Cash Me Ousside

The ability to conjugate the verb “to be” was once considered to be a minimal sign of an educated person. Replacing it with a more active or appropriate verb was indicative of a better education. These were the rhetorical skills that would enable people to succeed in America, to become all they hoped to become in their lives. And if you could not use words properly, pronounce words correctly, distinguish between similar words so as to select the one that means what you intend it to mean, well, it would not serve you well.

But this is no longer considered an acceptable view. On the one hand, it violates a number of current mores by extolling the language of white supremacy and colonialism while erasing the culture of black America by denying that African American Vernacular English (AAVE, formerly known as Ebonics) is a real, legitimate language. And based upon its appropriation outside the black community, there may be merit to the claim.

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.

The concern for the hipsters of Buzzfeed, unsurprisingly, is who’s stealing whose language, and whether that “erases” black culture as others usurp their verb usage, lack of enunciation and sip/spill their tea, whatever that means. What was once a fairly racist joke about uneducated “black ghetto slang” is now given the veneer of legitimacy.

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.

Words and “unique grammatical structures” have left “the street” and found their way into the daily usage. When Saturday Night Live did a skit about this, the adoption of AAVE by Gen Z, it was met with approbation.

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.

At a time when one of the most pressing social issues is empowering black people to be better educated, to achieve greater educational, business and financial success, to overcome the “historic legacy of discrimination,” does it help to elevate the words and “unique grammatical structures” of AAVE into socially acceptable speech? It’s one thing to argue that a group is entitled to its slang, whatever that might be, but when that slang is wrapped up in rationalization to create a veneer of legitimacy, such that it’s no longer slang, improper speech and grammar, but an appropriate alternative language to be used with the same level of acceptability as formal, or as some might argue, “what” English?

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.

Not long ago, I wrote about a lawyer, Qawi Abdul-Rahman, who recognized that black witnesses whose testimony, given in AAVE, was not being adequately understood by jurors, thus depriving the defense of critical evidence. Testimony doesn’t help if the jury doesn’t understand the substance and nuance of what the witness is saying. He suggested that we may need AAVE interpreters in the courtroom, something extremely unlikely to happen.

Have we reached a point where a concern about the inability to speak in standard (read “white”) American English is contrary to educationally and socially acceptable norms such that any expectation that black people forego their dialect and use standard English will be deemed racist and offensive? What becomes of the enormous effort to make colleges more diverse while eschewing a standardized common language? Are we pushing for success on one side, and pushing against it on the other?

When “Bhad Bhabie,” whoever that is, said “Cash me ousside, howbow dah?!” was she appropriating black language, being cool or defending her doctoral dissertation?

43 thoughts on “Cash Me Ousside

  1. delurking

    “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.”

    Ain’t nobody got time for that.

    Language evolves. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve evolved towards descriptivism, because sticking to prescriptivism when you are not an elementary school English (excuse me, Language Arts) teacher is pretty pointless. At the end of the day, we judge someone’s ability to communicate by whether or not we understand him or her. Poor use of language leads to ambiguity, competent use of language does not, regardless of the underlying rule structure.

    1. SHG Post author

      You should be more circumspect in your use of “we.” When I get a CSR on the phone who is incapable of speaking what I consider comprehensible English, I get a bit testy even though their speech is no doubt more than adequate for their pals in Bangalore or Manila.

      Am I wrong to expect them to speak in a manner that I find understandable or am I just being a typical jingoistic American?

      1. delurking

        Not wrong, exactly the opposite. If CSRs are supposed to be able to communicate with your community, then it is fine to judge their competence by their ability to communicate with you. That is their job, after all.

    2. David Meyer-Lindenberg

      Well, I routinely judge people on how, as opposed to what, they communicate. If you use “who” for “whom” or vice versa, it won’t impair my understanding of what you’re saying, but I will think you’ve been badly educated and take that into account as I evaluate what you say. Now, this is fine for most people because I’m just an inconsequential guy on the internet, but imagine if I were your prospective employer.

      Nor am I the only one who behaves this way. Suppose you submitted a piece of writing to Buzzfeed in which you used the phrase “black Twitter.” Your meaning might be clear, but your failure to render “black” as “Black” would mark you as either conservative or out of touch, with potentially devastating consequences for your hoped-for Buzzfeed byline.

      It’s cold comfort to the person who fails professionally because of his nonstandard locutions that his nonstandard locutions should be considered every bit as legit as standard English, dammit. And as I hope the Buzzfeed example shows, while what’s considered “standard” may vary somewhat from audience to audience, deviations from that standard seldom signify anything good for the speaker. Until all forms of English expression signify the same thing – and it’ll be a cold day in hell before that happens – I do think it makes sense to teach people, and expect them, to express themselves “correctly.”

      1. SHG Post author

        I thought the example of “ask v. aks” really hit the mark. And when they don’t get the job, will it be racial discrimination?

