Friday, November 25, 2011

White Writing Black?

Totally about to kiss.
Finally, my sequel post to my African American Vernacular English post that may actually have to do with visual novels! Or at least writing.

So, when white writers sit down and want to write a black characters, they'll often... do it wrong.

For example, they might write something like "Only wif my magic recipe can you turn out dese tender, 'licious, jiffy-quick pancakes dat makes yo' family happy."

This writer is being pretty condescending to black people. While you can see they're imitating certain parts of AAVE, it sounds more like they're trying to be slangy for the sake of being slangy. Like "'licious"? "jiffy-quick?" Does anyone really say "jiffy" besides my very white father? Fortunately, stuff like that never gets published.

Wait, what? That was in a national ad campaign?

Alright, what are people supposed to do when they don't speak AAVE, but they want to write it? Especially if they want their characters to like, sound authentic and not like certain infamously-racist pancake advertisements?

They should come to me, because I have a plan for them:

Step 1: Make friends with black people who speak AAVE.
Step 2: Pay very close attention to how they speak. Take notes, when possible.
Step 3: Spend as much time as possible with them almost to the point that they hate you. They'll probably already hate you because you are only friends with them because they speak AAVE and you are furiously scribbling in a note pad when they're trying to have a conversation. Don't make them hate you though, because you'll need them for step 5. Try to be nice and take them out to Starbucks or something.
Step 4: Write your story.
Step 5: Get them to read over your draft to make sure it sounds authentic to them. If they laugh at you, ask for advice and repeat steps 4 and 5. If they get offended, try to ask them why before they storm off. If they say it's because you only befriended them to write your damn story... yeah, you totally did that.

Maybe they shouldn't come to me. That's a crappy plan.
No, wait, I have a new one! Let me try again!
Whenever I see The Boondocks art,
I always go "OH MY GOD!

Step 1: Watch The Boondocks. Not Boondock Saints. There are lots of accents in Boondock Saints, but you probably shouldn't learn them from Boondock Saints.
Step 2: Take notes on how they speak, but filter out the stereotypes in the story. (Remember! Boondocks is satire!)
Step 3: Write your story.
Step 4: Find a person who speaks AAVE who is willing to read over your draft for you.
Step 5: Don't act surprised when they're like "You got this from The Boondocks, didn't you?"

Sigh. Ok, my point is, yes, it can be done, but it's really difficult for people to learn to write something they don't speak, especially if they're not familiar with it. This goes for any vernacular or accent.

But here are a few starter tips for people who want to learn how to write any vernacular or accent, especially AAVE, without pissing people off.

1. Don't change the spelling of words.
Let's take a line from The Boondocks, change the spelling:

"You know what, Granddad, I been hangin' out wit' Milton e'en though you tol' me not to, an' I 'ont think Imma do that no mo'a."

You see this? I just did a bad thing. Don't do it.

One practical reason why you shouldn't do this is because it's hard to understand. If you heard the line, you would understand it instantly. Even though I wrote the distinctly AAVE parts down sound for sound (a questionable practice), it takes a minute to figure out what is being said. In that way, it's not reflecting the line authentically. Besides, when figuring it out, the reader is basically just correcting my spelling in their head. They're thinking "Oh, 'e'en' is for 'even.' Is ''ont' for 'won't?' 'don't?' 'Don't' makes sense, so that's it, I guess..."

This probably seems weird because the go-to way to write an accent is to change spelling. Don't do it. Especially not when writing AAVE, because this is racist. (Remember the above Aunt Jemima example?) What makes this racist?

I, as a white person, do not speak the way things are supposed to be pronounced. No white person does. Examples: For words ending in "ing," like "jumping," I am just as likely to say "een" as I am to say "in." I personally rarely say "your" with the sound you make in "oar." I am much more likely to say "yer." "Our" and "hour" are supposed to sound exactly the same, but I pronounce "our" exactly like I say "are." The list goes on.

