PSA: Stop telling black people ‘you sound so well spoken’
It’s a microaggression and you need to realise that
Since I was little, people have told me I sound ‘posh’ when I speak. When I thought of “posh”, I thought of Kensington & Chelsea, and upper middle-class, which was not remotely my reality. It also felt though, as if by “posh”, people meant “non-black”. I remember in secondary school one classmate, when I said I’m from Tottenham, said: “You’re from Tottenham and you speak like that?!”
Last year, my manager at a charity shop I used to volunteer in said to me: “Your English is really good – do you mind me asking where you went to school?”
I hadn’t ever said to him that I was from anywhere but England, so what kind of a statement is that? Should I not speak good English? I just smiled and answered the question, but it did make me think: was it unusual for him to hear a Black person speak well? And should it only be down to my education? For the record, I’ve only ever attended state schools.
Might I add, there was another volunteer there who I think was Eastern-European, and his English wasn’t great. The manager went on to make a comment about him and how he should learn to speak English better, like me.
I like to think that exchange was a form of microaggression. The more I thought about it, the more offended I became, but at the time I felt awkward and uncomfortable that he felt obligated to comment on our standards of English unprovoked. Especially as I didn’t feel that would happen if we were both white English.
I’m glad that I’m eloquent, and always have been. But it shouldn’t come as such a shock that I’m from Tottenham, a considerably diverse area with a high ratio of Black people, or that I’m well spoken regardless. There are plenty of people who speak just like I do.
That notion is fuelled by stereotypes of black people only being able to speak in slang. Just for the record, speaking mainly using slang does not mean someone is unable to speak the Queen’s English, it’s just a matter of comfort and environment.
I feel like I sound weird speaking in slang, so I tend not to. At the same time, when I’m with my friends or people who speak differently to me, a small part of me feels out of place, as if I’m not ‘black’ enough because I don’t use the same language codes, which is ridiculous but comes from a place of internalised racism and learned racial expectations.
Please think before you make blanket statements like “You’re so well spoken” or “Your English is really good,” to someone who has clearly shown they are fluent in the language, regardless of where they’re from. Whilst probably unintentional, it is a backhanded compliment that can make them feel like they’re deviating from some sort of norm, and is really just ignorance based on stereotyping. Also, let’s leave comments like “You don’t sound *insert race/ethnicity here*” in the past.
Think about where your views come from, and why they can do more harm than good. This doesn’t only go for when speaking to Black-Brits, but people from all over the world.