Much of our slang comes from the Black community. Not acknowledging that perpetuates racism.
Tap through TikTok and you'll fall down a slang-filled, dance-crazed rabbit hole a la "Alice in Wonderland."
A piece of advice: Don't repeat everything you hear on your sojourn down. Especially if you are white.
White people – on social media and in real life – regularly appropriate African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, like "slay" and "sis" without thinking, and some of these phrases come directly from the Black LGBTQ community. Experts say this perpetuates racism, erases Black contributions and fuels cultural misunderstandings. Simply put: It's Black linguistic appropriation.
"The divorcing of Black people from the way that we talk is really just another way of liking what Black people do, but not liking Black people," Nikki Lane, assistant professor at Spelman College, says. "It's very Elvis to me. You'll take our music, but you don't give us credit."
Take terms like "reading" (artfully insulting someone) or "shade" (a subtle insult). People gobbled up these words after watching the famous ballroom documentary "Paris is Burning," but the film didn't create them.
E. Patrick Johnson, dean of Northwestern's School of Communication, says appropriating and commodifying Black culture from Black hairstyles to queer language is nothing new and in today's society it's inevitable that it will happen.
"But what is so wonderful is that these cultures keep inventing new language based on their experiences," Johnson says. "So, while it is true that things are 'stolen' it’s also true that language keeps getting invented anew."
AAVE partially grew out of the need for Black people to communicate and dates back to enslavement, according to April Baker-Bell, author of "Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy."
"When they were enslaving Africans (they used) language planning to make sure that two Africans who spoke the same language could not get together because they didn't want that to lead to a revolt ... and Black language was developed in spite of that," Baker-Bell says.
Baker-Bell says Black language is a legitimate language with syntax, grammatical features, phonology and semantics. But when Black people speak AAVE, it's seen as unprofessional, and they can be perceived as "intellectually inferior" for speaking it.
"It's anti-Black linguistic racism. It's truly anti-Blackness passing through our language in the ways we're told we have to code switch," Baker-Bell says describing how Black people often have to change their way of speaking to fit into what's seen as a cultural norm.
Lane scoffs at the idea of a room full of white people saying "let's spill the tea" with no Black people present.
"You care about what we say, you're interested in how we speak, you're interested in taking things from us because language is a cultural production," she says. "It's something that Black folks create together. So you'll take that but you won't take us."
What's even more problematic is "white people coming up off of our language," Baker-Bell says, like TikTokers rising to influencer status for videos that appropriate these phrases and companies using Black language in their marketing.
The expansion of social media pushed the floodgates ajar for language practices or terms that originated within the Black community to spread exponentially among white people, Lane says. TikTok in particular "is literally based on mimicry," she says.
Johnson says appropriation is inevitable and it's common for Black language to be misattributed and though it's "disheartening" when culture is "commodified without any acknowledgment of remuneration," he has hope this can be rectified by social media.
"In some ways, social media has provided a level playing field such that these communities can create their own platforms to capitalize on their cultural forms – sometimes before they are appropriated by the majority culture," Johnson says.
Non-Black people speaking this way risk not only appropriating but using certain language incorrectly. Like walking in shoes that don't fit.
Last month, "Saturday Night Live" aired a skit written by Michael Che titled "Gen Z Hospital" where the premise was to mock words like "bestie," "sis" and "bruh" and attributed the terms as Gen Z language.
For Black language to be couched as Gen Z language is Black erasure and continues to be dismissive of Black people's contribution to mainstream white culture. Especially when oftentimes, Black creators don't profit off their labor.
When and under what circumstances non-Black people can use Black language is a conversation that's irrelevant for now, Baker-Bell says.
"When we see Black people not being killed, Black people not being discriminated against, Black kids being able to learn and thrive with their own language, we can have that conversation," Baker-Bell says.
Separating language between Black queer people and the rest of the Black community would be like picking up individual grains of sand off a beach.
"The majority of Black queer people live in and among straight people," Lane says. "We don't live separate lives, apart from African American people who are in our family who may be heterosexual. We don't live in little silos, and language happens in community."
While you might hear Black queer people use the word "slay," for instance, Lane credits Black women with the term.
Separately, Black queer people have developed turns of phrases to communicate with each other in potentially dangerous, homophobic settings.
For example, "a word like family, where you're not talking about, like a familial relation, necessarily, but you could be talking about other gay folk."
Jeffrey McCune, director of the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African American Studies at the University of Rochester, questions why so much of Black queer cultural production snakes its way into greater society.
"It does say something about the society itself, and the scarcity of creativity," McCune says. "But it also says that out of the sea of a lot of trauma, and joy, Black people are producing ways of interpreting, explaining and reading the world in which we live."
The most marginalized community is the Black queer community, even "within our own community," Baker-Bell explains, adding when Black trans people or LGBTQ members are murdered by police, there is less of a collective outrage and attention on those cases.
"These terms feel fun to everybody else, but you don't understand what that grew out of among Black queer people and how they use that to communicate within their own groups or how these words are used to push against the oppression they experience," Baker-Bell says. "It's not for everybody to engage and play in."
In short: Study up on where phrases come from and pause before repeating a new word or phrase. And if you do choose to use these terms, make sure you're not contributing to the marginalization of Black communities.
