Please Stop Calling African Languages “Dialects”

Almost every single time I talk about my Tanzanian roots with non-Africans, I brace myself for the inevitable. It starts out benignly enough. A glimmer of curiosity sparks in their eye when I mention Tanzania. 

“Where is that exactly?” they ask warmly. I tell them. I’m happy to answer questions and broaden anyone’s imagination of Africa.

“What do they speak there?” they continue, smiling. I answer the question, but prepare myself for what’s about to come…

“Is that the main dialect?/Do they speak other dialects there?/How many dialects are there exactly?”

Me in my intermediate Spanish class. I decided to take more classes this time around.

Me, tired and slightly cold in my Spanish class here in Santiago. That’s the face I make when I hear the words “African dialect”.

Dialects. DIALECTS. I cringe. My blood simmers. But instead of yelling, “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!” I pause, take a breath and answer, “oh, yes that is the main language/actually there are 129 different languages spoken in Tanzania” and try not to look too annoyed. After all, most of these people are well-meaning and sincerely curious, just dangerously miseducated about Africa and Africans like 90% of the world. 

Sadly, this doesn’t just happen in personal conversations. Respected news sources (see HERE and HERE, and HERE) regularly use that dreaded word to describe what is actually an African language. In fact, a recent post on one of my favorite Facebook pages, “AfroPunk” an entertainment page dedicated to “celebrating the creativity and freedom of spirit in alternative Black culture” led me to write this post. In the description section about the release of a new music video by Jojo Abot, Ewe, a language spoken by more than 3 million people in Ghana, was referred to as a “dialect”. (They have since changed the post to say language). 

So What’s the Problem?

Assuming that African people speak “dialects” instead of languages is just one manifestation of a larger problem: seeing African people as culturally and intellectually inferior. As people who have somehow not developed enough to even be able to create their own full languages. After all, languages have rules and grammar and complicated vocabulary. Dialects…well, not so much.

It’s understandable. Most people’s conception of Africans is born out of National Geographic images: minimally dressed brown people sandwiched between shots of lions and red sunsets, people speaking in clicks and other unintelligible sounds (translation: sounds that THEY can’t make. Taa, a Khoisan “click” language spoken in South Africa actually has more phonemes, or distinct sounds, than any other language in the world!) and therefore become more equated with animal noises instead of the complex HUMAN language sounds that they are. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First…

What even IS a dialect?

According to linguists, “dialect” refers to the variations (vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation) within a language, spoken by a particular group of people. So dialects COME OUT of a language. Y’all, dialects are basically accents! Regional accents! So asking “what dialects do they speak in ___African country?” is almost equivalent to asking, “what accents do they speak in ___African country?” It makes no sense to ask someone what accents a group of people speak before you ask what languages they speak! 

Which leads me to the next point about dialects. Max Weinreich, a famous sociolinguist once said, “language is a dialect with an army and navy”. Phew! Meaning, the distinction between language and dialect is really socio-political! It has been used to give prestige and importance to certain groups of people (those in power) and strip those qualities away from others (socially and economically oppressed groups). This difference has even helped groups of people claim their own states and deny other groups their right to independence. (see, Ukraine, the Balkans). 

The Written Word

But there’s more. People often imagine languages as having their own writing systems (and therefore, more advanced and complex) and dialects as those that are only spoken. But only a small percentage of the 6,000-7,000 languages in the world actually have their own writing systems (there are 36)! And apparently, the most complex language in the world (according to an interesting piece in The Economist) is Tuyuca, a language spoken in the Amazon, that has no writing system of its own.

My Spanish teacher's notes for me. Apparently we were talking about the electoral system, breastfeeding and the 1970s...

My Spanish teacher’s notes for me. Apparently we were talking about the electoral system, breastfeeding and the 1970s…

Now when most people think about ‘written language systems’, Africa is probably one of the LAST places to come to mind. Whenever we hear about systems of communication in Africa we mostly hear about drums, music and oral history. And since Africa is filtered through a lens of racial prejudice and considered to be less advanced (ie; civilized) than other parts of the world, very little importance is placed on these drums and oral traditions which are are actually quite complicated, fascinating and diverse. Oral traditions that include beautiful and profound poetry (yes, POETRY) myths, proverbs and multi-layered participatory musical communication through drumming are often swept under the rug and regarded as pure instinct or impulse. You know the whole, “African people are just so muuuuusical”, as if oral communication happens without any intellectual thought or purposeful development. In fact, one really has to go out of their way to even learn about these various forms of art and communication (yes, ART not “artifacts”! That’s another post though…) which is maddening. But even more interesting is the fact that….get ready for it….AFRICA ACTUALLY HAS A LONG HISTORY OF WRITTEN SYSTEMS!

