The appropriation of Black cultural expressions or Black American English has been co-opted and normalized by mainstream media, influencers, celebrities, and public figures through the years. This has sparked discussion—and as a result—more people have come to understand why a non-Black person wearing cornrows or dreadlocks is harmful or why blackface and verbalizing the 'N-word’ in songs is harmful. Appropriation causes harm when it perpetuates stereotypes, turns culture into a commodity, and uses historical traditions as a trend, while the originating group continues to experience discrimination for the very same thing.
Black American English or Ebonics is often known as Black Vernacular or African American English. It is the language established and spoken by Black people in the United States (U.S.) and North America more broadly. Notably, it varies by region and has roots in African dialects and Caribbean Creole English varieties.
While Black American English speakers and Black British speakers share defiance of linguistic expectations in a white, colonialist society, they should not be conflated as Black British English has documented roots in Jamaican Patois, West African Creole Pidgin, and Black British terminology.
Additionally, Black American English is a language that should not be confused as a dialect of (locally bound) “Standard English,” which refers to an idealized norm of English strictly used in official communications (newspapers) and settings (formal schooling). Some schools, such as the South London School Ark All Saints Academy, go as far as banning students from using non-standardized English in formal learning settings.
R.L. Trask shares, “It is important to realize that “Standard English” is in no way intrinsically superior [...] it is not more logical, more grammatical, or more expressive. It is, at the bottom, a convenience […]."
Finally, we would like to highlight that in the past, we have used the terminology “Black Vernacular English (BVE)” or “African American Vernacular English (AAVE).” We are updating our language because Blair Imani Ali and Feminista Jones shared that “Black English” and/or “Ebonics” are better ways to talk about English-based languages created and spoken by Black and African-descended peoples. They explained that the term “vernacular” can be connected to the concept of “slang,” which can undermine the linguistic legitimacy of Black English.
Within any culture, language is the basis for connecting and communicating ideas as it shapes people’s sense of community and identity. Black American English’s linguistic patterns are part of a cultural legacy going back to the plantations of the American South and the enslaved people who cleverly resisted their oppression through coded language. Those who were enslaved invented their own version of English to speak to each other, forming unity, identity and communication without interference from white enslavers.
Indeed, not all languages are perceived equally: language can be used to empower, oppress, and marginalize. However, there are many ways we can be more thoughtful in how we communicate, so our language doesn’t further marginalize people. Engage with Feminuity’s Inclusive Language Guide to learn more.
Despite the stigmatization that those who use Black American English lack formal education and decorum, many Black people have embraced Black American English as a symbol of Black cultural identity and resistance. Many non-Black people have begun using Black American English in their everyday conversations in an attempt to stay relevant or “relate” to Black people, and the media has co-opted it for personal profit, too.
Words such as “lit,” “woke,” “bae,” “rachet,” “frass,” “boi,” “haffi,” “sis,” “slay,” “hella,” “ or “basic,” and phrases such as “straight up,” “deadass,” “on fleek,” “dun know,” “I feel you,” or “turn up,” have become common Internet lingo through GIFs, tweets, and TikTok, as examples. With TikTok especially, (mis)using certain parts of Black culture for content, and without credit is nothing new.
In addition, companies use Black American English on their social media, advertising, and marketing to “appeal” to the “younger audience.” This is troubling because the more Black American English is trivialized with ad slogans, the more it becomes a “fad” instead of what it really is - a rich and diverse functioning culture. This is yet another example of non-Black industries capitalizing on and profiting off Black realities.
Black American English is criticized for sounding “unintelligible” and “unprofessional.” In many cases, it has long been considered inferior to “Standard English.” However, Black people aren’t speaking improperly when they use Black American English. This ongoing belief is inherently anti-Black and can result in Black people feeling bad about their culture, internalizing racism, and code-switching.
Code-switching is commonly defined as “the alternation between two or more languages, dialects, or language registers in the course of a single conversation or exchange,” according to Glottopedia. In this case, Black people may code-switch between “Standard English” and Black American English.
They may do this because when they use Black American English, they are often denied jobs, access to higher education institutions, and/or otherwise judged.
Indeed, Black people must regularly self-police their use of Black American English to survive. In contrast, when non-Black people use Black American English and/or a “blaccent” to gain social relevance and achieve a certain level of desired success, they can do it without facing the societal, economic, and institutional consequences.
The foundation of drag found its inspiration within the Black community of New York City, and thus, sometimes, Black American is mistakenly labelled “gay slang.”
Terms like “yas queen,” “throwing shade,” “spill the tea,” or “voguing” were first used in the NYC drag scene, specifically in Black ballroom culture, but were later introduced to mainstream media through shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Pose, and Queer Eye.
There are loads of options in the GIF library that push the stereotype that Black women are “sassy” and “extravagant.” Ultimately, these images are relied upon to perform fury, annoyance, shade, or celebratory moments. But, they’re more than a punchline and the AI needs a reboot. In fact, when users search for "happier" GIFs, the common search results are non-Black folks. Typically, users would have to specify when they want a Black person represented.
Non-Black people may want to take a critical lens to the words they use to describe Black people that have become so normalized. We all need to be cognizant of what we share, how we communicate, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes pre-existing racial biases inherited from “real life.”
Black American Sign Language (BASL) is a distinct form of American Sign Language (ASL) that is used primarily by African Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. It has its own unique grammatical structure, vocabulary, and cultural norms. Its emergence was primarily influenced by the racial segregation of schools in the American South, creating two language communities among deaf signers (Black and white). BASL is another demonstration of how Black people resisted oppression from language gatekeeping. It allowed Black folks to maintain their identity while protecting their communities and heritage.
Malbroux has four questions she suggests non-Black people ask themselves before using words that have their origins in Black American English:
In conclusion, when non-Black people use Black American English, it feeds into a culture of appropriation, a culture that continues to steal from Black people. Rather than exploiting or commodifying Black American English, we should strive to create a society where all forms of language and expression are valued and respected.