Fake-Ass Muhfuckas: Verbal Blackface and The Mis-Appropriation of Black Slang by Pop Culture
Within any culture, language functions as the basis for communicating ideas and people’s general sense of belonging. It is the ways that we practice language that differentiate us from one group to another. Just like accents connote where one comes from, so too do the words and slang that we practice in everyday speech. In today’s pop culture, black slang has become the social capital for differentiating who is socially “in” and who is “out.” Words like “woke,” “rachet,” “twerk,” and “basic” have become common sayings that are often misused or overly emphasized in order for people to feel cool or aware. But these words, while seemingly accepted by society today, mark a key misstep in how white America perceives itself in relation to the continued marginalization of the black communities of the US. In many ways, the use of black slang is a marker of the continued commodification of black art and culture that is used to legitimize and benefit the white majority.
Before Black Vernacular Was Cool
The history of black vernacular is marked by its constant denial and invalidation by white academia. During the late 1800s, black and white authors like Charles Chesnutt and Mark Twain used black southern vernacular to depict the unique culture of enslaved people. However, as the controversy surrounding Twain’s work shows, these uses were not equal, and African American vernacular continues to struggle for mainstream recognition. During the 1970’s the term Ebonics, which later evolved into AAVE (African American Vernacular English), was coined by a group of black scholars who wanted to further legitimize this dialect and resist the linguistic racism responsible for its marginalization. These terms later became accepted by all scholars as a means of linguistic distinction. In today’s understanding of these terms, Ebonics and AAVE are recognized as a linguistic group which is marked by its own speech patterns and rules. These linguistic groups hold strong similarities and overlap with black slang, which is rooted in AAVE and Ebonics, yet, through its own evolution, has become its own distinct expression.
Between white and black linguists, there is a continued debate concerning AAVE and Ebonics’ origin and linguistic roots. Some have argued that AAVE came directly out of the legacy of slavery, specifically from “nonstandard dialects” used by English indentured servants as well as other English speakers who interacted with enslaved Africans. Still others argue that AAVE is rooted in both African dialects and or Caribbean Creole English varieties—in essence, claiming that these linguistic patterns are rooted in a cultural legacy that continues on even after the historical narrative of US slavery.
For this reason, AAVE has become a symbol of power within the black community, as a sign of continued resistance against the cultural erasure and epistemic violence of Western imperialism. Yet, while Ebonics and AAVE are celebrated heavily by black scholars, intellectuals, preachers, singers, and celebrities today, scholar John Rickford argues that “many other people, black and white, regard it as a sign of limited education or sophistication, as a legacy of slavery or an impediment to socioeconomic mobility.” Thus, when black slang is appropriated by white Americans, it functions as a kind of violation of this historical narrative. As journalist Eleanor Tremeer puts it, “AAVE, when used by African American people, is often associated with ‘undesirable’ parts of society like poverty, drugs, violence, and gangs. But when corporations or white people use it, they are co-opting its “cool” potential for their own gain—and giving nothing back to the community that created it.” By using these words, white Americans appropriate cultural expressions that carry social stigmas and prejudice for black Americans, capitalizing on its social capital in order to re-center it in white expression.
A Marginalized Language Goes Mainstream
This history explains why much of the vernacular used in today’s pop-culture shares its roots in AAVE. However, many don’t realize that these terms came out of underground LGBT movements during the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, many terms link back to the foundation of drag, which found its inspiration within the black community of NYC. Terms like “spilling tea,” “throwing shade,” or “voguing” were first used in the NYC drag scene, specifically in black ballroom culture (as recently depicted in the FX series Pose), but were later introduced to mainstream media through shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Pose, and Queer Eye. Yet, their use today ignores this history, and these words often find themselves evoked out of context or inaccurately verbalized by straight white Americans. For instance, when straight folks use “top” and “bottom” slang to refer to their sexual partners, they are using this terminology out of the context of LGBTQ relationships, and it honestly just sounds weird.
Much like the appropriation of LGBTQ slang, the hip hop community continues to deal with white folks’ attempts to appropriate words often restricted to the black community. In one notorious instance at a 2018 Kendrick Lamar concert, a white woman was invited onstage to rap the singer’s song “M.A.A.D City.” However, instead of censoring herself when the n-word came up in the song, the young woman sang the word, causing Kendrick Lamar to jump in and quickly cut her off. In viewing the lyrics separate from the context, fans, like this woman, think it is okay to use known taboo words and slurs by claiming artistic intent. Yet, even after Kendrick called this woman out on her wrongdoing, he still received backlash for ruining her reputation.
