It’s Not “Gen Z Slang”: Cultural Appropriation of AAVE

Written by: Mariah

Edited by: Joaquin

Visual by: Sarah

Hella. Yas queen. On fleek. I feel you. Bae. We’ve all heard these terms in our conversations or on our social media feeds before. These seemingly typical slang words actually stem from a deep and rich part of African American history, which traces back to early slavery. What we know as “Gen Z slang” or “Twitter lingo” is called African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Ebonics or Black Vernacular English. AAVE has been absorbed into pop culture and used by non-Blacks who don’t recognize its cultural context and significance to the Black community. This raises the issue of cultural appropriation, and whether or not non-Blacks should use this.

Like any language, AAVE is a dynamic reflection of the experiences, histories, attitudes, and beliefs of the community that speaks it. AAVE forged unity and communication among African slaves without interference from white individuals. It has been a symbol of power for many Black individuals against cultural erasure, but many of them are prompted to code-switch, or toggle between AAVE and standard English. Because of the language’s differences from standard English, AAVE has been called “lazy” and “broken” and has been associated with ghettos and criminals. Consequently, Blacks may be denied jobs, access to higher levels of education, health care, and fair treatment by law enforcement due to this perception.

White individuals would hear slaves use AAVE and would start to use them too, which led to the popularization of these words. Even after slavery was abolished, this pattern continued. As modern slang became mainstream, companies used AAVE terms in their social media posts to appeal to the younger audience. The more we turn our eyes away from the relevance of AAVE in Black culture, the more we erase the cultural context of the sociolect. 

When Blacks use their own language, they are called “uneducated” and have to self-police themselves in order to adapt to society. When whites and non-Blacks use it, we are called “cool” and gain social relevance without fearing the social consequences. The continued racism towards the Black community is why the integration of AAVE into mainstream language is considered cultural appropriation. As the social scientist Taylor Jones explained: “Appropriation occurs when there’s a power difference, and the source of the lexical item is stigmatized, persecuted, or otherwise ‘lower’ class.” We also tend to easily dismiss these words as “cliche”. By carelessly throwing these words around, we fail to recognize the uniqueness of Black culture and exploit it instead.

Realistically, it would be difficult to remove slang terminology from our vocabularies. We live in a rapidly diversifying world where every culture impacts one another, which makes it difficult to define what is and isn’t considered as appropriation. AAVE has undoubtedly contributed to our generation’s lingo; the best thing we can do is educate ourselves, acknowledge the origins of these words, and learn to regulate our use of the language. It’s okay to say “that’s lit bruh,” as long as you understand what this means in a deeper context and don’t use it to mock Black individuals. It’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we learn to understand and respect cultural boundaries. As we are part of the international community, we must learn to be more open-minded and sensitive to other cultures. The real issue in AAVE appropriation is not racism, but our ignorance and lack of awareness of the importance of Black culture. We must learn to understand how our words and actions affect each other. Until then, we cannot truly be “woke”.

Bibliography:

Flores, Shea. “‘Internet Slang’ Is Rooted in the Appropriation of Black Culture.” North Texas Daily, 28 Oct. 2020, http://www.ntdaily.com/internet-slang-is-rooted-in-the-appropriation-of-black-culture/. 

Hoffman-Kuroda, Lisa. “Dear Non-Black Asian-Americans: We Need to Stop Appropriating AAVE.” Wear Your Voice, 13 Jan. 2018, http://www.wearyourvoicemag.com/non-black-asian-americans-we-need-to-stop-appropriating-aave/. 

Shakeri, Sima. “These Were 2018’S Hottest Slang Words — but Should You Use Them?” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 31 Dec. 2018, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/12/30/2018-slang-words-appropriation_a_23629985/. 

Shammet, Tagwa. “AAVE Is Not Your Internet Slang. It Is Black Culture.” The Commonwealth Times, 18 Feb. 2021, commonwealthtimes.org/2021/02/18/aave-is-not-your-internet-slang-it-is-black-culture/.