The mental health impact of the policing of Black British English

By Christina Idowu

Black British English (BBE) is a distinct language that directly connects us to our ancestors, who created and used their own language as a form of cultural resistance. Using elements of African and Caribbean languages, such as Pidgin and Patois, and Black-British vernacular to those who speak it and those who feel its cultural impact—Black English matters. Our language shapes how we see the world and ourselves. The words we choose and our meanings to them influence our decisions, beliefs, and well-being. 

For Black British English to be continuously dismissed and devalued as being linguistically broken, can be incredibly harmful to the identity of Black people globally who use this language to communicate in their daily lives. Being told repeatedly that Black British English is not considered standard, mainstream, or prestigious language can negatively impact our mental health. Language differences can lead to feelings of stigmatisation, discrimination, and ostracisation as many people, without thinking, harbour damaging assumptions about the different ways other people speak.

For Black students, in addition to the pressures of modern life intensified by the online world and social media, the policing of Black British English means striping and shrinking of your identity and being forced to adapt to the white mainstreamed surrounding culture. Labelling Black British English as the ‘wrong’ way to speak can quickly get embedded in everyday teaching practices and sustains anti-black racist practices and ideology in our schools. This leads to the internalisation of negative perceptions about how they speak which may lead to feels of unintelligence and inadequacy when using BBE in white spaces. 

Studies have shown the pervasive effects of internalised racism on Black children at a very early age. Banning how they communicate using Black British English can cause them to question their sense of belonging and foster self-doubt that must be worked through to regain a strong voice — a process that can take years. Similar to the concept of microaggressions, being silenced and being forced to change the way you speak can trigger stress, depression, anxiety, and even racial trauma. During a crucial time in Black students’ lives when their racial identity is developing, being unable to speak Black British English in schools can lead to Black children feeling misunderstood, unsafe, and unprotected by their teachers.  

The stigma around mental health, the absence of specialised Culturally safe services, and the institutionalised racism within MHA services mean that Black children and families are less likely to seek out or receive the mental health services they need. As a result, young Black people are scared, worried, overwhelmed, and concerned about their place and space in the world. Without proper platforms, in the community and outside of the NHS to unpack the stress and traumas they have endured, we will ultimately see more young people experience a mental health crisis and stressors. Children who have experienced trauma may be triggered in a school setting and exhibit emotional responses that are seen as erratic, unpredictable, and, at times, explosive. 

Discounting the Black student experience through policing Black British English can perpetuate feelings of hopelessness and cause a breeding ground for a psychology of victimhood, learned helplessness, and anger as a coping mechanism for continuous mental distress. The only way to prevent this is to start protecting Black students by challenging the deficit thinking and negative stereotypes about Black British English that permeates our classrooms and communities. Schools, teachers, and communities must recognise that multiple languages can co-exist and work toward dismantling anti-Black linguistic racism and strengthening the mental health of Black children.

Within our schools, where Black children spend most of their time, the use of Black British English must be encouraged to develop a positive racial identity alongside encouraging their bilingualism. It is important that Black students unlearn the harmful dialogue associated with using Black British English (e.g., home language, informal English, improper speech, etc.) that disrespects the existence and essence of Black Languages. It is the responsibility of teachers, educators, and schools to acknowledge and celebrate Black students’ use of Black British English as a valid system of language, with its own consistent grammar, structureand form. It is imperative that we focus efforts on supporting Black children’s mental health and this takes unified, meaningful efforts from parents, educators, and community leaders in order to provide a safe, secure, and welcoming environment for Black students.


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