s role in the formation and conceptualization of accent in the US, as well as to the long-lasting effects of policy decisions. Possibilities for the formal education of white deaf Americans began in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut with the establishment of the American School for the Deaf. Meanwhile, the education of Black Deaf Americans didn’t begin until 1865, after the Civil War (Van Cleve & Crouch 1989).
Prior to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, seventeen states in the United States had public school systems which required that White and Black students be taught separately. Even though it is not central to my present argument, it is important here to note the role that Deaf Black Americans played in fighting against racial discrimination. In 1952, before the Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. Board of education, Louise Burrell Miller and others sued the DC Board of Education to have deaf African American children educated within the District and won (Historical Marker Database 2016). Despite Miller’s victory, historic segregation remains seared into the linguistic practices of white and Black deaf Americans.
The oral method of instruction, which was seen as superior at the time, was well-established in white schools, but it was not extended to Black Students in Black schools. This meant that Black deaf Americans had access to ASL instruction when their white peers did not. As Douglas Baynton notes in Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language, “The ironic result of this policy of discrimination may have been that southern deaf African Americans in spite of the chronic underfunding of their schools received a better education than most deaf white students” (80). The two language communities created by segregation are still in existence and even though Black ASL may be closer to the earlier standard form of ASL, the version of ASL used by white Deaf Americans has become the prestige dialect. Although Morrison warns against this, scholars have attempted to establish the legitimacy of BASL. A study conducted by Robert Bayley, Joseph C. Hill, Carolyn McCaskill, and Ceil Lucas concluded that, “Results of multivariate analysis show that on a number of dimensions, Black ASL, particularly as used by signers who attended school before integration, is closer to the standard variety taught in ASL classes and used in ASL dictionaries” (Bayley et al 2017).
Despite this evidence, many older signers feel that white signing is superior, suggesting that older signers have internalized the racialization of Black ASL. One Louisianan signer interviewed in the study said that white signing was better because “it was difficult to understand” (Bayley et al 2017). She felt that if it was challenging to understand, then it must be better. A sociolinguistic interpretation of this particular signer’s notion points to larger, racialized interpretations of Black communicative behavior.
In a video with over 300,000 views, YouTube creator Deafinitely Dope performs an American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of DMX’s hit song, “How’s It Going Down.” The comments on the video are overwhelmingly positive, with many commenters praising the video and requesting interpretations of other popular songs. However, a peculiar pattern emerges when scrolling down the comment section. “It’s almost like he’s throwing gang signs,” writes user elryck94. Another commenter with the username “djdestroyer” writes, “I’m surprised gangs aren’t recruiting you just for your signing skills.” The racial undertones of these comments are hardly subtle.
In the larger social milieu, Black Americans are often portrayed and stereotyped as gang members. By being a Black man and by choosing to interpret a rap song, Deafinitely Dope (whose real name is Matt Maxey) has automatically aligned himself with the stereotype of a gang member. His video and the comments following it underscore American society’s particular fascination with Black language and communicative behavior–which have often been the subject of extreme scrutiny.
This article doesn’t waste energy trying to challenge negative perspectives of Black communicative behavior. As Morrison suggests, it is unproductive to try to disprove claims of deficiency with sufficient scientific evidence. Instead, by attending to some of the social and historical processes that structure the racialization of Black language across different forms of communication, this piece hopes to encourage readers to redirect their energy towards learning American Sign Language, reflect on their own linguistic practices, and carefully consider their interpretations of the media they consume.