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January 18, 2006

Language, Class, and Culture

As I was riding the Market-Frankford El from work today, looking down
at the buildings, streets, and people below, I realized how far removed
I am from the reality that was around me. 

It’s not that I never realized it before; much to the contrary, it’s
something I think about every day.  Despite the movies I’ve seen,
the books I’ve read, and the experiences I’ve had, I have little
concept of what it’s like to live in an impoverished, neglected
neighborhood.  I’ve experienced hunger–but never without knowing
that I would eventually be satisfied; I’ve experienced a freezing cold
apartment–but never without having alternative options available
should the situation go unremedied; and I’ve experienced fear for my
life–but never without assurance that it was short-lived and that I
would soon be able to return to a safer environment.  For those of
us who have family, friends, and funds to fall back on should life go
awry, the assurance that discomfort and uncertainty are short-lived
prevent us, I believe, from ever really knowing, in any real way, what
it is like to live in poverty.

The inability to know what another person’s life is like does not,
however, prevent me from empathizing with someone else.  I find
myself connecting with individuals I see on the subway or the street
via other shared experiences.  For example, when I see another
young woman with red, puffy eyes trying to choke back tears, I think
back to times when I have suffered an argument or a disappointment that
left me struggling to maintain my composure as I pass through public
places on my way to privacy.  I know what sadness, stress, hunger,
frustration, and other emotions feel like; I have felt those emotions
strongly enough to know that I would not want to experience them for
longer than a few moments, which enables me to feel empathy for anyone
who experiences them whether briefly or for extended periods of time.

I am naturally intrigued by life experiences different from my own, so
I frequently find myself putting my book or newspaper aside on the
subway to people watch and, often, to people listen.  I like to
look into the window as if I’m looking out across the landscape–which
features block after block of rundown rowhouses, with the Delaware
River in the distance–while really I’m looking in
at the reflections of those next to me or across from me on the
train.   These are the moments when my heart so often goes
out to fellow Philadelphians, if I can call them fellow–indeed, we
live in much different Philadelphias; the tired, overworked,
overstressed faces I described in my previous entry make me both angry
and motivated:  angry at those with privilege who fail to
acknowledge the drastic differences that persist in our society; and
motivated to use my own privilege to make a change in the way our world
is run.

Because I’m so interested in language, I’m especially intrigued by the
white teenagers I increasingly see on the subway who speak African
American English (as opposed to Standard English, which very few people
actually speak!).  [Note:  for those of you who aren’t aware,
African American English is, in fact, a language of its own, with a
grammatical structure distinctive from Standard English; it is not
merely slang or “bad English,” as many believe.  For example, “He
be running” isn’t bad English for “He is running”; it actually
indicates habit or continuation, translating roughly as “He runs” or
“He is a runner.”] 

It is fascinating for me to hear a white person speak, naturally and
with fluency, a language that I am accustomed to hearing only black
people speak.  What is even more fascinating to me is to realize
that African American English, rather than Standard English, is the
language spoken by many latino youth, who, naturally, are picking up
the language structures they are most often exposed to.  I believe
this underscores the significant cultural chasm that exists between the
mid to upper classes and the lower classes in the United States.

Well, I’m sure you have email to check or other blogs to read, so I’ll end here.  More thoughts to come shortly, I’m sure.

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