And I’m not even talking about Ancient Egypt. (I don’t want to get into the many contributions of black Africans in Ancient Egypt because that subject has been done and done by many others and would be an entirely separate post). 

Nsbidi, an ancient script thought to have started in 5,000 B.C. and is still in use today, developed in West Central Africa (what is now Nigeria and Cameroon). It was used mainly for sacred texts, but also had a version for popular/secular use.

Vai, a written language from Liberia/Sierra Leone was once thought to have begun in the 1830s but Vai inscriptions actually date back to 3,000 B.C.

And Ethiopians of course, have been using Ethiopic or Ge’ez since forever (800 BC till today). 


And this is just a sample.

I only mention these writing systems because I want to reveal how the complexity of African languages is not limited to the spoken word. I feel the need to mention the history of African writing because of the great importance we place on the written word and it’s relationship to advanced societies today. But of course, most of the world is using the Latin, Arabic or Chinese alphabet anyway so…


Calling African languages, “dialects” is what I consider one of many microaggressions. They are usually “innocent” and “well-meaning”  but do cause damage over time. It’s like getting accidentally knocked over by someone on the metro. But a thousand times. After awhile you really start to get angry and bruised, and you realize it’s happening because people either think you’re invisible, or not that important or a combination of both. 

In the grand scheme of racism and prejudice does the term “dialect” instead of “language” really matter?

Hell yes it does!

Because it only enforces condescending beliefs about Africa and Africans. Because it continues the pattern of imagining African people as inferior. And that IS dangerous. It’s one of the reasons why the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so necessary. The fact that we even have to cry, “BLACK LIVES MATTER” is because we all receive messages either consciously or subconsciously, to the contrary. This dialect vs. language distinction is one of the many harmful subconscious messages we receive. 

So please, let’s start calling African languages, LANGUAGES. Because that’s what they are. 

That Foreign Feeling

As our plane began its descent, a thick yellowish-brown film of smog began to appear. At eye level were  the bright tops of the snow-capped Andes mountains, fluffy white clouds and a placid morning blue. Below us, the city of Santiago, drowning in a haze of car exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke (Chile has the highest smoking rates in Latin America!) and winter germs.  They told us the air was bad, but we didn’t expect to actually SEE it!  As the plane touched down, our one year old produced an enormous diarrhea that went up to the back of her neck and stained my jeans and shirt. We were prepared for this since she was on some antibiotics for an ear infection, but the timing was pretty funny. We scrambled to clean and change her (and me) but were still the last ones off the plane with the pilot and flight attendants patiently waiting to escort us out.  We were greeted by the strong smell of a leaking toilet bowl. Our minds immediately went to the thick blanket of pollution hovering above the city. Was this for real??? How and why did we go from the clean, crisp summer air of lovely Vermont to this toxin infested bowl of winter??? 


To be honest, I was scared to come back so soon. We were just getting into the best season of the year and were really beginning to enjoy our new home and neighborhood. Every single warm and sunny day was spent by the lake. D would grill us some corn, with beef or chicken or fish, potatoes and/or eggplant, the girls would dip their feet in the water and play games in the sand. This particular place had bad cell phone service so we were forced to be totally present for once! 👀😳 (isn’t it terrible how smartphones have made us so dependent on the internet and all of its useless information?! Of course I appreciate what the internet has done for our lives, including the cultivation of these new social movements #blacklivesmatter #sayhername, but I also realize that I’ve spent a disgusting amount of time being sucked in by headlines like, “watch this orangutan become friends with this golden retriever!” Like really? Is this how I want to spend my life?”) After the lake we would stop by an old fashioned ice cream parlor and get a “small” soft serve ice cream in our favorite flavors before heading home.

And M. was finally getting used to our new life, What started out as a once a week meltdown/cry, “I want to go back to Chile!” had finally become a once-every-other-week question, “but why don’t we live in Chile?” So if we left for Chile for 2 months wouldn’t we be erasing all of that progress?? I was also afraid for myself. Although I was really grateful that we had been able to spend a little over 2 years in my husbands country-of-origin, getting to know almost all of his family and friends, and building a foundation for our girls to have a sense of their Chilean identity, including being able to speak Spanish, I could never shake that foreign feeling.

Every single time I stepped out of our apartment I was always hyper aware of my otherness, of my Blackness. Not even in a bad way! More like, “oh it’s a really nice day today, I’m a black non-Latina woman, I wonder if we will need sweaters…” Or, “wow, the park is pretty full today and I am a black African woman with locs, maybe I should call D. to join us here after work?” And, “OK, so we have bread, eggs, I should get the juice and I’m a black Tanzanian descended woman raised in the US and oh we should probably get some cheese too”. It was exhausting, but I couldn’t free myself from that feeling. Coupled by the fact that I needed a translator at every doctors appointment and I couldn’t drive for the first time since getting my license at 16 (it really should be mandatory to learn stick shift/manual in the US!) I felt that I had spent 2 years losing independence and even a sense of myself. Coming back to the US felt liberating and I even got my septum pierced recently which somehow seemed to symbolize that “return” to myself and my freedom.


