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Beyond the Ebonics Debate: Attitudes about Black and Standard American English

Author(s): Andrew C. Billings

Source: Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Sep., 2005), pp. 68-81
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40027322 .
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Attitudes About Black and
Standard American English

This study of 261 Black and White participantsdeterminedhow standard

AmericanEnglishandBlackEnglishwereperceivedon 20 credibilitymea-
sures.ResultsindicatedthatalthoughstandardAmericanEnglishwas pre-
ferredby all participantson severalkey measures(includingall measures
of competence),speakerdialectdid not alterperceivedtrustworthinessand
likability.Onmeasuresof social distance,dialectplayeda secondaryrole to
the race of the speaker,as WhiteparticipantspreferredWhite speakersand
Black participantspreferredBlack speakersregardlessof dialect.

Keywords: Black English; Ebonics; dialect; credibility

The acceptance or rejection of Black English (BE) dialect has

been a societal dilemmafor manydecades;numerousstudieshave
convincingly shown that BE speakersare ratedas "less credible"
than speakers of standardAmerican English (SAE). This study
sheds new light on dialectical speakerevaluationresearchby (a)
introducinga previously untested regional dialect (midwestern)
and(b) measuringpotentialinfluencesthatthe Ebonicsdebatemay
have had on changingperceptionsof BE dialect.
For years, social science researchhas focused on the relation-
ship between languageattitudesand BE use. Labov (1972) found
thatbothlinguisticallyandfunctionally,BE servesall communica-
tion functions.TuckerandLambert(1969) were the firstsocial sci-
entiststo addressBlack dialectevaluatively.Withinthe educational
context,Williams(1976) foundthateven AfricanAmericanteach-
ers associate negative characteristicsto students who speak BE.

JOURNALOF BLACKSTUDIES, Vol. 36 No. 1, September2005 68-81

DOI: 10.1177/0021934704271448
© 2005 Sage Publications

Giles andBourhis(1976) studiedevaluativeaspectsof Britishand

Black dialects, finding thatparticipantspreferredaccents and dia-
lects thatappearto be most authentic.Confirmingthe workof Giles
(1970), Elwell, Brown,andRutter(1984) advancedthe literatureas
they were the first to study differencesbetween standardand non-
standardaccents using videotape. Researcherssuch as Doss and
Gross (1994) have discussedthe moderndilemmaof code switch-
ing, referringto the decision to eitherendorseBE or switch dialect
to something consideredmore socially acceptable.Seymour and
Seymour (1979) arguedthat "those responsible for molding and
shaping the speech and language skills of Black children should
select models thatarelikely to receivefewer of oursociety's penal-
ties and more of the rewards"(p. 409).
Since the inceptionof the Ebonicsdebatein 1995, opinionshave
been mixed as to how the issue wouldbest be handled.Smitherman
andCunningham(1997) focused on the need for Americansociety
to become bettereducatedon the issue, noting that "negativepro-
nouncementson Ebonicsreveala seriouslack of knowledgeabout
the scientificapproachto languageanalysisanda gallingignorance
aboutwhatEbonics is and who speaksit" (p. 227). Many scholars
havealso examinedthe ways in whichBE permeatesandstimulates
culturalperception.Nelson (1997) argues that even in small cit-
ies and towns, elements of Black culturehave begun to permeate
schools andculturalevents,oftencrossingracialbarriers.Bock and
Pitts (1975) analyzedthe relationshipbetween BE and perceived
speakerimage; Doss and Gross (1994) studiedinterracialpercep-
tions of code switching; Koch and Gross (1997) addressedways
childrencognitivelyreceive the dialect.In addition,otherscholars
haveemployedthe one-shotBE case study,varyingthe context,the
region, the measure,and even the dialect itself.
In a seminal study of the effect of Black dialect on White and
Black culture,Johnsonand Buttny (1982) analyzedthe effects of
"soundingBlack" and "soundingWhite."Although not dealing
with BE specifically, the study used 93 college participantsand
employed Mulac's (1975) 21-item Speech Dialect Attitudinal
Scale to underscoretwo key findings.First,Whiteparticipantsren-
dered even more negative assessments of speakerswho sounded

