Summary of “The Language of Multiple Identities among Dominican Americans” by Benjamin Bailey

The Language of Multiple Identities among Dominican Americans by Benjamin Bailey explores the language used by Dominican Americans and its relationship to their identities in the United States. Dominican American lineage includes Hispanic, American, and African. Therefore, the majority of group members are racially mixed. On top of being racially mixed, Dominican American group members are multilingual speakers (Spanish and English). Due to the multiracial and multi-linguistic traits that the group holds, not all group members agree on the same self-identification. To further understand how linguistics play a role in shaping self-identity, including racial and ethnic categories, Bailey conducted ethnographic research on mostly low-income Dominican Americans second-generation high school students at Rhode Island, focusing on their use of language. 

The second generation high school Dominican American students alternate their language from Dominican Spanish, African American English (AAVE), and the standard form of English; generally code-switching between Spanish and English. The students use and alternate between these languages to differentiate themselves from European Americans, African Americans, as well as in-group Dominican American members. Unlike European and African Americans who choose their identity that’s determined on a black and white scale, the Dominican American students choose to identify themselves through their ethnic traits: language. In a conversation that Bailey observed between two students named Isabelle and Janelle, the students were speaking in Spanish and English, casually code-switching between the two languages as they conversed. They were speaking in English, however, AAVE was used instead of standard English. Bailey writes, “…AAVE linguistic forms not only display a sociopolitical position or stance to others, but rather also suggest membership in an essentialized racial group” (204). This demonstrates the idea that Dominican Americans use AAVE to distinguish from the dominant group. They are choosing to classify themselves in a group that is neither Black nor White.

The students’ relationships are closer to their African American peers than their White peers, but they do not consider themselves Black.  Even when they are phenotypically similar to their African American friends, and even when they are seen as African American by others, they argue that they are not Black because they speak Spanish. For Dominican American students, phenotype and ancestry are ignored if they are Dominican and Spanish speaking. Thus, this system of classifying identity is based on traits of individuals and not one’s race. For this reason, Bailey makes it clear that language is a tool in shaping Dominican American’s identity. 

As Dominican American students oppose self-identifying as Black, they also oppose self-identifying as White even though they may appear white in skin color. Dominican American students use both AAVE and Spanish to differentiate themselves from being White. Oftentimes when an in-group member speaks standard English, they are criticized for “talking White”. In a sense, Dominican American students are mocking the standard form of English, as well as their own group members for using it. Mocking the standard form of English is a way that Dominican American students are resisting to become part of the dominant group and to maintain the social boundaries with White group members. However, this mockery of using standard English can lead in-group members to feel like an outcast. A student named Rosa that Bailey interviewed stated that she felt at ease with White Americans, but she had to be careful with switching communicative styles when she interacted with members of different groups due to fear of being criticized (Bailey, 200). Consequently, this mockery can break the solidarity within the group. Nonetheless, Dominican Americans still do not self-identify as White even though they may use standard form English. In addition to mocking in-group members for using standard English, recent Dominican immigrants are also mocked for their usage of Spanish. Due to the difference in language use (code-switching) of Dominican American students and recently immigrated Dominicans, there is a distinction that makes in-group members different. Therefore Dominican Americans can be sometimes called “bootleg Dominican,” and similar negative comments are also made against Dominican immigrants. In sum, Bailey showcases that language is the main source of maintaining one’s identity, such as resisting standard English or that not knowing enough of the language may revoke one’s status of being an in-group member. 

Capturing the main points of the article, Bailey concluded that: Dominican Americans adopted AAVE to distinguish from the dominant group and to mock standard forms of English; Dominican Americans use the Spanish language rather than the racial category to self-identify; Dominican Americans also use Spanish to distinguish within in-group members. Through these points, it shows how language is used as a classification tool. Since Dominican Americans value their Spanish traits, their racial or ethnic category would be closer to Hispanic or Latinx as opposed to African American. By using language to determine self-identity, Dominican Americans are dismantling the racial hierarchy. In other words, Bailey’s arguments may be to point out how race is a social construct.  All in all, language isn’t just a spoken instrument but plays a significant role in one’s identity, including race and ethnicity.


Bailey, Benjamin. 2000. “The Language of Multiple Identities among Dominican Americans.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 10 (2): 190–223.

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