At the airport, two people asked if we were moving to another country for good. D. and I were both annoyed and embarrassed by this question because we take pride in how good we both are at packing light. Not this time apparently. We lumbered into the small international airport in Burlington with a double stroller (to our credit it’s not a “proper” double stroller! It has one full seat and behind it there is a smaller seat for an older kid.) 5 carry-on pieces and 2 large metal suitcase carts carrying our 6 suitcases and 2 huge child car seats. We didn’t even have a scale at home so we had no idea how much they weighed. By some miracle everything weighed exactly 50 lbs (the limit) and we didn’t have to pay a penny extra.

Inside one of the suitcases was an insane amount of toys and books (50 LBS!!!). Even though M´s  4th birthday was in six days and I KNEW she would be receiving lots of gifts, on top of the gifts both of them would receive for being back in Santiago, I STILL convinced myself that it was an “important” part of creating stability amidst all of the chaos of moving countries and seasons (P.S., the toys are now just taking up space and getting on my nerves). 

Inside another suitcase was a mini pharmacy that included an essential oil diffuser, 4 bottles of essential oils, one called “germ fighter”, zinc lozenges, sambucus syrup for kids and adults and kids probiotics. Santiago winter germs are not a joke, and I wanted to be fully prepared. (Spoiler: 3 out of 4 us still got violently ill).


As our 1 year old stuffed her face into the space between our seats to smile at the passengers behind us, right after shrieking at the top of her lungs (a piercing, eardrum destroying sound) all because I had tried to sit her properly on my lap, D. and I whispered to each other, “OMG we’re every passenger’s worst nightmare. How is this happening?”  We were still sweating from running from one terminal to the other (five elevators, two escalators and one train later….) after the door of our first plane’s luggage compartment got stuck and delayed us by thirty minutes. This was not the glamorous jet-setting life I had imagined.

Luckily for us and our co-passengers, S. slept through the night. Although, at least three times throughout the trip, D. and I, sweat-stained and puffy-eyed and scrunched over with both girls draped across us, had this exchange: “Wow, Chile is really far away.” “I know right?!” It was probably the most uncomfortable plane ride I’ve ever experienced.  

That being said, we made it in one piece and so did all of our luggage. After the toilet bowl smell evaporated, I was reminded of one of the biggest perks of living in Chile with small children: preferential treatment in public spaces! Despite the airport being ridiculously full because of Copa America, we were immediately ushered into a fast line and only had to wait  at most, 30 seconds to be seen! Woo-hoo! The same thing happened at Police. We probably saved ourselves an additional two hours.  Once we settled into our temporary furnished apartment, I was able to sneak off and take a long nap (Yay, family!!!) and woke up to the sound of M. laughing deliriously. She was not able to stop laughing that whole day. That, above everything else, made me feel like this trip, despite it being winter and it delaying our adjustment to our new home, was totally worth it. 

Lots of national pride leading up to the final game of Copa America

Lots of national pride leading up to the final game of Copa America

We made it!

We made it!

Why White People Can’t Be Black, and Other Thoughts (Or, Not Another Piece About Rachel Dolezal! aka, Are We Still Talking About This?!)

I know I’m two days too late, and in internet time that’s the equivalent of being two years too late, but I had to put my thoughts in writing. I’m not sure if I add anything new to this conversation since so many people have written about this by now, but I’m doing it anyway! 


By now everyone has heard of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman and NAACP Spokane, Washington Chapter President who spent years lying about being Black. What started out as a juicy piece of gossip quickly erupted into a national conversation about race and identity. And as soon as I read the story, I knew people would try to drag Caitlyn Jenner and other transgendered people into her foolishness. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wrong. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

What is a Black Person?

#AskRachel on Twitter was probably one of the funniest and most interesting reactions to come out of this controversy. The premise of the hashtag being that if Rachel was “really” Black, she would know the answers to questions like:

What’s interesting about these #AskRachel questions though, is that most of them involve music and media; lyrics from rap and R&B songs that played regularly on radio stations throughout the world, TV shows and movies with Black characters that were broadcast on national stations and were in syndication for years. In other words, stuff white (and Latino and Asian) people also grew up with and wouldn’t hesitate to answer enthusiastically and correctly. But that doesn’t make them Black, does it.

So then there were the #AskRachel questions about family life. And church life. And food.

