So Much Modern Slang Is AAVE. Here’s How Language Appropriation Erases The Influence Of Black Culture.
Appropriation by non-Black people is so commonplace that many fail to notice it, let alone interrogate it.
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 Original Kings 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.” ●