Does race define the way you speak?


DETROIT – It's happened to President Obama in a 2008 interview: He was accused of "talking white."

Then, a video posted on the website MediaTakeOut.com shows two students fighting at school. The headline? "Thug Bullies Classmate for "Talking White."

We've all likely been teased by other kids for doing something wrong, making a mistake or embarrassing ourselves, but one metro Detroit man was teased for most of his life for doing something the right way -- and he's not the only one.

Ralph Thompkins was about 9 years old when it started happening. Black kids his own age teased him for the way he spoke.

"I ended up going to a summer camp that was actually held in Detroit, and I grew up in Farmington Hills," Thompkins said. "So, the first time I went out there and I had said something, they're like 'Wow, you sound different.'"

As Thompkins got older, people continued to point out that he "talked white."

"What does that mean?" asked Local 4's Evrod Cassimy.

"You know, I don't know? I'm still trying to figure that out to this day," Thompkins said.

Social worker Dr. Ronald Hall studies speech patterns and race.

"There's a black language style but it doesn't have anything to do with race, but it's associated with race," Hall said. "If you grow up in a black environment, normally you're going to speak in a black speech pattern. But if you're white and grow up in a black environment you're probably going to speak a black language style as well."

Thompkins tried speaking more of what he felt was expected of him in school, hoping to avoid teasing.

"It'd be things of 'Wassup, homie?' You know, use of the n-word, which for me I didn't grow up with that in the household," Thomkpins said. "So, those things, 'What's up, what's going on,' just different types of slang that I honestly haven't heard before."

But it didn't work.

"As a pre-teen, as a teenager of course that stuff hurts," Thompkins said.

At Al's Barbershop on Detroit's west side, the stories were similar.

"I was being interviewed about a shopping thing by a local newscaster and when I got back to my softball team I was teased profusely," said Claude Allen May. "They were telling me, 'Oh, I saw you on the news and you were talking white."

"I would say things like water, you know? They'd say, 'Why you talking white?" added another customer.

"They're being critical and kind of being in a position that they're judging a person," another one commented.

Hall said that the people who are being teased need to understand that the problem doesn't lie within them, but that it's an issue the other person has.

These days, Thompkins is comfortable with the way he speaks. He said he believes that when it comes to speech, it's not black or white.

"The way you speak is where people can understand what you're saying," he said.

And while race doesn't define the way you speak, Hall said that overall it's always important to, no matter what, just be yourself.

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