Lane wonders why anyone not a part of the Black community would need to use AAVE in the first place. Is the reason you're saying something because you've heard everyone else saying it? Have you asked them where they heard it from?
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Remember, too, that what Black people post on social media isn't all fun and games but a product of labor.
"So many of these expressions are opportunities for Black people to release themselves of the trauma of white supremacy and anti-Blackness," McCune says. "The casual use of Black queer phrases or Black community phrases is another slap in the face or a rejection of the idea that these things emerge out of trauma and anti-Blackness."
There is no way to meaningfully police people's language – so it's up to white people to not "spill the tea" so much that it makes it feel like their own. "We need a white public that is not interested in utilizing terms that they know is not a part of their dining room table vernacular," McCune says.
Linguistic Society of America
John R. Rickford
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At its most literal level, Ebonics simply means 'black speech' (a blend of the words ebony 'black' and phonics 'sounds'). The term was created in 1973 by a group of black scholars who disliked the negative connotations of terms like 'Nonstandard Negro English' that had been coined in the 1960s when the first modern large-scale linguistic studies of African American speech-communities began. However, the term Ebonics never caught on among linguists, much less among the general public. That all changed with the 'Ebonics' controversy of December 1996 when the Oakland (CA) School Board recognized it as the 'primary' language of its majority African American students and resolved to take it into account in teaching them standard or academic English.
Most linguists refer to the distinctive speech of African Americans as 'Black English' or African American English (AAE) or, if they want to emphasize that this doesn't include the standard English usage of African Americans, as 'African American Vernacular English' (AAVE). In theory, scholars who prefer the term Ebonics (or alternatives like African American language) wish to highlight the African roots of African American speech and its connections with languages spoken elsewhere in the Black Diaspora, e.g. Jamaica or Nigeria. But in practice, AAVE and Ebonics essentially refer to the same sets of speech forms. Here, we will use 'Ebonics' without ideological or theoretical qualification, preferring it to AAVE and other alternatives simply because it is the most widely-known public term right now.
What does Ebonics sound like?
To many people, the first examples that come to mind are slang words like phat'excellent' and bling-bling 'glittery, expensive jewelry', words that are popular among teenagers and young adults, especially rap and hip hop fans. But words like kitchen 'the especially kinky hair at the nape of one's neck' and ashy 'the whitish appearance of black skin when dry, as in winter' are even more interesting. Unlike many slang terms, these 'black' words have been around for ages, they are not restricted to particular regions or age groups, and they are virtually unknown (in their 'black' meanings) outside the African American community.
Ebonics pronunciation includes features like the omission of the final consonant in words like 'past' (pas' ) and 'hand' (han'), the pronunciation of the th in 'bath' as t (bat) or f (baf), and the pronunciation of the vowel in words like 'my' and 'ride' as a long ah (mah, rahd). Some of these occur in vernacular white English, too, especially in the South, but in general they occur more frequently in Ebonics. Some Ebonics pronunciations are more unique, for instance, dropping b, d, or g at the beginning of auxiliary verbs like 'don't' and 'gonna', yielding Ah 'on know for "I don't know" and ama do it for "I'm going to do it."
What does Ebonics look like?
These distinctive Ebonics pronunciations are all systematic, the result of regular rules and restrictions; they are not random 'error'--and this is equally true of Ebonics grammar. For instance, Ebonics speakers regularly produce sentences without present tense is and are, as in "John trippin" or "They allright". But they don't omit present tense am. Instead of the ungrammatical *"Ah walkin", Ebonics speakers would say *"Ahm walkin." Likewise, they do not omit is and are if they come at the end of a sentence--"That's what he/they" is ungrammatical. Many members of the public seem to have heard, too, that Ebonics speakers use an 'invariant' be in their speech (as in "They be goin to school every day"); however, this be is not simply equivalent to is or are. Invariant be refers to actions that occur regularly or habitually rather than on just one occasion.
What do people think of Ebonics?
That depends on whom you ask. Black writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Zora Neale Hurston to August Wilson have made extensive use of it in their work, and some, like James Baldwin ("this passion, this skill, ... this incredible music."), Toni Morrison, and June Jordan have praised it explicitly. Black preachers and comedians and singers, especially rappers, also use it for dramatic or realistic effect. But many other people, black and white, regard it as a sign of limited education or sophistication, as a legacy of slavery or an impediment to socioeconomic mobility. Some deny its existence (like the black Chicagoan whose words "Ain't nobody here talkin' no Ebonics" belied his claim). Others deprecate it (like Maya Angelou, who found the Oakland School Board's 1996 Ebonics resolutions "very threatening" although she uses Ebonics herself in her poems, e.g. "The Pusher").
It should be said, incidentally, that at least SOME of the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the Oakland resolutions arose because the resolutions were misinterpreted as proposals to teach Ebonics itself, or to teach in Ebonics, rather than as proposals to respect and take it into account while teaching standard English. The method of studying language known as 'contrastive analysis' involves drawing students' attention to similarities and differences between Ebonics and Standard English. Since the 1960s, it has been used successfully to boost Ebonics speakers' reading and writing performance in Standard English, most recently in public schools in DeKalb County, GA, and in Los Angeles, CA (as part of the LA Unified School District's Academic English Mastery Program).
Where did Ebonics come from?
