Why Cardi B’s undoing of appropriateness liberates us all

American rapper Cardi B performing on stage. Photo by Diana Rubio on Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

By Patriann Smith

On February 5, 2018, approximately two weeks before the much anticipated release of the superhero film “Black Panther,” multilingual American rapper Cardi B, who is of Trinidadian and Dominican heritage, told Teen Vogue:

One thing that always bothers me is that people know so little about my culture. We are Caribbean people, and a lot of people be attacking me because they feel like I don’t be saying that I’m Black. […] Some people want to decide if you’re Black or not, depending on your skin complexion, because they don’t understand Caribbean people or our culture.

Her comments speak to the contentions that often emerge from being Black in America — but as an immigrant whose Caribbean roots are often not tied to just one nation state. Cardi B, who identifies as Afro-Latina, embraces both her African and Spanish heritage. These contentions can be further complicated by criticism about her “unbroken Englishes,” where speaking in ways that deviate from mainstream American English is cast as a marker of inferiority. Like many African Americans, Cardi B has wrestled with such perceptions of how she should function based on her race, language, and migration:

As one of my Caribbean participants in a study conducted in 2020 asked, “How does a Black Person Speak English?”

Cardi B’s challenges, though amplified because of her celebrity status, function as a stark reminder that these concerns are not new. Millions of Black people are routinely told about how they must perform Blackness based on their languaging. The long-standing markers of their performativity, which have historical origins in Eurocentrism, and are both leveraged by systems and co-opted by individuals, are typically based on how they use language, as well as the degree to which they can mask their immigrant origins or dissociate from them. As Marissa Smith Morgan observes, Cardi B’s experience, like so many others, is a reminder of long-standing discussions of Blackness, language, and ethnicity by scholars ranging from American sociologist, historian, and Pan-African civil rights activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, to legendary Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey.

Globally, the increased politicisation of Blackness as well as higher levels of immigration have created pervasive tensions that persist between Black immigrants and African Americans, even as decisive efforts are being made to build a lasting solidarity across Black peoples. It is no wonder that nuanced enactments of how race, migration, and language position Black immigrants in relation to Black Americans in and beyond the United States — a concept explored in “Black Panther” the movie as an almost diasporic reminder of “Black Panther” the movement — continue to remain in the spotlight.

Race has long been used as a proxy for language, and vice versa. For many Black immigrants in countries like Canada, the UK, and the US, this means they are perceived based on how they speak and sound, write and behave, even as they are judged based on how they look. For instance, in the United States, depending on how phenotypically dark one is as a Black immigrant or Black American, the manner of speaking is increasingly used to judge whether the individual in question is smart, good, or better than another Black person. For Cardi B and others who do not phenotypically appear to be Black, their “unbroken Englishes” create a dynamic where their personhoods are repeatedly cast as inferior.

African Americans who may not have immigrant backgrounds experience race and language similarly to Black immigrants in some ways, but differently in others. By the same token, Black immigrants can have experiences that allow them to function as Americans with their languaging, while retaining the immigrant-ness. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but many perceive them as such.

The ability to see this ‘both-and’ capacity of the individual racialised as Black based on language — as well as perceived as foreign based on their immigrant status — is critical for addressing the pitting of people perceived as Black immigrants against those considered to be Black Americans.

At a time when anti-immigration is being branded as nationalism even as former colonisers are being called to account for their horrible colonial ‘past’, it seems critical to address how language, which has always been at the center of Eurocentric subjugation, continues to be commingled with race.

For the African American child in the US whose language has for so long been discarded, attention to how race, language and migration intersect by institutional systems makes it clear that their Englishes are legitimate. For the white American who has been taught to mock the “unbroken Englishes” of other white people, they too begin to see that their parents once also came with languages that were discarded in favour of one “standard” Eurocentric notion of appropriateness based on proper sounding whiteness.

For the multilingual British parent of African origin raising Black British children in the UK, the focus is no longer to have the child “speak properly” but rather, to seek schools that legitimise languaging across the child’s repertoires. For the Black Caribbean family, the aspiration is no longer to master the Queen’s English but to implore governments to liberate the linguistic richness of Caribbean peoples so they rely on linguistic repertoires most suited to their communication. It is, after all, not the people and their languages that need changing, but the systems that respond to them based on the interplay of race, language, and migration.

As we see in the legitimate language and life of Cardi B who, like so many others, functions at a nexus where racialisation, national origins and languaging are constantly contested and shifting across borders, paying closer attention to how race, language and migration intersect to affect Black lives would mean freedom from the confines of appropriateness.

In turn, sanctioning the complication of what it means to be Black, to be immigrant, and to use language as either — or both! — would impact English as a second language (ESL), international students, and scholars alike. There is every reason to believe that increasingly mirroring Cardi B’s undoing of appropriateness may well be part of what liberates us all.

Patriann Smith, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of South Florida. Dr. Smith is well known for her award-winning research which considers how literacy teaching, research, assessment, and policy are influenced by the intersection of race, language and (im)migration. You can learn more about Smith and her work, here.

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