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?