On this point, linguists are quite divided. Some emphasize its English origins, pointing to the fact that most of the vocabulary of Ebonics is from English and that much of its pronunciation (e.g. pronouncing final th as f) and grammar (e.g. double negatives, "I don't want none") could have come from the nonstandard dialects of English indentured servants and other workers with whom African slaves interacted.
Others emphasize Ebonics' African origins, noting that West African languages often lack th sounds and final consonant clusters (e.g. past), and that replacing or simplifying these occurs both in US Ebonics and in West African English varieties spoken in Nigeria and Ghana. Moreover, they argue that the distinction made between completed actions ("He done walked") and habitual actions ("We be walkin") in the Ebonics tense-aspect system reflects their prevalence in West African language systems and that this applies to other aspects of Ebonics sentence structure.
Other linguists are drawn to the similarities between Ebonics and Caribbean Creole English varieties, for instance, the fact that both frequently drop is and are , and that both permit dropping word initial d, b, and g in tense-aspect markers (Caribbean examples include habitual/progressive (d)a, past tense (b)en, and future (g)on). These traits suggest that some varieties of American Ebonics might have undergone the kinds of simplification and mixture associated with Creole formation in the Caribbean and elsewhere. They might also suggest that American Ebonics was shaped by the high proportions of Creole-speaking slaves that were imported from the Caribbean in the earliest settlement periods of the thirteen original colonies.
Arguments about and evidence on the origins issue continue to be brought forth. A relatively new 'historical' issue has emerged in recent years: Is Ebonics converging with or diverging from other vernacular varieties of American English? One thing is for sure: This dynamic, distinctive variety--thoroughly intertwined with African American history and linked in many ways with African American literature, education, and social life--is one of the most extensively studied and discussed varieties of American English and it will probably continue to be so for many years to come.
Baugh, John. 2000. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Green, Lisa. 2002. African American English: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Labov, William. 1973. Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Poplack, Shana, ed. 2000. The English history of African American English. Malden, MA, and Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Rickford, John R. , and Russell J. Rickford. 2000. Spoken Soul: The story of Black English. New York: John Wiley.
Smitherman, Geneva. 2000. Black talk: Words and phrases from the hood to the amen corner. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Wolfram, Walt, and Erik R. Thomas. 2002. The development of African American English. Malden, MA, and Oxford, UK: Blackwell
Cultural appropriation is easy to spot when it’s actually on someone’s body. If a white person adorns themselves in clothing, accessories, or styles that have strong roots in other non-white cultures, we are on call almost immediately to point out their egregious error(s). But what about appropriation that comes from people’s bodies? Or their mouths, to be specific?
For some reason, language seems to be fair game the piece of culture that anyone can extract at will. Unless someone is using an actual racial slur, there are never any consequences for white people using Black terminology freely. I’ve seen a full analysis of how Kylie Jenner ripped her style off of a Black girl, and who that Black girl might be. But I haven’t seen a single think piece about her Snapchat handle being “kylizzlemynizzl.” For those of you too young to know, “my nizzle” is Snoop Dogg’s popularized version of “my n---a.” In the same breath that someone will say “actually, Kim Kardashian didn’t start that trend…” they’ll call a new Selena Gomez song lit. I never thought I would hear myself say this but: where is the outrage?
Borrowing lingo from Black folks probably happens so easily because everyone is constantly sharing our language with the world on social media. For all of my decent grammar and commas on this website, my personal tweets sometimes require a translator for anyone who is not Black and from the Southside of Chicago. But with enough retweets, even my regionally specific slang can become a “thing.” It’s a phenomenon that definitely make me feel some type of way, but one that doesn’t have an end in sight.
Words have histories. It seems only right that you’re going to insist on using them, you should know what that history is.
Using Black Vernacular English (BVE) as a Non-Black Person Is Appropriation
The appropriation of Black cultural expressions has been co-opted and normalized by mainstream media, influences/celebrities, and public figures through the years. This has sparked discussion—and as a result—more people have come to understand why a non-Black person wearing cornrows or dreadlocks is harmful or why blackface and verbalizing the 'N-word’ in songs is harmful. Appropriation causes harm when it perpetuates stereotypes, turns culture into a commodity, and uses historical traditions as a trend, while the originating group continues to experience discrimination for the very same thing.
Language is no exception. Within any culture, language is the basis for communicating ideas and plays a role in shaping people’s sense of community. Yet, in North American pop culture, Black Vernacular English (BVE) is often used by non-Black people for personal profit. In addition, due to its social influence, BVE is often misused out of context in an attempt to be relevant, gain notoriety, acceptance, or “relate” to Black people in social, academic, and professional settings.
Black Vernacular English, also commonly known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), is rooted in African dialects and Caribbean Creole English varieties. These linguistic patterns are a part of a cultural legacy that continues even after transatlantic slavery. Those who were enslaved invented their own separate version of English to speak to each other forming unity, identity and communication without interference from white enslavers. When BVE. is used by non-Black people in verbal dialogue and on social media, it erases this origin while commodifying parts of Black culture.
