Campus News

Student earns national attention for research on racism in language

In classrooms across the country, students might be scolded for using “ain’t” instead of “isn’t.” But a UW-Madison student is working to erase the stigma against Ebonics, also known as African-American Vernacular English.

UW-Madison junior Erika Gallagher conducted research about code switching, also known as code meshing, in which people change their regular speech tendencies to fit into the mold of what is commonly accepted as appropriate.

Ebonics is a variety of English that is commonly found in the center of large cities that have been historically populated primarily by black people. It is commonly found in slam poetry, as well as hip-hop and rap music.

Gallagher, a Posse scholar, began her research during her time as an undergraduate Writing Fellow this semester. She said she realized, as she sat in her seminar class of predominantly white students, that she wanted to focus on standard written English and how it excludes marginalized groups.

“I want to center the voices of the people who need to be centered,” Gallagher said. “As a Writing Fellow, as a white-passing person, I have a lot of power and privilege that should be shared.”

Gallagher conducted much of her research through three interviews. She talked to UW-Madison student leaders from marginalized groups and asked how they felt about code switching. She said all three “overwhelmingly” said it felt oppressive—one said “it is the biggest form of cognitive dissonance that exists.”

She presented her research at the Collegiate Conference on Composition and Communication in Portland, Ore., earlier this semester. She was selected as one of roughly two dozen undergraduates from across the U.S. to participate in the conference, which is typically attended by graduate students and professors.

Gallagher said she hopes to develop her research into a nonprofit organization that “teaches teachers to teach,” with the goal that educators will eventually express disclaimers at the start of each semester that state they will accept any form of English that students are comfortable with.

She also hopes increased acceptance of different rhetoric will encourage the formation of a campus-wide diversity statement.

“Just because you speak a different way doesn’t mean you’re not smart, but there’s a huge stigma around it,” Gallagher said. “I want to teach [educators] a different rhetoric, teach them to be more accepting.”

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