The Fight Over Ebonics Was Really About More Than Academic Achievement

students sitting in a classroom
Zain Murdock
September 4, 2023

The word “Ebonics” has been used by Black scholars since 1973. But in 1996, it hit a larger stage when Oakland, California’s School Board passed a resolution recognizing U.S. Ebonics as its own language.

After months of conversation and research surrounding disproportionate learning disability classifications and low grades, the resolution suggested teaching Black students to become ‘bilingual’ in both Ebonics and English, with support from linguists. 

But media coverage and public discourse evolved into something else.

White authorities denounced the legitimacy of a Black language compared to “standard English.” Black American figures like Maya Angelou and Jesse Jackson belittled Ebonics, too. 

The problem of educational success faded into the distance as the dominant narrative clung to respectability politics, anti-Blackness, classism, and assimilation.

But Ebonics wasn’t under attack alone. Our music, dances, food, and other cultural practices will never be acceptable under whiteness, except when it’s feasible to appropriate or monetize. But who deputized them to decide what’s acceptable?

Black Americans know English because of enslavement. We turned the tongues of our oppressors into something special, much like Haitian Kreyol, Jamaican Patois, and other language blends across the diaspora. Speaking our languages makes it challenging to succeed in institutions where whiteness dominates because we innovated them as resistance to it.

And despite it all, generations of Black people have and will continue to pass our cultures down.