On an early-ish morning a few weeks ago, I texted my friend. In his short, two-word response was the word “bae.” Now, my friend, who is white, knows that I am outspoken on political and social issues and strongly identify as a feminist. We often tease each other and debate with one another. So I thought nothing of it when I replied (a bit playfully, yet serious in intent) “That is an appropriation of Black English I do not approve of.” He replied “Ok” which, when I realized that this shut down the opportunity for discussion, slightly disappointed me.

Before I tell you why I said what I said and my thoughts behind it, let me get something out of the way. In this article, I am not saying anything new. I am saying things expressed by countless people (mostly black people and especially black women, whose voices are the most silenced in our society.) However, I am white. That means, whether or not you agree with what I write, I will be treated with more respect than most of the people saying, and living, the same thing.

This is part of my point. It has become so common today to appropriate Black English (a dialect of American English) that one can hardly scroll through their Facebook feed without seeing their (white) friends’ profiles littered with words such as “lit,” “turnt,” “YAAAS” or the aforementioned “bae.”

Each time I see one of these words, I cringe a bit, especially when they are used in ad campaigns or mainstream media, such as Iggy Azalea’s multiple “tru dat” refrains and overall “blaccent.” In my mind, it is a form of appropriation. Most importantly, to me, it is indicative of a culture that repeatedly profits off blackness while doing nothing for, and in most cases, actively harming black people.

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The dominant culture, in this case white people, has stolen and continues to steal the hair, clothes, food, music, words, labor and actual bodies of black people and has built an empire on top of this theft. So, when white people say “It’s just a word,” I would tell them about the countless black children who have been shunned or punished for not speaking “proper English,” because they are speaking their dialect, (as detailed in the 1979 “Ann Arbor Decision” that found the Ann Arbor School District guilty of discriminating against poor black students, partly for not taking dialectical differences into account), while white celebrities use the same words in their Instagram posts and gain more followers.

I would tell them about Kayla Newman, the black woman who popularized, and possibly created the phrase “on fleek” but has made no profit on it whatsoever, while Katy Perry uses the term “misogynoir” (a word for the misogyny directed specifically at black women) and gets credited and lauded for “inventing” this word. (For the record, she didn’t. It was created by black feminist scholar Moya Bailey in 2010.)

I would tell them not to listen to me, but instead listen to the people whose words you are stealing. If you do not know where these words come from at first, that’s fine. However, if you are appropriating someone else’s language and then ignore them when they or someone else tells you (directly or indirectly) the harm this causes, it stops being okay.

Lastly, I would try not to remain silent, as I do too often. Tell your white friends, like I told my friend above, of your disapproval. Hopefully the more unacceptable this linguistic appropriation becomes, the less it will occur.

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FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: JENNIFER MOO/FLICKR VIA CC BY-ND 2.0

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1 comment

  1. So, question. I’m white, from the US. I speak reasonably good Spanish from having lived in Mexico for a couple years and because I was immersed in Mexican culture, I know some Mexican slang and Mexico-specific words that sometimes better express what I’m trying to say than words in English do. So sometimes I use those words – whether or not I’m speaking Spanish, or speaking to someone from Mexico.

    I do the same with Yiddish words – and not just those that are now part of the US vernacular, like schmooze. I just like the nuance of meaning and how they sound to my native-English ears. I also do it with English words that are not commonly used. I love words and I feel like language is a play space.

    Within the paradigm you’re describing, is what I’m doing appropriating? How does that change (or does it) if my Mexican friends think it’s delightful when I use Mexican words? If non-Mexican latino neighbors tell me they like hearing me use Spanish words? Do the people who like hearing me use those words outweigh people who might find it hurtful? (I’ve never encountered them, but your blog suggests that they are out there.)

    I know zero orthodox Jews who speak Yiddish. Is it acceptable to use their words because they’re white, or not acceptable to because they are a historically oppressed minority?

    Do you always need to know where words come from in order to be able to use them? When you use them, must you always footnote them so other people know you didn’t invent them? I’m not familiar with the Katy Perry mainstreaming “mysogynoir” thing you mentioned, but it’s not surprising that a celebrity with a huge platform would be more likely to be noticed than an academic. Are you suggesting that she should not have used a very apt term because she didn’t come up with it?

    It’s a very interesting premise and one I’ve seen come up a lot more in the years since you wrote about it, but while I’m curious about how to apply it and want to learn more because I particularly love language, I’m also not sure how you can confine language from spreading, changing and being adopted across cultures in a very fluid highly connected world. If you’re still checking comments on this post, I’d be curious to hear how you think your ideas apply to my use of language.

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