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Indexing Respectability

Wed June 12th 2024, 11:00am
Terrace Room, Margaret Jacks Hall (Building 460, Room 426)


African American women were historically excluded from ideas about who “counts” as a speaker of AAE, and their speech behavior was oversimplified as white accommodating. Furthermore, early literature on language and gender tended to focus on the speech of white women, rendering African American women nearly invisible. My dissertation seeks to redress these epistemic injustices. I examine the linguistic expression of respectability and respectability politics among African American women in Sacramento, CA. Using speakers' narratives, I uncover three logics women use to orient to the respectability regime, which I call Traditionalist, Radicalist, and Black Bourgeoisie.

In the first paper, I show how Traditionalist women use features of the California Vowel Shift (CVS) to meet the expectation that Black women should adhere to dominant white standards of language. In the second paper, I show that Radicalists refuse participation in CVS – actively rejecting the white gaze – and show how one Radicalist, who aligns her speech with the African American Vowel System (AAVS), re-appraises the value of AAE in the linguistic economy. In the third paper, I show how Bougie Black Women draw on established meanings of CVS and AAVS to generate new indexical meanings. I then show how one Bougie speaker produces a wide range for DRESS encompassing both CVS and AAVS and TRAP in line with CVS to challenge the limits of the meanings of Black upper-class through bricolage. Across all three papers, I discuss the semiotic resources African American women use to perform these modes of respectability, including hairstyles, ways of dressing, tastes, religion, and education. I conclude with a discussion of how African American women work within models of personhood and beyond them to imagine new possibilities for Black female personhood.