Words such as “lit,” “woke,” “bae,” “rachet,” “sis,” “slay,” “hella,” “ or “basic,” and phrases such as “straight up,” “on fleek,” “I feel you,” or “turn up,” have become common sayings that are often misused or overly emphasized. These words are visible online through reaction GIFs, social media posts, and journalism, to name a few (refer to images). In addition, companies use BVE. on their social media, advertising, and marketing to appeal to the “younger audience” (refer to tweets). The fact that many of these words and phrases simply sound like internet or social media lingo, demonstrates the extent to which the appropriation of BVE. by non-Black communities has accelerated exponentially in the age of the internet.
BVE is criticized for not sounding like “proper English.” In fact, Black slang and BVE have long been considered inferior to "standard" English. Raising critical questions about the continued justification of white privilege in our culture. When white and other non-Black people use this terminology to gain social relevance, we can often turn it on and off when necessary. We can perform traditionally Black expressions without facing the societal and institutional oppression Black people often experience because of them.
While BVE has become a symbol of power for many Black folks, as a sign of continued resistance against cultural erasure, the ongoing assumption that it is not “proper English” prompts many Black people to code-switch. Code-switching is commonly defined as “the alternation between two or more languages, dialects, or language registers in the course of a single conversation or exchange,” according to Glottopedia. In this case, Black people may code-switch between a more standard English and BVE This is done because when Black people use BVE, they may be denied jobs, access to higher education institutions, and/or otherwise judged as speaking in an “uneducated” way. The result is that Black people regularly have to self-police their use of BVE to survive. In contrast, non-Black people can toggle freely between different vocabulary without worrying about the social or economic consequences.
The result is that Black people regularly have to self-police their use of BVE to survive. In contrast, non-Black people can toggle freely between different vocabulary without worrying about the social or economic consequences.
Many non-Black members of the LGBQ+ community often use BVE and overwrite it as “gay slang.” However, many terms link back to the foundation of drag, which found its inspiration within the Black community of New York City. For example, terms like “yas queen,” “throwing shade,” or “voguing” were first used in the NYC drag scene, specifically in Black ballroom culture, but were later introduced to mainstream media through shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Pose, and Queer Eye. Yet, their use today is used out of context or inaccurately verbalized. Moreover, the Transgender community experiences these themes in similar ways. However, it is important to recognize that Black trans women can be exposed to additional harm through the nature of intersectionality, resulting in harm and discrimination joined together by white supremacy, transphobia, and misogyny.
Appearing online, BVE is also often used in reaction GIFs (refer to GIF). These GIFs often represent Black women as “sassy” and extravagant while allowing non-Black users to use these images as an expression or image to complement their words. GIFs with transcripts become an opportunity for those not fluent in BVE to use the language, such as “hell no,” “girl, bye,” “I - oop,” “chile,” “she tried it,” “spill the tea, sis,” and “bitch, please.” Ultimately, these images are relied upon to perform fury, annoyance, shade, or celebratory moments. Representation matters. And the continual representation of Black people as an image to vocalize these expressions may reinforce stereotypes while failing to see the terms as more than a “punch line.”
Let’s take a critical look at words and stereotypical representations of Black people that have become normalized by non-Black folks. We all need to be cognizant of what we share, how we communicate, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes pre-existing racial biases inherited from “real life.” So, before you (non-Black folks) use the word “woke” to describe your beliefs around social justice, we challenge you to think about the contradiction critically. If you are really “woke” or alert to injustice, reflect on your privilege that allows you to continue taking from people that continue to be marginalized.
We all need to be cognizant of what we share, how we communicate, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes pre-existing racial biases inherited from “real life.”
When non-Black people use BVE, it feeds into a culture of appropriation, a culture that continues to take from Black people. Non-Black folks can use BVE or other methods of Black cultural expression like a costume, wearing it when it benefits them and taking it off before retreating to privilege. Malbroux has four questions she suggests non-Black people ask themselves before using words that have their origins in BVE:
- Is it being commercialized for financial gain?
- Is the usage performative or tokenizing?
- Are you in proximity to the culture that originated the terms?
- Are you using the language to "level up" or earn yourself credibility?
This article uses BVE instead of AAVE because not all Black people identify as African American.
Slang language black
Tagwa Shammet, Opinions Editor
“You talk white.”
I’ve never been quite sure how I should feel when I hear that. Am I supposed to be honored or offended?
I am articulate. I speak eloquently with minimal pauses and stutters. I formulate well-thought-out responses and provide my direct opinion. Words come easily to me.
But I am also Black. Because of the misconceptions and stereotypes placed on Black people, it’s generalized that we must not speak proper English. Therefore, I must speak like a “white person.”
Nobody seems to find such commentary offensive. There’s a false narrative that speaking properly and refraining from using slang means that one is speaking “white.” A narrative that was created by the same victors of it: white people and their superiority complex. But that generalizes Black people to the bare slang and “ghetto talk” of their stereotype; it instills some belief that Black people are uneducated.
Yet, the same uneducated slang that the Black community — my people — were ridiculed for using growing up is now your pop culture and internet lingo.
“No tea, no shade.”
“I feel you.”
We’ve all heard these terms in our conversations or on our social media feeds. But many of you haven’t stopped to think about where these popular phrases come from. So, in honor of Black History Month, let me give you a quick lesson.
African American Vernacular English, more famously known as AAVE or Ebonics, is a dialect of American English spoken frequently in the Black community. AAVE is commonly associated with a difference in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary from the standard American English dialect.