But if I'm a middle-class white non-Hispanic American, it's assumed I speak the so-called "standardized" American English. No one would listen to my accent and write down my "yer" as a "yer." So instead of every word being written the way I said, it'd be written the way it's supposed to be written. (If you made it this far and still haven't read my other blog post, here's my rant on why standard American English is bullshit.)

Also, remember how I only wrote down the AAVE parts sound for sound? When the word is pronounced like it is in white American vernacular English, I spelled it correctly, even though it may not be pronounced letter-for-letter like it's spelled. For example, "know" has that useless "k" in it and "though" has that "ugh" which is just a hangover from French. In other words, changing the spelling didn't actually reflect the way the line was spoken, it just reflects the way AAVE is different from from the white "norm."
What this does is it turns AAVE speakers into an other. By changing spelling they're basically saying "I'm using the incorrect spelling to reflect that this person is pronouncing these words incorrectly." Which holds up the so-called "standard" American English, which is really white American Vernacular English, as superior to African American Vernacular English. You see? Racism.

As an aside, if an AAVE speaker wants to differentiate themselves from the so-called standard by writing AAVE with different spelling, they are allowed to do that. And non-AAVE speakers are still not allowed to do it. I know, I know, inequality and all that, just take what I say and move along. Maybe I'll rant about that another day.

So how is someone supposed to write AAVE without changing the spelling?

Made of win face is made of win.
2. Write AAVE by showing word choice.

Back to our line from The Boondocks:

"You know what, Granddad, I been hanging out with Milton even though you told me not to, but I don't think Imma do that no more."

 That's how you do it! See, it's clear it's AAVE, you can read it quickly, no one hates you. But we're not quite done. On to step three.

3. Remember: Your character is not just a race.

You shouldn't just be worried with your character speaking convincing AAVE. You should be worried that your character is true to them self.

All characters, no matter how their race or culture, should speak differently to reflect their experiences and who they are as a person. Someone's personality, age, gender, race, class, location, nationality, sexuality, experiences and attitude factor together to make a complex human being who is more than just the sum of their parts. The way they speak should reflect that. Try not to focus on how they should speak as a black person, try to focus on how they should speak as a person. Finding your character's unique voice will make your writing awesome.

Alright, enough ranting for today.
Oh, didn't I promise this would have something to do with visual novels?
Well, it doesn't. There are no African-American characters in visual novels. (Caro, stop pissing off the community!)
JUST KIDDING. The truth is I'm working on a Voldemort visual novel right now, and it suddenly hit me that my characters would probably speak AAVE, so I may be writing some soon...
Yes, don't worry, I'm working on stuff! I don't know how soon I'll be able to announce my next project, but I really hope it's soon. Before the year is out, I'm sure I'll have something to announce.


Entropy said...

Huh. These two posts were really interesting, and really enlightening. I do still feel that "mainstream American English" can possibly be considered somewhat more "correct" than any other dialects just because of what it means for something to be mainstream, but I get what you're saying.

I do wonder about some things with rendering accents--is it always racist/othering to portray pronunciation phonetically? What about accents that are primarily only expressed through pronunciation (not much different word choice) or when you want to highlight idiosyncrasies in a certain character's pronunciation?

Anyway, I'm officially impressed by your knowledge of linguistics. XD

carosene said...

Hi Kura! :D
Ha ha, I'm glad you thought they were interesting/enlightening instead of annoyingly liberal and extremist or something. XD

Well, my point is it's the so-called standard because the white people in power decided it was correct, and everyone went along with it. So it's not inherently correct or mainstream. (Though I think you realize that, sorry to repeat things. ^-^;;)

Whatever's correct is whatever communicates, and in that sense the "standard" may have more power because it can communicate to a broader audience, perhaps. (Though I think AAVE and the "standard" aren't as mutually unintelligible as some white people like to pretend they are. ^-^;;)

Writing out the pronunciation is always othering, I think. For example, if you look at Irish writers, Austrailian writers, or Southern writers, they usually don't write out the pronunciation of the accent. They'd probably just spell mostly everything the way they see as normal and not highlight pronunciation of the accents--not in a way that a Los Angeles writer might highlight the accent of a token Irish, Austrailian, or Southern character. The pronunciation only tends to be highlighted if it's not the norm to rest of the work. Hence, the character is othered from the rest of the cast.