Black if the content of the message was abstractand/or hard to

comprehend.Second, the researchersfound that sounding Black
caused White participantsto describethe speakerin stereotypical
terms. Still, one hypothesis furtheredby Johnson and Buttny
(which predictedthat White participantswould universallyview
soundingBlack in negative terms) was not supported.Thus, this
study emphasizedthe importanceof breakingdown variablesthat
affect such assessmentsto see which variablesare effectedby dia-
lect and which variablesremain constant. The Koch and Gross
(1997) finding that Black children actually prefer BE over SAE
makes the need for futureresearcheven more clear.
Garnerand Rubin(1986) were the first to connect the concepts
of code switchingandperceivedcredibility.In a series of in-depth
interviewswith Black southernattorneys,they wrotethat"manyof
the informantsrevealed a great deal of sensitivity to the role of
speech style in impressionformation.The term 'credibility'arose
repeatedly.. . . This matter of constructingcredibility through
speech style was a particularconcern"(p. 43). Using this studyas a
model, the connection between dialect and credibility becomes
clear. Many researchers(Cronkhite& Liska, 1976; McCroskey,
1966; McCroskey& Teven, 1999; Whitehead,1968) have argued
the dimensions of credibility,but the most widely accepted was
derivedfrom the work of Berlo, Lemert,and Mertz (1969), who
pointed to three credibilitydimensions:competence,trustworthi-
ness, and dynamism.
Atkins (1993) tested potentialfactors that affect credibilityin
the ultimatefirst-impressionscenario:the job interview.Using a
sampleof 65 employmentrecruiters,Atkins found thatBE caused
negativeevaluationratingson 16 of 20 (80%) scales. However,3
scales yielded no differenceand 1, the perceivedtrustworthinessof
a person,actuallyimprovedwith the use of BE, promptingAtkins
to note that BE use does not uniformlyalter all aspects of person
perception.Operationalizingthe terms "standard"and "substan-
dard"dialect, Buck (1968) studiedWhites and Blacks with New
Yorkaccents. She found that the ethnicity of the speakerdid not
effect credibility;Rather,the dialect of the speakerwas the deter-

mining factor in participantassessments. Both White and Black

speakersof standarddialectwere deemedcompetent,whereasboth
White andBlack speakersof substandarddialectwere not. Conse-
quently,Buck's researchoffers a theoreticalbasis for this form of
researchwhile also offering a springboardfor updatedperceptual
studies of BE dialect.


Buck (1968) andAtkins (1993) found thatspeakersof BE were

evaluatedas possessing less credibilityand statusthanspeakersof
SAE. This study addressesthis limitationthroughpostulatingand

Hypothesis 1: Measuresof competence will vary significantlywhen

the speakeruses BE insteadof SAE.
Hypothesis2: Measuresof trustworthinesswill not vary significantly
when the speakeruses BE insteadof SAE.
Hypothesis3: Measuresof social distancewill not vary significantly
becauseof the raceof the speakerratherthanthe dialectthe speaker
is using.

Throughthe dimensionalbreakdownof these three variables,

conclusionspertainingto attitudesaboutBE as well as the methods
in which we measurecredibilityare offered.

The 2x3 factorialwas designed to analyze two independent
variables:race of speakerand dialectof speaker.The first and sec-
ond levels of the condition of speech variable(Black speakersof
BE and Black speakers of SAE) determined potential differ-
ences attributableto language; the second and third level of the
condition of speech variable (Black speaker of SAE and White
speakersof SAE) indicatedany differencesattributableto the race
of the speaker.

