Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Dialects, Discourses, and Jokes: Charles Ramsey and Sweet Brown Remind Us of Truths We'd Rather Not See

Charles Ramsey is the latest in a long line of black people thrust into the media spotlight in the midst of tragedy and drama. Their reactions to these dramatic moments are raw, real, and heartfelt, but we turn them into memes and catchphrases on the internet.

Here are a few of the images popping up after Charles Ramsey heard screams coming from the house in Ohio that we now know held three women who had been kidnapped and imprisoned for a decade.

And here's the audio of his now famous 911 call that alerted police to the presence of these women:

The internet thinks this is hilarious, just as they (we) thought it was hilarious that Antoine Dodson was upset after his sister was attacked in her own home.

And that Sweet Brown was emotional after surviving a fire.

Plenty has been said about why this kind of mockery is problematic, and I highly suggest these articles from Clutch, Slate, and NPR.

In the Clutch article, Tami Winfrey Harris discusses how people who reinforce existing stereotypes are often sought out by reporters because they know that their responses will get them views:
reality TV producers seek out characters that provide drama, including those that reinforce stereotypes about race and gender. In a rapidly shifting media landscape, has this thinking made it into the newsroom, effecting the way reality reality is presented?
What I want to explore more closely is why. Why are we so happy to meme-ify and laugh at these responses to tragedy?

Guilty Laughter

My toddler laughs when she's been caught doing something she knows she's not supposed to. Laughing is a great way to distract from the incident at hand, and laughter is a contagious reaction that can disarm tensions and make everyone feel a little better.

I think that's what we're collectively doing with these reports, and I think it's because we don't want to deal with our own ingrained assumptions about people who talk in dialects that are different from our own.

On my other blog about teaching English, I have a couple of posts and a presentation about dialects and discourses. We all speak with a dialect. In fact, we all speak with our own unique idiolect, a constantly evolving version of our language that is impacted by where we grew up, what we were taught in school, and which groups of people we've hung around with. Your speech patterns connect you with the world around you and identify you like a fingerprint.

There is no "proper" or "correct" English. There is only the English that you use to communicate your ideas in the way that will best reach your audience. For many of us, the language that we use the most often is the one that we think of as "correct." For others, the language that has been arbitrarily deemed proper ("Standard American English") becomes the yardstick, even if we don't always adhere to its rules ourselves.

If you pronounce "cot" and "caught" the same way, then you are probably from the Midwest. If you use the word "schlep," you are probably from New York. I live in St. Louis, where we call our soft drinks "soda," but my husband grew up in Kansas City and called it "pop." Now that he's been living here, he calls it "soda" because language is not static. It grows with us. It adapts.

You adapt your language constantly, probably without even realizing it. Depending on your work environment, you are unlikely to let out a string of profanities in front of your boss, but when s/he leaves the room, you might be quite comfortable sharing them with your co-worker. You may drop the g's off your -ing words when you're among friends but pronounce them when you're giving an academic presentation. It's called code shifting.

Code shifting is, of course, more pronounced when the differences between the dialects are seen as larger. In this video, the shift between the woman speaking a dialect found in islands off the coast of South Carolina and the dialect she uses when she's explaining what she said for the video's audience is striking (check out the 1:50-ish mark):

Code-Switching as Necessity?

What Sweet Brown, Antoine Dodson, and Charles Ramsey have in common is that they didn't code-switch. They were presented on a national stage, and we held their language to expectations that they didn't meet.

Let's look at the language they did use a little more closely. 

In his 911 call, Charles Ramsey said this:
I’m at 2207 Seymour, West 25th. Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald’s, right? I’m on my porch, eating my li’l food, right? This broad is tryin’ to break out the fuckin’ house next door to me. So, it’s a bunch of people on the street right now and shit, so we like well, what’s wrong? What’s the problem? She like, ‘This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter and we been in this bitch.’ She said her name was Linda Berry or some shit, I don’t know who the fuck that is. I just moved over here, bro.
That probably seems like an unconventional way to tell this particular story to a dispatcher, but the panic and urgency in Ramsey's voice is unmistakable. He is telling the story in this way to try to communicate the circumstances and the need for help.