AAVE is more than what you hear in hip-hop and rap songs. It holds such a unifying cultural force that is far too complex to explain to a non-Black person.
So, next time you’re lit, slaying and/or on fleek, thank your friendly Black community for sharing their culture with you.
It always disappoints me to see how this country neglects the accomplishments of Black people by taking the community’s work and making it their own. The appropriation of AAVE has been so normalized that many of us haven’t even noticed it.
To a majority of the social media community, we don’t even notice how immersed into AAVE we are. It’s a commonalty in everything we say. Yet, many Black people — including myself — have been bullied for our utilization of AAVE.
Ebonics has been heavily associated with the negative connotation of the ghettos and the crimes that occur in them. Rap music, films and television that discuss the brutal realities of growing up in impoverished Black communities detail the actions committed in the community with AAVE. An unintentional link between violence and Ebonics is therefore formed.
Artists like Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. are prime examples of this link. They have paved the way for much rap and hip-hop music describing the struggles of Black America, while utilizing Ebonics and AAVE in their lyrics.
What people tend to forget is that the Black community is more than just the violence we experience. By associating the way Black people talk with the grave injustices that affect their community, a dangerous duo is formed.
Let me break it down. AAVE is seen as this form of uneducated, Black talk. It is also commonly linked to the violence in Black communities. This reinforces that false perception that Black people are committing crimes because they are uneducated.
You see, Ebonics is far more than your internet slang. It is a stem of Black history and culture.
Now that I’ve given you a bit of history behind AAVE, let’s dive into how offensive it is to have a dialect created by my community used as a relatable trait.
I worked in a retail store in Carytown last semester. Most of my coworkers and the shoppers were white. One day, a group of white VCU students made their way into the store. I greeted them, and one of them made sure to call me their “sis” before they went to look around.
They shopped for a bit, before they came back to the front for some help. The same one started every sentence with “girl” and ended it with “sis.” I fought the urge to ask her to stop. It’s almost like she thought I wouldn’t understand what she was saying if she didn’t add that bit of a “blaccent” into the conversation.
A blaccent is popularly known in the Black community as a non-Black person of color or white person speaking in what they believe is AAVE.
That interaction is a normality for Black people. Unfortunately, many non-Black people of color and white people think speaking in a blaccent is necessary for our comprehension.
At that moment, I couldn’t even react properly. If I had asked her to stop calling me that, I would’ve fit my angry Black woman stereotype. Instead, I allowed her to run with the notion that her blaccent helped my dumb, Black brain understand what she was saying.
It is infuriating to be dumbed down to a certain set of misconceptions that you had no hand in creating.
Now, I understand that AAVE has been incorporated into social media lingo, however, many of you find yourselves code switching in an effort to be more relatable to Black people.
Similarly, code switching is going back and forth between languages and dialects in conversation.
According to an NPR article, one of the main reasons people code switch seems to be in an effort to fit in. Now, before you tell me that you don’t mean to do it, code switching can be both a conscious and unconscious act.
Keep that in mind the next time you have an urge to call every Black girl your sis and every Black man your dawg.
On the inverse, code switching is a survival tactic for many Black people. Because we’ve been shoved into this false box of improper English, we have to switch back and forth between Ebonics and Standard American English frequently. Think about how we talk at work or a job interview, versus how we speak when we’re with our family and friends.
AAVE is being swallowed into internet culture and erased from the collective. But Black people will never forget the dialect they created. Ebonics is not ghetto talk. It is not violent. It is not your internet lingo. It is the dialect of thousands of people. Give them the respect they deserve.
So, no matter how hard your TikTok or Twitter feeds try to convince you that Ebonics is simply just internet slang, remember the complex history I shared with you today.
Lately, there's been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation and black culture -- the coopting of traditionally black: hairstyles, fashion, and music. But perhaps it's time to take a step back and revisit what might be the most appropriated aspect of black culture -- black slang.
From "the bomb" to "holla" to the very short-lived "YOLO," black slang words often go through the cycle of being used by black people, discovered by white people, and then effectively "killed" due to overuse and a general lack of understanding of how to use these words. Often, the origin of these words aren't even acknowledged -- "twerk," had literally been around for over a decade before Miley Cyrus brought it to the mainstream (ie. white people).
The politics of black slang are tricky. Black slang and AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) have long been considered inferior to so-called "standard" English, and the black people who use it seen as uneducated or unintelligent (forcing many to master the art of code-switching). So when suddenly words and phrases that have strong ties to the black community are adopted and warped by non-black people, it can cause some of us to feel indignant, even insulted.
A case can be made that these words entering the mainstream is ultimately a good thing. It can be viewed as a melding of ideas and worlds, proof that the English language is always changing, and evidence that black people and black culture are becoming more largely accepted. And anyway, don't black people use "white" slang words, too? Like awesome, and rad, and totes (not really)? But another case could be made that we live in a society that loves black culture -- but doesn't like black people all too much -- and what might look like acceptance is just downright thievery.
Listen. The idea here isn't necessarily to say that white people shouldn't use certain black slang (although by now we should all be clear on the N-word debate). There's a trickle down effect with anything that is cool, hip, and happening, so it makes sense why these words and phrases eventually reach the mainstream and become part of a larger, mixed lexicon -- take YOLO and "hot mess" being added to the OED, for example.