Black and White students from both high school and college
speechclasses were given coursecreditfor theirparticipationin the
study.All six cells containedno fewer than35 participantsand no
greaterthan50 participants.A pilot study,drawingon the workof
GarlickandMongeau(1993), was conductedto controlfor attrac-
tiveness.Focus groupswere askedto ratepicturesof speakerson a
0-10 scale. Speakersof moderateto above-averageattractiveness
(6.0-7.0 composite ratings)were chosen. All Black speakersthat
were used for the study were also judged to be of above-average
darknessof skin tone as comparedto otherBlacks. Otherthreatsto
externalvalidity(attractiveness,age, gender,speakingability,etc.)
were controlled throughthe other choices present in the experi-
mentaldesign. Manipulationchecks of these externalthreatswere
performedto ensurethat all variableswere controlled.
A total of nine video clips were producedfor the project.Three
of the nine clips had a WhitepersonspeakingSAE; threemorehad
a Black person speakingSAE; the final three had a Black person
(the same Black speakersas in the second group) speakingBE. In
essence, a matched-guisetechniquewas employed with the addi-
tion of threeWhite speakersof SAE. Six speakerswere used, with
the threeBlack speakersbeing usedtwice (once with SAE andonce
with BE). Although a fourth group (Whites speaking BE) could
have completed the design, pilot testing of these speakers was
deemed unwise, as White BE speakerswere often seen as "per-
forming"the dialect, as opposedto authenticallyusing it (the con-
verse was not truewith Black speakers,who were determinedto be
authenticallycode switching between SAE and BE). All of the
speakerswereof the samesex (male),wereapproximatelythe same
age (18-24), and were judged by focus groups as delivering the
speech at the same level (6.0-7.0 on a 10-pointscale). As Johnson
and Buttny(1982) warnthatcontext and subjectcan alterpercep-
tions, each speech lasted approximately3 minutes with the same
ing: the practiceof giving teenagersprogressivesteps [i.e., at age
16, a person can drive only if he or she has adult supervision]to
achieving a full-fledged license at age 18). In the condition in

which BE was used, all aspects of BE (semantics,phonology,and

grammar)weremanipulated.All speakershadmidwesternaccents,
thus controllingfor regional speaking differences. The only dis-
cernibledifferenceamong the speeches was the use of BE and the
raceof the persongiving the speech.Participantswatchedspeeches
from one of the threeconditions,with the orderof the video clips
randomized.No participantviewed speeches from more than one
condition(threespeeches total).
Althoughmeasuresof dialect were furtheredby Mulac (1975),
they didnot deal specificallywith the conceptsof credibilityandits
relationshipto desired social distance.Consequently,in selecting
the instrumentto be used in the presentstudy,10 semanticdifferen-
tial scales (firsttestedby Liska, 1978) were constructedto measure
multiple aspects of competence and trustworthinessand, in addi-
tion, 10 measures of social distance to discern whether cogni-
tive measuresof credibilitywould alterpotentialbehaviors.Both
sets of scales had seven responseoptions. Severalof the first set of
scales mirroredthe dichotomous terms (i.e., honest/dishonest,
intelligent/unintelligent)constructedby Zahnand Hopper(1985),
whereas several other scales were unique to the measurementof
BE, thuslendingheuristicvalueto the measure.A pretestwas con-
ductedto test the reliabilityof the instrument.Factoranalysesindi-
cated that no measureneeded to be droppedfrom the study (a =
.7139). Additionally,the scales were analyzed as being in three
broadcategories;the categories were subsequentlylabeled as (a)
competence, (b) trustworthiness,and (c) social distance. Still, as
CronkhiteandLiska(1976) argue,the merepresenceof threebroad
categoriesdoes not warrantthe collapsingof scales into these cate-
gories;consequently,resultson each scale were evaluatedas separ-
ate from these broaderdimensions.
After each speakerwas shownto the participants,the videotape
was paused to allow time for the participantsto complete the 20
scales. The session with each class of students lasted approxi-
mately 30-35 minutes. After data collection was completed, the
computersheets were scannedinto a datafile thatwas compatible
with SPSS for Windows 8.0.