I don't think it's always wrong to "other" ones characters if race isn't an issue, but the author should realize that they're doing it. (And also that it will probably distract the reader, and like I said before, it reads slower.)

If the accent or vernacular is associated with a race, the author should realize they're dealing with a group that has been historically systematically "othered" in America, so they should tread a lot more carefully.

(Dammit, this was going to be a short comment but I keep on going on. XD)

Of course, this is all my opinion and I'm sure there are people out there making good money doing the total opposite of everything I said. o.o

Thank you! I'm glad it was interesting. ^-^;; Most of it just comes from being an English major and accumulating things here and there. XD (Though I'm sure the people who will fight me to the death about whether the standard is God-sent will also be English majors. o.o)

Gah, it's almost two in the morning and I have homework to do. XD I shall reply to your other comment later!

Entropy said...

Well I'm glad long responses are a good thing rather than a bad thing to you, since this is going to be another one... Hah, the comment I posted on this blog was originally longer until I accidentally closed the page and forgot half of what I had to say.

To be fair, I do often think that extremist rants are interesting, but no, that's not what yours sounded like. XD They just sound exceedingly clever and well-informed. So if your being an English major is to blame for that, props to your academic institution.

Whatever's correct is whatever communicates, and in that sense the "standard" may have more power because it can communicate to a broader audience, perhaps.
Yes! That's what I was trying to say. :D The question of how we define "correct" and come to consensus for things like language is a really interesting subject to me, so that was just me interjecting a pet issue. :P

That's a good point, though--that if we're talking about ability to communicate, then yeah, even if something sounds "wrong" between AAVE/mainstream American, that often it IS still possible to discern the meaning. Hum. Another thing to ponder over.
(It's a good thing I won't be taking an even moderately relevant class anytime soon, because if I did I'd probably end up writing some silly overly-theoretical paper about how we define "correct English" or something.)

Sorry, I also just really like to define things. =.=;

Hmmm. I definitely make the connection that you wouldn't spell out an accent unless it's specifically different from the norm for that text, but I didn't make the next jump to "ergo, othering." ...okay, so I guess that's kind of just what "othering" is, eh? I keep hearing discussion of "othering" and "privilege" and soforth and I feel like I know so much less about it than I should.

Having this conversation really makes me want to be a full English major. XD Mm, linguistic and literary theory~ Anyhow, thanks for clearing those couple things up for me!

carosene said...

DAWW I hate that. o.o Stupid page deleting awesome long comment.

Psht, not a pet issue! Totally relevent. XD

Lol, if you get a class-related excused to right your correct English paper I'd love to read it. :D

I don't know as much about the othering/privilege stuff as I should either. ^-^;; I read Tim Wise's "White Like Me" recently and it totally blew my mind and I was like "That's why my parents can pretend they're not racist when they totally are!" I mean, cough, whut. XD

Oh no! I wouldn't spell out the accent ever. XD Not that I'm morally opposed to it, I just think it gets in the way. When I made the reference to the LA writer, I wasn't condoning it, I was just meaning that that's where you usually see it:
They have a token character and want to emphasize their tokenness from the rest of the cast. I generally wouldn't do this, because I'm more worried about the reader getting to know the character as a human being than making them trip on their othered-Irishness every time they speak. If they have an accent I'd probably just reference it in the narration when they were introduced and move along.

It might be effective if the reader wasn't expected to sympathize with them (like they were a stock comedy character and the reader was expected to laugh at them) or if they were evil (though that might come off as corny), but if the character is supposed to be sympathetic, I'd spell things the way the reader expects them to be spelled so they don't think about how weird that is or struggle to figure out the meaning. That's just my take. :3

Mink said...