But the issue is how the etymology of these words gets lost in the sauce. There have been white people who've taken issue with the black slang word "salty" (meaning angry, pissed off) for being derogatory against mentally ill people, which is blatantly untrue. A lot of this kind of confusion and misinformation abounds, leading white and non-black people to use some of the more offensive terms in the black lexicon.
As a general rule, if you have to ask whether or not it's OK to use a word, if there's any hesitation, then don't. But also, we should all be aware of where these words come from and what they mean without attributing arbitrary definitions to them.
So in keeping with that idea, below are some words and phrases that found their roots in AAVE before being coopted by white people. Rest in peace. Gone, but not forgotten.
Bae is an abbreviation of the word "babe," and basically means a significant other. While its exact origins are unclear (as is the case of many of the words on this list), it became popular on Black Twitter and Instagram as early as 2013 in the form of the hashtags #baecaughtmesleepin and #cookingforbae, among others. It eventually made its way firmly in to the mainstream after Pharrell released the song "Come Get It Bae" and Time magazine wrote an article about it, and several Urbandictionary entries have erroneously defined it as an acronym for "Before Anyone Else." Its popularity petered out quickly because white people eventually found it obnoxious (after using it do death). One Buzzfeed article suggested people should stop using the word because "bae is actually the Danish word for 'poop, crap, feces.'" Welp.
2. Trap/Trap Queen
The "trap" and "trap queen/king" have been used for years, but became popular once Fetty Wap's super catchy song "Trap Queen" started playing on mainstream radio this summer. Now there are white girls out in these streets calling themselves trap queens. White crooners like Ed Sheeran did an acoustic cover of the song. Mr. Wap himself performed it on stage with Taylor Swift. Blake Griffin had to break down what a trap queen (the ride-or-die girlfriend of a drug dealer) is in an interview. And then the above video got made. There's nothing left to say. Trap Queen is dead. Long live Trap Queen.
Ratchet is one of those words, like ghetto, that white people tend to use to describe anything and everything -- but especially things that aren't even ratchet or ghetto ("Oh my god, my broken iPhone screen is totally ratchet!"). It's a classist term for sure, but some white people seem to use it as shorthand for "black," (as evident in the tone-deaf and wack Lil Debbie video above). That's not OK. It's kinda like "diet-n**ga," as Hannibal Burress once said. Maybe don't.
4. Squad, #SquadGoals
At some point this summer, Taylor Swift and her revolving door of bffs became synonymous with the idea of the squad. That's fine, that's great -- it's ultimately a pretty empowering idea that many women are using as a way to define solidarity. But gee, there sure are a lot of articlesexplaining what #squadgoals are without once acknowledging that "squad" is a black slang word and was originally tied to black solidarity -- par for the course when it comes to the appropriation of AAVE.
Let it be known: Mariska Hargitay is a goddess who can do no wrong, but this Instagram post from a couple months ago is just too good an example of how #peakwhiteness can cause even the best to hilariously misuse a black slang. To be fair, though, "fleek" is probably the worst word on this list, no one ever really knew what it meant, and nobody really misses it. Enjoy, white people.
For some strange reason, there's this myth, proliferated on social media platforms like Tumblr, that the word "fuckboy" is a trans slur. It is not. It is hard to understand how this false definition gained traction, but its existence is a testament to how little the origins or original meaning of certain black slang words are regarded. While some people are falsely labeling the word (which basically calls out dudes who ain't shit), others describe the fuckboy as little more than a variation on the "bro" or the straight white boy texting.
7. Twerk/Nae Nae/All Black Dances Ever
Both "twerk" and more recently "nae nae" were taken over as soon as they became popularized after the release of the hit song "Watch Me" by Silento. Miley Cyrus was credited with discovering twerking, even though the song "Whistle While You Twerk" by the Ying Yang Twins came out in 2000, and there have been amazing twerk teams concentrated in Atlanta for years. Now, much like twerking, a persusal of the "whip and nae nae" dance on Youtube will bring up literally thousands of white people doing the dance with varying levels of uncoordination. The kids above are definitely doing it wrong, but they're also adorable, so it's OK.
8. Yassss/Yas Queen
One of the highlights of the last season of Broad City was the moment Ilana's babysitting charge shouts "Yasss queen!" as she exits the scene. It's also the moment many non-black people learned that "yassss queen" was done. Of course, "yassss" has been around for a while -- Nicki Minaj even did a song called "Yass Bitch" with Soulja Boy. Above, she gives a rather refreshing definition of the word (or rather the pronunciation of the word), acknowledging that its roots are actually in the LGBT and drag communities (especially in the Atlanta gay scene). More on that later.
9. Bye Felicia
Vh1 actually had a show debut last year featuring two sassy black women teaching (mostly white women) how to be sassy, too. The show's title: "Bye Felicia!" This two word phrase has had a whirlwhind couple of years (coming full circle in a controversial scene in the new "Straight Outta Compton" movie). What's amazing though is that over the last year or so, so many white people and non-black people have used it (as a sassy dismissal) without actually knowing where it's from: a brief scene (above) in the iconic 1995 black comedy, "Friday."