A total of 261 participantstook partin the study and were dis-

tributedequally by gender (129 men, 132 women) and race (138
White, 123 Black). Ages rangedfrom 16 to 22, which, although
offering a young demographicfor generalizability,still yielded
resultswith heuristicvalue. One hundredthirty-threewere college
students (median age 19.8) and 128 were high school students
(median age 17.2). No significant differences were determined
dependenton the gender or age of the participantand thus were
deemed unnecessaryfor reportingwith cross-tabs.Table 1 repre-
sents scale ratingsfor each of the 20 scales, subdividedby the three
largerdimensionsof competence,trustworthiness,and social dis-
tance.Forall scales, 1.00 wouldbe a scorematchingthe termon the
left, whereas7.00 would be a score matchingthe termon the right.
Meansarederivedas being on a continuumbetween 1.00 and7.00.
The tableindicatesmanysignificantdifferences.Six differences
were detectedon the first 10 scales, which measuredcompetence
andtrustworthiness.First,Black speakersof SAE werepreferredto
Whitespeakersof SAE on all 10 scales. These differencesappearto
be the resultof a novelty effect- manyrespondentshave surmised
thata Black speakerwould use a form of BE, thus causingthem to
rateBlacks more favorablywhen they instead spoke SAE.
Second, not surprisingly,BE clearly lowered the ratings of
speakers,leading to diminishedratingsin 7 of the first 10 dimen-
sions including intelligence, articulation,aggression, education,
andqualification(all five measuresof competence).Still, severalof
the scales measuring trustworthiness- particularly honesty,
likability,and attractiveness- barelywaveredat all. Althoughone
cannotconfirmthe null hypothesis,one could postulatethatcom-
petenceaspectsof personperceptionaffectBE speakersmorethan
trustaspects.Third,scales measuringcompetence(qualified,edu-
cated) were all found to yield higher ratings from White partici-
pants.Similarly,Whitespreferredspeakersof theirown racein sev-
eral measurementsof character(likability,believability,honesty).
Fourth,Blacks foundWhite speakersof SAE to be moreattractive,
kind, and articulate.In fact, Black participantswere much harsher
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criticsof BE thanwereWhites,a resultthatimplies a repudiationof

the perceivedconnectionbetween Blacks andthe use of BE. Fifth,
Blacks still ratedBlack speakersof SAE much more highly than
White speakersof SAE in several areas, most notably attractive-
ness, believability,aggressiveness,and qualification.In contrast,
the only time Black speakersof SAE scored higher than White
speakers was within the realm of honesty. Finally, the use of
MANOVAindicatedthatdialect, race, and even the interactionof
the two almost always resultedin significantdifferences.Thus, it
can be concludedthatwithin almost all variables,the dialect used
and the race of the person who is speakingcan significantlyalter
ratingsof person perception.More succinctly,both Hypothesis 1
(which arguedthat measures of competence would vary greatly
when race anddialectvariablesaremanipulated)andHypothesis2
(which purportedthatmeasuresof trustworthinesswould not vary
greatly when race and dialect variables are manipulated)were
confirmed. Significant differences were noted on many levels,
often being subdividedbetween these two broaddimensions.
In addition,threemajorfindingscan be witnessedwithinthe 10
scales measuringdesired social distance.First, althoughall 10 of
the competence and trustworthinessmeasuresindicated slight to
significantpreferencesfor Black speakersof SAE overtheirWhite
counterparts,resultson social distancescales did not mirrorthese
findings. When the Blacks spoke BE instead, all 10 ratingsof the
same Black speakersloweredwhen the dialectchangedfrom SAE
to BE Second, almost universally,Whites preferredWhites and
Blacks preferredBlacks. The fact that behaviors still seem to be
largely separatedbased on race and regardlessof dialect is very
importantto the understandingof race relations in this country.
Blacks were found to be harsh critics of BE speakerswithin di-
mensions of competenceand trustworthiness,yet still preferredto
be in the company of these speakersmore than with the White
speakersof SAE. Finally, MANOVAresults indicate significant
overallinteractionswithinthe domainof social distance.Race and
dialect were found to often cause significantdifferencesin ratings
of person perceptionseparatelyand collectively. Thus, for many
reasons, Hypothesis 3 was confirmed,as measuresof social dis-