This is amazingly eloquent. Spending a lot of time on the internet has made me...I'm going to say jaded, and your posts are rather refreshing.

That being said, yeah, trying to find black people who speak AAVE and making friends with them just for that would be a terrible plan. Though I bet some people would actually try that and end up insulting people, i.e. "What, you think because I'm black I talk that way?" And I can't say I haven't had...similar experiences. ("Can you do cornrows?" "Uh, no? Why would I-OH SCREW YOU.")

Which is ultimately what I'd be paranoid about. People who want to show a different group and the way they may interact, speak, etc. VS people going, "This person is X. This is what Xs do, right?" Again, cynical and jaded.

On a slightly different topic, half the time I can't stand people writing out accents, because they tend to be nearly impossible to read. I read a book where the author wrote out the Scottish accents and I only understood half of what they said. 8|

(Hopefully the headache I have hasn't caused this to make no sense whatsoever)

carosene said...

Oh, thank you. ^-^

No, it's totally insulting to make friends for that reason! I was trying to be snarky and sarcastic enough that no one took me seriously on that. o.o

Yeah, the whole outsiders trying to write about any other group and forgetting they're human before they're whatever group they are. That's why I was trying to get at with point three. ^-^ Thanks for emphasizing that, I like your "This person is X. This is what Xs do, right?" description, that's totally the way a lot of people do it. o.o

It is difficult to read that stuff! And it's kind of annoying. XD I bet no Scottish writer would write the accents out like that.

Psht! Totally makes sense!

Alphonse said...

"As an aside, if an AAVE speaker wants to differentiate themselves from the so-called standard by writing AAVE with different spelling, they are allowed to do that. And non-AAVE speakers are still not allowed to do it. I know, I know, inequality and all that, just take what I say and move along. Maybe I'll rant about that another day."

Uh, what? I find absolutely nothing wrong with writing "AAVE" with different spelling and I would not be offended if I saw anyone do it, regardless of their race. P.S., I'm black. I also disagree with you on a whoooole lot of other issues about ebonics and you seem to be trying a bit too hard to be PC and black-friendly but okay.

carosene said...

As for the "only AAVE speakers are allowed to differentiate spelling," my thought is the person who speaks with that vernacular has a different relationship to the language than the person who is watching Boondocks to learn how to "write Black." The latter probably just wants people to know that their character is black by the way their character talks. The person who already speaks the vernacular might be doing more complicated, interesting and critical things with it, because it's something that they get, as opposed to something they're pretending to know. The non-AAVE speaker is just pretending, the AAVE speaker can do it authentically and comment on it. (And also, as a person who doesn't speak AAVE, I'm not gonna tell people who do speak it how they want to spell things. XD; White people pretending? Been there, done that, read a lot of their stuff. They're fair game.)

This is kinda like saying "If you don't speak French, don't try and write a French dissertation. Adding some "mais oui"s and obnoxious French laughs does not help."
Or when parents try to speak with youth slang. It just comes across as all phony and weird, and at best they can just imitate what they've heard. But among the youth culture who speak that slang and know it, they can use it in more complex and subtle ways than their parents realize.

As a clarification, I don't think this is a big moral debate, like I'm not gonna write off any writers for doing it. It's not like white people using the N-word.
I just want to talk to writers and get them to think about why they write the way they write and think critically about it. (When I say "Don't do it," I don't particularly mean "this is a big moral issue and you will burn if you do," I mean "Think critically about why you're doing this and your writing could be improved if you don't")

I'd be interested in hearing what you disagree with me about ebonics. :)

Unknown said...

Well if want a black character(s) just ask a black person to help you make one that seems n acts like a real 1.
I'm trying to make a story right now with a black main character cause i don't see a lot of cartoons, ex. with a black main character; it makes me sad cause im a black young girl. some of them don't even look like their black our hair is not straight n it poofs up when wet
i only read a few lines of this because of the title and i saw the boondocks, i love that show. and i like tcst it was goooood i want a story that could move you and thats what you did lol iwant to write like you

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