      2. Bryan Burroughs

        Interestingly, your example of “black” vs “Black” strikes me as particularly tough. For some odd reason, I’ve internalized that capitalizing “black” when referring to someone’s race is offensive, so I don’t tend to do it. Now, apparently, it’s offensive.

        1. SHG Post author

          Had it been de rigor to capitalize the “B” before the awokening, the new trend would have been lower case, not because of any substantive reason (although no doubt some rationalization would be proffered), but in order to distinguish old from new, so the new could demonstrate the virtue of its writer.

  2. Jake

    I think the concept of ‘language appropriation’ is a bridge too far because it is predicated on the incorrect notion that language is static and not constantly evolving. The English language we agree to be standard (depending on your taste in style guides) was appropriated from at least a half dozen others. As pointed out, AAVE borrows from earlier dialects, which in turn combined English and yet other languages. Where would it leave Buzzfeed, or any of us, if we had to reference the etymology of every word? How far back would we be required to go? Put bluntly: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

    On the other hand, there is a reason why there is a version of ‘standard English’ we mostly agree to today that has endured for such a great while. Not so long ago, the use of written language was limited to a tiny cabal of monks and alignment was considerably easier to achieve.

    In 1820, 12% of the world population could read and write and the ability was still reserved to a homogenous group of professions. By comparison, about the same percentage of the same population are illiterate today. Just twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the average person to assemble 240 characters, push a button, and be published globally in seconds. What impact does this have on the rate of change in languages? I think it’s safe to say: We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    When I am breaking the spirits of younglings on my team, with fresh college degrees in their grubby little hands, I share one axiom: We write to communicate and we communicate to achieve goals. To do so effectively, we must understand our goals, know our audience and appreciate the context in which they will receive, then combine words accordingly. The only metric that matters is whether and/or the degree to which we achieve our goals.

    1. PseudonymousKid

      This isn’t about language changing in the past or future. It’s about being able to understand each other right now which you only address at all in your last paragraph in a self gratifying way. This is about the words people choose to combine together to convey a message. To make it personal in the hopes that you’ll think about it more, what if someone on your team demanded the right to use Esperanto when everyone else was using plain old English? Jake’s goals aren’t getting achieved that way. Now what?

      1. Jake

        Since you asked, at work, it’s not about my goals. Because I am a VP of Sales & Marketing, my team’s goals are fairly straightforward and objectively understood. Esperanto would work if our audience’s first language was Esperanto.

          1. Jake

            Ah well, it took 10 years for one of my comments here not to be met with reflexive derision. I sure wasn’t expecting it to happen again a week later.

            1. PseudonymousKid

              Triple whiff. You didn’t understand the post, you didn’t understand my response, and you didn’t see that I was indeed deriding you, reflexively or not. We don’t even need another language to miscommunicate.

              Forget that I quoted Wittgenstein to you the other day. We’d be better off going over the alphabet. Feel bad, but not too bad; language is tricky and you’re a good sport.

  3. Charles

    “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.”

    “It’s when AAVE is used exploitatively — i.e., without active collaboration with Black people — that it becomes a problem.”

    So the problematic sketch isn’t a problem?

    1. SHG Post author

      As the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and racial thought leader, Nikole Hannah-Jones, explained, “There is a difference between being politically black and being racially black.”

  4. Quinn T Martindale

    The Airplane scene doesn’t read as racist to me at all. AAVE is as real, legitimate, socially acceptable speech, as any other dialect. Like Jake said, it’s useful to be able to speak standard American English in the US, so I don’t think it’s racist to be concerned about people’s inability to do so. It would only be offensive if you treated black people speaking AAVE different from white Long Islanders speaking their dialect.

    1. Rengit

      I think it’s fine to be ok with some dialects (particularly your own), but also strongly dislike others. It wouldn’t necessarily be racist to dislike AAVE compared to some other dialects, although there’s a strong inference of it if that is the only dialect you object to and make jokes about, plus saying some other vaguely racist things. But the idea that “you corrected the black guy when he said ‘aks’ instead of ask, but you didn’t correct the white girl from Rhode Island when she talked about ‘pahking her cah’; why’d you do that if you’re not from New England, huh?'” outs one as a racist is cheap and lazy gotcha rhetoric, the kind that is so popular these days for scoring social media points.

  5. Denverite

    The end result of this is that black people can’t speak standard English because that would be appropriation. And white people can’t speak AAVE because that too would be appropriation. Instead of language as actual communication it is becoming nothing more than a virtue signaling contest.To “appropriate” a timeless movie line perfectly delivered by Alfonso Bedoya “Communicate? We ain’t got to communicate. We don’t need no communication. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ communication!”

