In an attempt to be cute and playful, I texted, “Wassup bae?” to a friend of mine. She responded, “That greeting is an appropriation of Black English that I do not approve of.”
I wrote back, “Okay,” and continued the conversation as though nothing had happened. Internally however, I wondered whether, as a Polish-Ashkenazi Jew, I should respond in Yiddish or, since Yiddish technically is partially derived from German and other languages, if I should respond in Biblical Hebrew. Even if that takes some linguistic elements from older cultures, I don’t know any Akkadians to tell me about it.
My next thought was to ask my friend if she had ever eaten a bagel. Because that would be an appropriation of Polish Jewish food that I would not approve of. Oreo bagels would be a fraudulent attack on the bread wheel I cherish.
On a more serious note, this led me to think. By definition, the real difference between cultural diffusion, a necessary element of cultural evolution, and cultural appropriation seems to be whether there is malicious intent, such as making fun, claiming that culture belongs to me as opposed to them, etc. Unless this kind of derogatory intent is evident, I have a hard time seeing the dissemination of culture as inherently negative.
Language though, is fundamentally different. It is not cultural appropriation for the winning word of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee to be “knaidel” (the Yiddish word for “Matzah ball”) because it is a meaningful word that expresses a concept no other word can meaningfully convey. Slang words like “bae,” “yas” and “oy” have their own distinct meanings and therefore should be considered just as integral to the evolution of language as words like “ain’t,” “gifted,” herculean” and “lol.”
On the other hand, I did specifically use the word “bae” to be funny because it isn’t the kind of word people would expect me to use. Would employing a plethora of colloquialisms specific to a culture, sub-culture or region that is not my own for the sake of seeming humorously inconsistent be appropriation, microaggression or racism? What if I specifically used multisyllabic words to sound like a stereotypical movie nerd?
Last year, a professor would say things to me like, “You’re smart. You should become a Rabbi,” or “Aren’t all Jewish girls curvy?” I understand how these could be perceived as microaggresions, but he already knew me for three semesters and honestly didn’t mean anything negative by it. He was trying to compliment me and ask a question. Would asking, “Aren’t all Irish girls redheaded?” be different?
The biggest difference I can tell is that commenting on the color of people’s hair or changing your dialect to sound scientific doesn’t inherently carry the same weight as resorting to a vocabulary of Black English.
Also, when people of color who employ these terms are viewed overwhelmingly negatively while people of lighter skin tones who use them are seen as cute, it begins to smell of diet discrimination.
Honestly, I think word usage like this, similar to questions the professor asked me, should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Not everyone who uses “bae” is appropriating. It’s a fun word in a beautiful language that will continue to expand. People shouldn’t have to second guess every word they use. I don’t intend on continuing to use it because it doesn’t feel like me. But then again, neither does “essayed.”