If we pick apart his call, we see that it was actually very intelligently and cohesively put together. He immediately gives the address, realizing that is the most important information. Next, he tries to set up the order of events, events that are surely confusing and overwhelming in his own mind. By explaining how he heard the woman, he's making sure to demonstrate that he's not the one who hurt her. He establishes that lots of people asked her what was wrong, demonstrating the magnitude of the disturbance. Do we think that she actually said "This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter and we been in this bitch"? Probably not. But he got across the important things: she's been trapped a long time, she has a daughter, and she needs help.

As the call goes on, we can hear him getting frustrated with the dispatcher's lack of response. When the dispatcher says he thought the address he gave was his own, Ramsey replies, "Nah, I'm smarter than that, bro. I'm telling you where the crime was." When the dispatcher says he'll send the police, you can hear the relief in Ramsey's voice as he says "There you go!" He was able to successfully send the message that this was urgent and needs immediate attention. He communicated effectively.

Would you be able to get all of that information across so quickly and effectively? Maybe. Maybe not. Keep in mind that Ramsey had the added pressure of being a black man who rescued a white woman, something that I think we can tell was on his mind even in that 911 call. He doesn't want to be seen as a criminal, and he is well aware that we live in a society where those interactions are often suspect.

This point is further explored in the NPR piece:
"Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms," Ramsey told a local TV reporter. The local reporter quickly pivoted away.
The local reporter "pivoted away" because we don't want to make this story about race, at least not in any overt way. We want to say that of course that woman ran into his arms. He's a hero. He saved her. That's the narrative that makes us all feel good.

But Ramsey's words suggest he knows that the narrative could have gone another way and that media representation would have been quick to help it along had that story fit a little better.

So, in a short amount of time, Ramsey has effectively communicated the need for help in a way that got the women out of the house before their captors returned. He has simultaneously established that his own role in the event was purely benign, and he's pointed to his understanding of the complex racial systems at play in his community (as NPR points out, it's one of the most segregated cities in America).

I'd call that a pretty effective use of language. But because he threw in a few "motherfucker"s and "bro"s, his display of language is laughable instead of laudable.

We laugh because we don't want to have to deal with the truth. If Ramsey was able to effectively communicate a complex message in a dialect that we as a society have constantly seen as less intelligent and less capable, then we have to question what else those assumptions have done. We have to question the way that we use Standard Academic English to judge people in job interviews or when they go to apply for home loans. We have to question the way that we mark up papers in English classes, constantly pointing to the "errors" of students who have been deemed "ill-prepared." We have to question the way that we use language as a marker of ability and intelligence across the board.

And we don't want to do that, so we laugh.


  1. This is a great post! I plan to assign it in my intro to cultural anthro course when we talk about dialect, code-switching, and Bourdieu's "symbolic violence." Good examples, thanks!

  2. Thank you! I'd love to hear what your students have to say!

  3. Barnacle StrumpetMay 10, 2013 at 8:47 PM

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you for making it :)

  4. I could not agree more. Not only is he a hero, Ramsey is a rhetorical master, unveiling the intersectional nature of gendered violence and racism while telling his story.

  5. Good post! I think we laugh when we are uncomfortable and this situation makes us all uncomfortable. How in the world, what in the h*ll, what was this guy thinking? It's a terrible, sad situation. Thank God for Charles Ramsey-he is a modern day hero. No matter his race, his accent or his age. God bless him and the young women from Ohio!

  6. Very well written! Whenever I think of Charles Ramsey, I thank God and bless him! His story gave me hope, for all the people hidden away in chains in this world. Someone will see and someone will have the courage to help. Angels.