  6. Elpey P.

    Interesting headline: “Here’s How Language Appropriation Erases The Influence Of Black Culture.” Sort of like saying “Here’s how getting drunk erases the influence of alcohol.” It’s literally the mechanism by which it operates. If you actually want to erase it, what better way than by shutting down the consumption/appropriation?

    But of course society is a raging alcoholic so good luck trying. So you might as well use it as a stick to hit people with. (Including perennial favorite target Michael Che, “one of the bad ones.”)

  7. Keith

    Me thinketh thou doth protest too much.

    An individual concerned with advancement uses the tone and schema which would bring them success, in a particular situation. We don’t speak the same to our friends as we would at work or in a job or in a courtroom. That’s part of life. And if you were doing the hiring, I would suggest they take that into account when interviewing.

    To the extent you walk into a store and ask for a hammer, you can still expect “Sir, this is a Wendy’s”.

    But the issue you raise seems to be (forgive me if I’ve misread it) more than a situational one.

    It’s easy to merely claim (see what I did there?) that language is always evolving (which is evidently helped by the fact it’s true), but the changes in regional dialects mean that even what we consider “standard” create situations where the CSR from the South can be just as incomprehensible to some in the North, as the guy from Bangalore.

    There’s no such thing as grammar we can agree on and everything we agree on has been drastically changed — even during our lifetime. We now are allowed to boldly go where no one has gone before.

    Buzzfeed’s reasons they are doing this certainly seem suspect. Is it (more) wrong that some outlets are auditioning new words as a thing unto itself?
    Perhaps — but somewhere out there was a man screaming that “[Ed. Note: Link deleted because you know better] audition” should never be used that way because only the uncouth would bastardize its meaning.

    This post would have resonated with me a few years ago. I got over it because the mess is part of the splendor that is language. For some, that’s going to be a harder thing to hear than it is for others.

    1. David

      The point isn’t that people can code switch, use slang when they’re hanging with their pals or argue over the oxford comma (of course we have accepted grammar, with a little friction at the outer edges).

      The point is whether the new educational and social “norms” would no longer require black people to learn to write and speak in standard English because they are entitled to use only their dialect, which non-black people are not, and when they enter the workforce, expect the rest of the nation to accommodate their dialect (and maybe others, who knows?) rather than the standard English.

      This wasn’t that hard to understand.

  8. Drew Conlin

    Is this compartmentalization? To speak according to the company you’re in.
    Two things come to my mind. When Kareem Abdul Jabaar was being recruited to play basketball;I read that one of the reasons he chose UCLA was that coach John Wooden never tried to put on affected language or talk in any way other than he spoke to any other person no matter their background.
    The other story is this. I read where the great singer Jackie Wilson could charm the patrons at the Copacabana and turn around and do the same at the Apollo….

  9. Jack

    Was someone actually advocating for using AAVE in formal contexts? Saying something is a real language doesn’t mean you can use it whenever you want and expect it to work. You can’t go to an American university and write history papers in Spanish.

    1. SHG Post author

      You can’t? Says who?

      The point isn’t that someone is advocating for the formal use of AAVE, but they are not advocating the value of being taught and having facility in standard English rather than AAVE. If you can’t use standard English, what’s left to use? How does that impact future success in a diverse and inclusive workplace?

      1. Jack

        It’s fascinating that you understand the concept of ignorance but don’t seem to realize that it applies to yourself. To use your words, your understanding of language is “devoid of nuance, the rationale for the rules and an understanding of how and why we got where we are.” Recognizing a language as existing doesn’t detract from the role American English has, it confirms that American English is separate from that language. If you’re concerned about education, programs that recognize AAVE and use it as a vehicle to cheat American English were proven to be effective decades ago. You’re really just rehashing the arguments that derailed those programs in the 90s. Calling AAVE “slang” with “improper speech and grammar” was ignorant and racist then and that hasn’t changed.

        1. Sgt. Schultz

          Funniest part of your delusional non-argument is that the people most antagonistic to the introduction of education by Ebonics in the 1990s were black people, who understood that this dopiness would deprive their children of a quality education and set them up for failure in the future.

          They understood what a terrible and counterproductive idea this was, while well-intended white academics were drooling to prove how progressive they were.

  10. Lee Keller King

    I like the way that Chef from South Park says to handle it:

    “Mr. Garrison: Chef, what did you do when white people stole your culture?

    “Chef: Oh, well, we black people just always tried to stay out in front of them.

    “Mr. Slave: How did you do that?

    Chef: Well, like with our slang. Black people always used to say, “I’m in the house” instead of “I’m here.” But then white people all started to say “in the house” so we switched it to “in the hizzouse.” Hizzouse became hizzizzouse, and then white folk started saying that, and we had to change it to hizzie, then “in the hizzle” which we had to change to “hizzle fo shizzle,” and now, because white people say “hizzle fo shizzle,” we have to say “flippity floppity floop.”

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