These are trickier.  These were about the intimate spaces of Black people, ones that (most) white people wouldn’t have access to. But a lot of Black people don’t have access to these spaces either. Because they are about a very specific Black experience. A Black AMERICAN experience with Southern roots. As a 1st generation American raised by Tanzanian parents with immigrant friends from Asia and Latin America, I still can’t answer the potato salad question (yellow or white? huh?) My mother never talked about “McDonald’s money” and I had no idea what a “kitchen” was  (the kinky hair at the nape of our necks) until I took an African-American studies class in college. But that doesn’t mean I’m not Black, does it.

So it’s clear that there is no ONE Black culture, and having access to elements of Black culture doesn’t make you Black…so then…what is Blackness?

meme black

The Skin I’m In

Nobody questions my Blackness because I have brown skin, kinky locs, a wide nose and full lips. But we know Blackness is not just about skin color or facial features. There are Black identified folks who are lighter than Rachel Dolezal. Black folks with blonde hair and blue eyes. Black folks with white parents. Black folks with white kids. So what makes us Black?

When I visited Tanzania as a kid, the children there would call me and my siblings “Mzungu” or “white person”. Although our biological grandparents were right there speaking Kihaya and Swahili with them, we were still white people. We spoke, walked, dressed, acted in a way that they only associated with white people and therefore, we were white folk too. The argument “We are all Black” wouldn’t even make sense to many Africans because their concept of racial and cultural identity is not Pan-African but tied to their very specific regional customs and languages. Many dark-skinned Africans living in sub-Saharan Africa would not be able to answer any of the #AskRachel questions. But aren’t they Black?

Systems of Power Define Us

Colonial Anglo-Saxon European people in power, aka “white” people, were the ones who first defined us. They were the ones who decided one drop of African blood = Negro or Black. We did not know that we were all supposed to be connected until those European people in power decided to enslave and colonize those of us who lived on the African continent.

But then we took back their definition of us to fight their oppression. We actively look for connections and celebrate them instead of allowing ourselves to be destroyed by them. “They” told us we were Black to justify oppressing us, and we reclaim that identity to empower us. “Yes, we are Black. And Black is beautiful”. 

Black is Political

When I say I’m Black, I’m connecting myself to millions of other African descended people around the globe. I’m saying, although we may have differences, I choose to recognize our similarities. It’s a statement of solidarity.

Honor the Ancestors

I think this is probably the most important part. We are who we are because of our ancestors. Or better yet, we were born because our ancestors survived and reproduced. Our ancestors who became Black, not because they wanted to but because they were forced to, were colonized and enslaved into it. They suffered heavily because of it. They lost their cultures and histories because of it. And when we say we are Black we are calling on that history and remembering them and honoring them. We are recognizing their struggle and saying, “Despite it all, We Are Still Here”.

So that’s why it doesn’t make sense for a white woman to claim Blackness, no matter how passionately she may be about advancing the lives of Black folk. She is not here despite it all, she is here because of it all.

And she is a liar. As my husband pointed out, the biggest issue with Rachel Dolezal is the deceit. In fact, it completely contradicts Black identity. A light-skinned, “white presenting” person who could pass as white but identifies as Black is admitting something about their history. They are choosing to accept the past, choosing to accept those ancestors and family members who struggled and survived. A white person claiming to be Black is denying that history of racism and oppression. They are saying Blackness is not about our heritage and history but about a performance. Even if their performance looks and feels authentic and/or respectful, it is still a mockery of Blackness because it denies the past. The past that made us Black in the first place.

Why Transgender People are Not like Rachel Dolezal

Since transgender people were dragged into the conversation, it made me think about the ways gender and race are similar and different as social constructs. I will admit that it is a complicated conversation, but the easiest way for me to understand it is this:  Every culture and society in human history has had males and females, men and women. How we choose to present our maleness and femaleness has varied throughout human history and look different depending on the society, but the possibility for those two roles has always been there. (And actually more than two roles since intersex people–those born with ambiguous genitalia or sex organs, have always existed).

When my mother was pregnant with me my parents had a boy name and a girl name in preparation. They knew I could be one or the other. However, being anything other than Black (Tanzanian, Haya) was not an option because that’s what they were and my grandparents were, etc. And given my readily identifiable Black features, that’s also how the world would see me.

But we are all made up of male (our father) and female (our mother) parts. We are all exposed to male and female identities. And while the easiest (laziest) way to identify someone as male and female is through their genitalia and physical appearance, we know that being male or female involves much more than that. In fact, many societies throughout history have understood this and created spaces for transgender people. Some more information about that Here and Here.

Simply put, race, as we understand it today, is a fairly new concept that relies on specific historical events and context, but sex and gender have been around forever. 

So…are you still reading? Is anyone there? LOL. There’s so much more to say about this subject, but i’ll leave it there. I also want to add that I find Rachel Dolezal’s story more sad and silly than offensive. But I’m glad that her story has gotten me to think more about how and why we define ourselves the way we do.