The word basic is now associated with pumpkin spice lattes and Ugg boots. Words change, and amidst the myriad think pieces and "In Defense of Basic" articles that emerged last year, this particular word changed so fast that most people, including black people, forgot that the original meaning of "basic" was something more akin to, as writer Jesssa Barron aptly describes, "someone unsophisticated, extremely average, and still buys club dresses at Rainbow."
11. Turn Up
In January 2010, the Atlanta rap group Travis Porter released the song "All the Way Turnt Up," generally considered to be the first instance that the phrase "turn up!" was used. Above is the exact moment that "turn up" and "the function" passed away, thanks to those arbiters of black cool, Miley Cyrus and Macklemore.
12. No Shade
To be fair, we all get the side-eye for effectively commandeering this phrase and other terminology commonly used amongst black and Latino people in the LGBT community. It's actually kind of amazing that "shade" was a question on an episode of Jeopardy, but it's also a little unfortunate that many people's first introduction to black gay slang (if they haven't seen "Paris Is Burning") is through shows like "Real Housewives of Atlanta," where LGBT people are mostly tokenized. But "throwing shade," "no tea, no shade," "hunty," and other words are now being used with wild abandon by mostly white women who don't get it. "Yassss hunty you better read the tea the house down for the gawds no shade!" There's a Tumblr dedicated to this concept: Little Hunty Things.
Also on Huffpost:
2013: The Year In Cultural Appropriation
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So Much Modern Slang Is AAVE. Here’s How Language Appropriation Erases The Influence Of Black Culture.
In celebration of the impending release of her first single, "Drivers License," in January, Olivia Rodrigo held an Instagram Live party. Her excitement was palpable as she realized her song had already become available to people on Spotify; from there, she spoke about myriad topics, including her new music video and even dirty makeup brushes. But for some viewers, it wasn’t what she was saying that attracted their attention so much as how she was saying it.
“I be trending!” she announced in shock at one point. “I’m emotional AF,” she said later.
When clips from the livestream resurfaced in July, people on social media criticized Rodrigo, saying that she was appropriating language used primarily by Black people and attempting to talk in a “blaccent.”
And she’s far from the only person to be accused of Black cultural appropriation recently. Singer-songwriter Camila Cabello, who has received backlash for racist Tumblr posts she reblogged as a teenager and for using the n-word, published and deleted a tweet in late July that was widely mocked for its nonsensical grammar. These incidents echo a long-standing trend that is probably best exemplified by Bhad Bhabie, who first went viral after appearing on a 2016 episode of Dr. Phil that featured her speaking in an often incomprehensible accent of her own. When Dr. Phil himself asked Bhad Bhabie, who was 13 at the time and whose real name is Danielle Bregoli, whether she was even speaking English, she proudly proclaimed that her accent came “from the streets” while wearing long press-on coffin nails and gold bamboo hoop earrings.
By making the effort to uncover something’s origins, we make a strong statement: Black culture is not deserving of mockery or appropriation — it demands respect.
It was a couple of minutes later in the segment, when Bhad Bhabie expressed disdain for the members of the audience who were laughing at her, that she let loose the catchphrase “Cash me ousside, howbow dah?!” Within six months of the episode airing, a clip featuring Bhad Bhabie’s taunt blew up on social media. In 2017, she debuted as a rapper with the single “These Heaux” and signed a deal with Atlantic Records under her stage name.
The specific way Bhad Bhabie’s words were transliterated on the internet was meant to simultaneously replicate and mock her undoubtedly fake/performative accent. (She claims she grew up in “the hood,” although her mother does not share the same mannerisms.) But non-Black people are constantly using either real or imagined proximity to Black Americans and their cultures in an attempt to seem cool, sexy, and threatening in equal measure — and in the case of Bhad Bhabie and other stars like Awkwafina, they’re profiting off it without having to deal with the legacies of racist segregation, redlining, overpolicing, and disinvestment in the same ways Black people do.
It’s the vibrancy and authenticity of Black culture that attracts appropriators, who, ironically, dilute those very same qualities. Black communities around the country are far from monolithic, but the stereotypes that fuel cultural appropriation assume otherwise. For example, while Black Americans have been affected by poverty in a variety of ways, the cultural mainstays of many urban, working-poor Black people (those “from the streets,” as Bhad Bhabie put it) are considered the model for understanding Black American communities as a whole. Those mainstays include the long acrylic nails and bamboo earrings Bhad Bhabie wore in her Dr. Phil appearance and the “blaccent” that she, Cabello, and Rodrigo have attempted. These privileged young women reach for caricatures of low-wage Black workers when they desire edgy yet superficial makeovers.
When it comes to language appropriation, specifically, you don’t have to look for very long on social media to find examples of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, being used in out-of-touch or even downright inaccurate contexts because someone outside Black American communities decided to run with it (as Cabello proves). Also known historically as Ebonics, AAVE is the unique dialect often spoken by the descendants of Africans who were enslaved in the US. Black immigrants often assimilate and use it too, bringing new linguistic traits with them. AAVE consists of both singular phrases and unique grammatical structures that make it comparable to the language spoken by the Gullah Geechee in the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia, the Creole from Haiti, and the patois spoken in countries such as Barbados and Jamaica (and unfortunately appropriated by Chet Hanks). AAVE is a living language that has evolved over centuries, but the ubiquity of the internet has made many aspects of the dialect more accessible and encouraged others to adopt it for their own use. And it has proven to be extremely popular.