tancefluctuatedgreatlywhen the variablesof raceanddialectwere


Conclusionsderivedfrom the resultsof the studycan be articu-
lated at many levels. In attemptingto explain differences that
occurredwith the manipulationof races and dialects, perhapsthe
most logical reasonfor suchdifferenceslies in the Black bias many
participantslikely expected entering the experiment. Because
manyBlack speakershavebeen portrayedas havingpoorgrammar
and BE dialect (Smitherman,1977), a small but significant seg-
ment of the participantsmay have expected the same from the
speakerson the tape.
Similarly,even more distinctprofileswere detectedwhen com-
paringBlacks speakingSAE with the same Black speakersspeak-
ing BE. Withinthe firsttwo dimensions,7 of the 10 scales indicated
lower person perceptionof the BE speakers.The only scales that
did not show significantmovementbetweendialectswere honesty,
likability,and attractiveness- all of which were measuresof per-
ceived trust. Although stating that these three variables are not
affectedby dialectchangeswouldbe anincompleteleap, one could
is not as strongas the relationshipswith the seven othervariables
measuringcompetenceand trust.
Within measuresof social distance, the same concrete profile
differencesemerged.Only two of the scales did not yield signifi-
cantly lower ratings for speakersof SAE. Still, with eight of the
measuresresultingin negative ratingsof BE speakers,one could
ascertainthatnot only does a dimensionalprofileexist, butalso this
profile points to problems with the way people feel about and
wouldpotentiallyact towardspeakersof the BE dialect.Even more
intriguing,however,was the completechangein ratingsthatimme-
diately took place within this second realm of the study, where
Blackspreferredthese samespeakers7 times out of 10 on measures
of desired social distance.

Concurringwith Cronkhiteand Liska (1976), the situationob-

viously can affect how credibility is derived. Building upon
CronkhiteandLiska,raceanddialectshouldbe consideredintegral
partsof the communicationsituationthat is being evaluated.Fur-
theringthe workof past social scientists,this studyfound speakers
of BE to be perceived as having lower credibilityin many areas.
However,buildingupon such findings,this studyisolates two new
findings that positively alter the heuristic value of the research.
First, althoughcredibilitydecreasedin many areas,it did not de-
creasein all areas.This studyfoundutilityin measuringcredibility
dimensions.This confirmsthe work of Cronkhiteand Liska, who
arguedthat differentitems of credibilitymeasurementshould be
employeddependingon the given speakingsituation.Second, this
reevaluateshow the race of the person evaluating the speaker
effects overallratings,findingthatBlacks rejectedthe competence
of the dialecteven morethanWhites.This findingis obviouslyvery
importantbecause it could indicatethat the change in termsfrom
"BlackEnglish"to "Ebonics"was not merely a semanticshift. In-
stead, the removalof the word "Black"in favor of using the term
"Ebonics"may be the result of many Black speakersof SAE who
desperatelywantedto separatethemselves from the dialect.
As Americansociety continues to endorse multiculturalismin
the 1990s, it has become clearthatthe only way to eliminatediffer-
ences betweenthe racesis to firstilluminatethese differences.The
Oakland School Board decision that endorsed the teaching of
Ebonics as a foreign language only polarized both sides of this
debate. This study shed light upon the differences that exist be-
tween the ways Blacks andWhitesreporttheirperceptionsof cred-
ibility across dialectical boundaries.Although some may argue
thatthe separationof racesfor the purposeof the studyonly widens
the divide, it is more likely that this researchcan bring cultures
togetherthroughexplaining how Whites and Blacks were cogni-
tively and behaviorallydifferent.Once researchdemonstratesthe
ways in which the races differ, futureresearchcan begin to pin-
point why these differencesexist. And once we reach the level of

addressingthe roots of difference,trueintegration,ratherthanas-

similation,will soon follow.


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AndrewC. Billings (Ph.D., Indiana University,1999) is an assistantprofessorin the

Departmentof CommunicationStudies at Clemson University.He has published
more than 30 articles examiningthe role of gender, ethnicity,and nationality in