Being Black and bilingual is amazing. Especially when you consider that only 60 million Americans (20% of the U.S. population)¹ identify as bilingual. Furthermore, the Black/African-American population in the U.S. is 13%.²
If you’re a melanated multilingual like me, I can only imagine how you’ve been able to navigate your Blackness in another language.
Maybe you’ve put up with textbooks failing to acknowledge that you even exist outside of a stock photo.
Or maybe you’ve always been the only Black person in the classroom or in your study abroad trip (if you ever went abroad, that is).
You’ve faced the dreaded “why are you even learning [language(s)]?” from family and friends. Or the “do you really speak [language(s)]?” question.
Whether you’re already multilingual or you’re considering learning a new language, it’s definitely something worth celebrating.
Let’s talk about some reasons why!
Being Black and Bilingual Means Combating Racism
By being bilingual, Black folx fight monolingualism and racism!
When we can share our identities and experiences in another language, we can truly make big waves against racism.
Uju Anya, Assistant Professor of Second Language Learning at Penn State University, recounted the dangerous consequences of Black folx valuing education in her paper titled African Americans in World Language Study: The Forged Path and Future Directions.
She explains how slaves caught breaking anti-literacy laws faced severe punishment. Schools that were built after the abolishment of slavery were constantly under attack or forced to relocate.
You know education is a big deal when a racist system is doing the most to make sure you can’t have one.
Black Bilinguals Provide Representation in the Language Learning World
Connecting with another Black bilingual feels like finding an oasis. We are a very important yet underrepresented niche.
No one will know about us if we don’t tell them we exist. That’s marketing 101!
Not every Black bilingual has a website, blog, and/or podcast, but the ones that I have come across are always an inspiration.
Black bilinguals are not just getting their brands out there but we’re providing safe spaces and communities for us.
And it’s even better when we’re getting paid to do it!!
Black Bilinguals Prepare the Next Generation for Cross-Cultural Communication
For my Black bilinguals who are also parents or guardians, we make the conscious decision to prepare future generations for making connections all over the world!
As Black non-native speakers, this is a big deal. It shows that there shouldn’t be any barriers to learning a language and that our lives matter.
Know that if you’re thinking about getting your family involved with language learning, now is the perfect time.
It’s never too late to learn a language.
Many Black Bilinguals Can Speak This Lil Thang Called AAVE/BVE
African American Vernacular (AAVE) English (sometimes referred to as Black Vernacular English or BVE) is an amazing part of Black culture.
Unfortunately, AAVE gets a bad wrap from the gatekeepers of the English language.
Regardless, it’s important that we validate the importance of AAVE because it shows that Black people have triumphed linguistically even in the face of oppression.
There’s a history behind the words that we use and the way that we speak. When it’s all lumped together under “southern accent,” it’s an insult.
When we ignore the history of Black people, we’re perpetuating the dominance of white supremacy.
When we rhetorically ask, “what does race have to do with language learning? With anything?” then we’re not trying to create an inclusive space.
We’re just allowing the same ol’ same ol’ dictate what we can and cannot say.
This narrative is not only toxic but counterproductive to the fight against racism.
It’s crucial that Black folx pursue language learning from a socially-conscious perspective. It’s not just race that gets left out of the conversation, but sexism, classism, xenophobia, and so much more.
Being Black and bilingual means that we’re not alone in the fight against ignorance. Seek allies where you can. You never know how much your struggle can translate and impact someone’s perception of blackness.
1. Based on the 2015 census. Hopefully the number has gone up and you’ve submitted your census!
2. As of July 2019 https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219
Composed by Monique
The scenes you described in the first section of your post…Oh yes, I’ve experienced them all. As a teacher, I often intentionally try to find stock photos that are diverse for presentations, so my English Language Learners can see that anyone can be a businessperson, for example. I enjoyed reading your call to other black people to become bilingual!
Errol de Jesus
So happy you enjoyed this post, Monique! Teachers can have a huge impact on how students perceive the world. It’s amazing how we internalize the images that we see. Black people should be included more because we exist outside of stereotypes and notions.