But when media outlets — including BuzzFeed — and individuals who discuss memes and popular culture reproduce instances of Black American cultural appropriation, they lend them more credibility. “On fleek,” “AF” (“as fuck”), “savage,” “shade,” “sip/spill the tea,” and “woke” are all examples of AAVE that have crept into wider public vernacular upon being championed by non-Black people. The BuzzFeed Style Guide includes entries for many of these slang terms — including “cash me ousside, howbow dah” because it still appears in quotes and critical contexts — and there exists a question of whether we should note their AAVE origins when they come up in a story. Doing so would help put concepts in their proper context and make it more difficult for culture vultures to appropriate with impunity.
Here’s a common scenario that plays out on social media: Non-Black people think they’ve found a new phrase, custom, or fashion trend, only for Black people to point out that it is actually a deep-rooted cultural practice. For example, AAVE terms are played for laughs as being the work of ridiculous and nonsensical kids in SNL’s “Gen Z Hospital” sketch, which aired this spring. Black Twitter users were quick to make their annoyance with the sketch known. (Michael Che, the Black writer of the sketch, said he was baffled by the controversy because he had never heard of AAVE; critics on social media said this was disingenuous, as he surely had heard of and used Ebonics.) Similarly, AAVE terms and grammatical structures have also been falsely attributed to millennials, college students, fandoms, and the Very Online, with no consideration given to the race of people using them.
References like these lead to a cycle of the public at large erasing Black people from their own culture and getting shamed for it. Sometimes, these callouts lead to a lasting awareness that prevents someone from making a similar mistake in the future, but that doesn’t change the fact that denouncing a popular influencer, media outlet, or viral tweet still takes a huge toll on Black people’s mental health.
While there are people of all races who believe that criticizing cultural appropriation is pointless, maybe even harmful, it is important to differentiate between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. Non-Black people who grow up in communities alongside Black people often use AAVE in their daily lives without much pushback. It’s when AAVE is used exploitatively — i.e., without active collaboration with Black people — that it becomes a problem. In an ideal world, non-Black people would engage meaningfully with Black communities on a consistent basis, allowing them to recognize language that was invented by Black people before taking credit for or incorrectly using terminology (and other products of Black culture). If, for whatever reason, that isn’t possible, then poring over cultural analysis by Black journalists and other writers, such as this recent Wired piece on the history of Black Twitter by Jason Parham, is the natural next step before one decides whether to incorporate Black language into their personal lexicon.
The terms “cancel” and “woke,” for example, having been stripped of their original, more nuanced meanings among Black people, have illuminated how the internet and social media can both oppress and empower marginalized groups.
“I think of Peaches Monroee, who created ‘on fleek’ with that viral Vine,” April Reign, a diversity and inclusion advocate who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, told Wired. “There’s so many examples of how Black Twitter has been undermonetized for years, and yet others have been able to make entire careers off of our brilliance.”
And Black American culture is an important aspect of news coverage beyond just the internet memes. Black American music, language, and ideas underpin many of the US’s oldest institutions and provide a vital frame of reference for both the past and present. The terms “cancel” and “woke,” for example, having been stripped of their original, more nuanced meanings among Black people, have illuminated how the internet and social media can both oppress and empower marginalized groups. But the only way that this insight can receive proper consideration is by ensuring that Black Americans and their influence are not erased.
When we divorce language from its context, we risk further oppressing not only Black people but also the communities they intersect with, including other people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. By making the effort to uncover something’s origins, we make a strong statement: Black culture is not deserving of mockery or appropriation — it demands respect.
And we show respect to Black culture when we choose to spend time searching social media or the wider internet before drawing conclusions about cultural content we are unfamiliar with. This kind of preliminary research would uncover, for example, the clear association between “woke” and Black people, forcing conservatives and other dishonest actors to at least say the quiet part out loud — that an attack on “liberal wokeness” is really just a way to avoid being held accountable for oppression à la “political correctness” before it. In the same vein, Bhad Bhabie’s own admission that her accent came “from the streets” makes it clear how much AAVE has influenced her; likewise, it helps socially conscious people think twice about mocking her speech if their punchline is still ultimately “Black people don’t know how to speak English.”
Mocking her and other appropriators for getting the totally valid dialect wrong, though, should be fair game. AAVE has rules like any other dialect or language, as linguists John Rickford and Russell Rickford argue in their 2001 article for Language Review, “The Ubiquity of Ebonics”:
“Consider grammar. In the movie [The OriginalKings of Comedy], the Kings mark tense and aspect when and how events occur with the tools of black talk. They place invariant be before verbs for frequent or habitual actions (‘they songs be havin a cause’), and use done for completed actions (‘you done missed it‘), and be done for future perfect or hypothetical events (‘lightning be done struck my house’). And they frequently delete is and are where Standard English requires it (‘Tiger ___ my cousin’ … ‘we __ confrontational’).
“Moreover, suggesting, as some do, that [Black people] abandon [Ebonics] and cleave only to Standard English is like proposing that we play only the white keys of a piano,” they conclude. “The fact is that for many of our most beautiful melodies, we need both the white keys and the black.” ●