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African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Black Vernacular English (BVA) or ebonics, is a historic American English dialect spoken by millions of people. It is part of our cultural DNA and is a blend of words and ways of speaking rooted in different African cultures, as well as the English spoken in southern states of the US, with additional contributions from Creole.
This way of speaking has been around for a long time negative connotations associated with it. People who speak AAVE are often seen as uneducated and not culturally appropriate in workplaces controlled by the dominant culture. Many black people are punished for a way of speaking that is deeply rooted in this country and yet, despite their education, achievements and awards, speaking AAVE can significantly diminish their professional prospects.
This should not be the case. Speaking a different dialect should not be at the expense of the professional impact, skills and value an employee brings. Companies that claim to support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) while discriminating against language or dialect should reconsider their stance on this issue.
I’m working on changing that. I help organizations break down barriers and integrate DEIB into their corporate frameworks with a people-centric approach. I will share how organizations like yours can be more aware of language and dialect biases to better meet their DEI and inclusion goals.
Rent for a culture “add”, not a culture “fit”
Many people who speak AAVE often get fired during the job interview because they don’t seem like a good cultural “fit.” I’ve talked before about the dangers of hiring culture-appropriate people, but it’s worth noting that language or dialect shouldn’t hinder one’s ability to contribute, add value, or participate in work life.
Instead of assuming that the status quo is the ideal culture in the company, consider the very real possibility that having people who speak AAVE or another dialect or language on the team could really be an “addition” are to the corporate culture. For example, maybe someone who speaks AAVE can bring a new perspective to business projects or dialogues. Or they may be able to connect with diverse partners and stakeholders in ways the dominant culture has not previously found successful. Think outside the box about how someone’s language or dialect actually can to expand your company culture instead of “fitting in”.
Related: Avoiding the Sea of Equity: How Hiring for Culture Improves DEI
Never judge a book by its cover
While people who speak AAVE are often described as “ghetto,” “loud,” or “aggressive,” that’s often a misconception. A good example is Angel Reese, a basketball player from Louisiana State University who has exploded in popularity in recent weeks. She has faced dialect and gender bias in the public eye.
Angel said, “I’m too capricious. I’m too ghetto. I don’t fit into the story and that’s fine with me. I’m from Baltimore, where you hoop and talk nonsense. If I were a boy, yes’ all would be no say nun.’ Angel was referring to a basketball culture that has a double standard for women, particularly women who speak like them While some are considered “ladylike” in sports, others are referred to as something else entirely.
Apply the same logic to the workplace. If an employee doesn’t speak exactly like another colleague who represents the norm of the work culture, is he still accepted and included? Why should language or dialect get in the way of someone fitting in in the workplace or preventing them from being hired in the first place?
DEI goes beyond skin and gender. Dialect and language should not create a hostile atmosphere in which black employees are undervalued, demeaned, or held at lower levels in the organization because of the way they speak.
Related: Hire like a diversity expert: 5 core qualities of inclusive employees
Bias against people who speak AAVE also harms organizations
Did you know that the fastest-growing entrepreneurial demographic in the United States are black women? Black women aren’t waiting for organizations that display biases in their corporate culture to accept them – they’ve moved on to building their own empires.
Organizations that knowingly or unknowingly distort their workforce based on the dialect of English spoken by the applicant ultimately suffer. As mentioned, dialect does not equate to intelligence, talent or value. Choosing not to hire a qualified candidate because they speak AAVE only forces them to take their talents elsewhere, often leaving organizations behind in terms of intellect, innovation and growth.
In this sense, bias not only harms the person experiencing it, but organizations as well. This kind of prejudice stops everyone. So why not remove the barrier to entry, create greater empathy and understanding for the different cultures living in the United States, and look at candidates through the lens of value, character, and contribution?
Related: 5 Qualities of Black Excellence Overlooked in the Workplace
Organizations lose every time they pass a candidate who speaks a dialect of English that is not the cultural norm. Race, gender, ability and other identifiers are all seen as important parts of DEI that contribute to organizational growth and innovation. But why are dialect and language omitted?
The people who experience the most bias are those who do not look or speak like those in the dominant culture. Sticking to the norm is not always the best or only way. I invite organizations to broaden their definition of belonging and value and raise awareness around dialect bias.
Human Resources and other groups involved in the hiring process and workforce management functions should set up bias guardrails that push hiring managers to discriminate against potential employees based on their dialect of English. The financial and cultural costs are too great to ignore. AAVE is in English and should be valued and seen as such within institutions.