There is an ongoing half-joke about “white people ruining” certain slang words. From “bling bling” to “basic.” From “on fleek” to “f**kboy.” From “yass” to “ain’t nobody got time for that.” The “mainstream” appropriation, and subsequent overuse, of black slang is as predictable as the tides.
Portland-based Dominican artist and poet Manuel Arturo Abreu recently wrote a piece about the use of “Online Imagined Black English for Arachne, an academic webzine that analyzes the relationship of mythology to the internet.” They (Abreu’s preferred pronoun) notes how the use of “Black English” has spread in recent years due to both use of the Internet – particularly, social media – and the worldwide popularity of rap, quoting linguist John McWorther’s 2009 assertion that “Black English, especially the cadence, is becoming America’s youth lingua franca, especially since the mainstreaming of hip-hop.”
“I focus on the phenomenon of non-black English speakers with no fluency using real or imaginary linguistic features of Black English, which I call imagined Black English,” Abreu writes, before referencing Cecilia Cutler’s theory that white youth, in particular, are increasingly claiming that hip-hop is a multicultural lifestyle you can enter and exit, rather than a symbol of ethnic identity.
This claim, they say, “seems to allow whites access to a commodified, ephemeral black experience at various moments or phases in their lives without requiring overt claims of black ethnicity, and the sociolinguistic meaning of [African American Vernacular English] appears to be adjusted in the process.”
In short, as hip-hop became more universal, some people who have no real connection to black people IRL freely borrow from (often stereotypical) aspects of black culture that they have consumed through mainstream rap and funny social media posts. It allows them to enjoy some of the “cool” parts of being black – stereotypical slang, “swagger,” the ability to use the “N-word” – without having to deal with trickier parts like racial profiling, systemic racism, stereotypes, police brutality, and a lack of intergenerational wealth due to the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws and racist hiring practices.
As a person who loves writing and literature, language is very important to me. I’m specifically obsessed with colorful language. Slang, metaphor, proverbs, old “country” sayings and truly, vulgar curse words are a few of my personal faves. I understand the need for creative expression, and the love of clever words and phrases that are not of one’s own culture – I get it. That is not my personal issue with this phenomenon. It’s the erasure of black people, while using words we’ve created, that makes me cringe.
For years, we’ve watched black cultural markers, such as speech, hairstyles, fashions, be de-racialized and stripped of all ties to blackness. Cornrows are attributed to Bo Derek, or erroneously described as miniature French braids. Wheat Timberland boots are “the new Birkenstocks.” Miley Cyrus apparently invented twerking.
In fact, Abreu’s traces this phenomenon back to the days when “ragtime sheet music, black vaudeville, and race records to cultures across the world in the form of language, music, dance, and gesture.”
It is as if these things just came up out of the ether, super-cool and completely up for grabs. This is what people who write about race, culture and appropriation like to call “erasure.” It is possible to parse out bits of black culture and use them until they are completely deracialized. It is possible to love black culture and not love – or even hate – black people.
“The internet allows for communication and media dissemination to a wider and more diffuse audience than was once possible,” writes Abreu. People with “less and less relationship to black media and linguistic behavior” have more and more access to it, through sites like Urban Dictionary and Genius, for example.
Then there is the case of terms like “basic.” It’s always been a pejorative term, used to deride someone for having very “low-brow” or “ratchet” tastes or habits. Then, the mainstream Internet got ahold of it and “basic” quickly became a term used to specifically ridicule white girls who like things like Ugg boots, black leggings, pumpkin spice lattes and posting food pics on Instagram.
“Deracialized and decontextualized, these redefined words entered the mainstream lexicon at an accelerated rate due to the internet, and their proliferation among white Standard English speakers prompts exhaustion,” writes Abreu. The same writer who penned “This is What ‘Bae’ Means” for TIME in July 2014 listed it along with other originally black terms like “turnt” and the aforementioned “basic” and “yasssss” on a list of Words to Ban in 2015, Abreu points out.
The words are appropriated and then regurgitated back into the online space at hyper-speed. So much so that brands like Hamburger Helper (who did it best, and perhaps, least offensively), Burger King, iHop and Denny’s, incorporating black slang into their social media copy to seem “fun” enough to grab users’ attention.
Abreu’s entire piece is jargon-heavy, but is worth a long, close read. It’s a thorough examination of the collision of Internet culture and systemic racism that helps to explain why the seemingly ubiquitous use of terms and phrases like “throwing shade” or “bae” makes some of us uncomfortable.