Beyond instances of the explicitly taboo, like saying the n-word, it is a common occurrence to hear middle class kids appropriating black hip hop slang, calling each other “thugs” and “gangstas” or declaring “that’s my boy!” to friends. What may seem like harmless wordplay in fact fetishizes urban blackness. For the white person, this slang that makes them seem cool and stylish, but for black and brown folks, these words are racialized, reducing them to “ghetto” stereotypes.
What links these two phenomena together is a social push within the white community to perform an inaccurate representation of blackness that has been perpetuated through media. Just as some white folks continue to justify use of the n-word, so too have they adopted and commodified black slang in order to invade and commercialize black spaces and black expression. Indeed, what has often been called the appropriation of black slang is in fact inaccurate, for it is a mis-appropriation that condenses black identity to bad grammar and out-of-context slang. This is what is called verbal blackface.
We see traces of these ideas in James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time, an essay on racism in America. As part of his analysis of whiteness in the US, Baldwin notes that white identity is constructed out of a place of historical amnesia. This amnesia is a scapegoating mechanism which encourages white Americans to fear their own whiteness. It is this fear that lays a framework that pushes for appropriation of other cultural expressions, or in this case, black slang. He writes:
“…the vast amount of energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.”
What Baldwin notes is that the white majority seeks to separate itself from its whiteness in order to ignore its own history. While this separation of identity has been the catalyst for violence against black and brown bodies, it is also linked with appropriation and performativity of cultural expressions like black slang. By performing these cultural expressions, white folks continue to deny their whiteness, seeking instead to be seen as something other than white. Because white Americans view themselves as lacking a culture or heritage—due to cultural amnesia and assimilation to a false idea of western exceptionalism—they seek to “culture” themselves through appropriative practices in order to gain social capital and distinction. But if the shoe doesn’t fit, then you need to stop trying.
Understanding the Difference between Appreciation and Appropriation
I think many of us can visualize the white guy in a club dancing his heart out to “Act Up” by City Girls, but inevitably looking foolish. He can know every word to the song, have watched and practiced the music video a hundred times, and still look unnatural dancing simply because it isn’t from his context. This performativity is obvious to everyone except the guy dancing, because he is trying to mimic black culture and he doesn’t realize he is still doing it all wrong. He is instead both mocking black culture and performing anti-blackness. This same phenomenon is easily recognized in verbal blackface. When white folks like myself use black slang out of context, we inevitably mock black culture. We are using language that isn’t ours to use, and in so doing, we continue to centralize whiteness instead of just appreciating something for what it is; personal cultural expression.
What I mean by this is when we white folks see another cultural expression that we think is cool, or have been told is trending, instead of appreciating the authenticity, we seek to make it our own. This is based in an insecurity within us; a tendency towards bringing attention to ourselves when our whiteness is not the dominant narrative in a room. It is actions like these that create a culture of appropriation; a culture that continues to centralize whiteness through the taking from other cultural narratives.
Yet, so many folks continue to debate on the validity of cultural appropriation. On one side of the pendulum, many argue that any form of cultural swapping is based in racist notions, whereas the opposing side views anything deemed appropriative as simply celebration of what they see as beautiful. What is central to this debate is the question of permission. In an interview with Vox, Susan Scafidi, the author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, discusses the issue of permission within the context of the attire Beyoncé wore to an Indian wedding. She states:
“Wearing Indian-inspired attire to a wedding at the behest of an Indian bride is a paradigmatic example of an action that is neither economically nor psychologically harmful to the source community. Instead of cultural misappropriation, it is an instance of cultural appreciation in keeping with the norms of the community, or what our grandparents might have called social etiquette… The term “cultural appropriation” is a descriptive one, but not all forms of appropriation are misappropriation.”
By respecting the norms of a community you are appropriating, and receiving permission before acting, what could have been mis-appropriation is instead appreciation of a cultural context outside your own. It is the actions that do not receive permission, or perpetuate a false narrative, that are harmful and wrong.
So, for my white community, here are a few thoughts we should consider when thinking about using black slang: 1) Learn the context, history, and correct use of the terms you are picking up from media. 2) Recognize when you can and when you can’t use slang in a context. 3) Don’t use the words if you only associate yourself with other white folks. 4) Realize that your white privilege is what allows you to use these words without being reduced to racialized stereotypes. 5) If you don’t have permission, then don’t use it. What may seem like simple words aren’t just talk. It is a performance that is imbedded with racializing undertones and a history that you aren’t aware of. Take a moment to learn and ask questions before you claim something that is not your own.
About the author: Levi Clum graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a degree in Cultural Studies and Philosophy. His personal interests include the intersection of religion and inequality. In his free time he enjoys writing poetry and playing music with his friends.