Dear non-Black Asian-Americans (and other non-Black folks), we have a real issue with appropriating AAVE, and it needs to stop.
AAVE stands for African American Vernacular English, and it refers to a distinct language—consisting of words, phrases, intonations, gestures, but also, in the present internet age, gifs, memes, and other images—that has its origins in Black communities in the United States. AAVE has been around as long as Black folks have been in the United States, which is a long time. And, like any language, AAVE is a dynamic and ever-changing reflection of the experiences, histories, attitudes, and beliefs of the community that speaks it.
It is a truism acknowledged by many cultural historians that the sources of innovation by which a culture renews itself are often generated by its most oppressed groups. Over time, these innovations are appropriated into the dominant classes, after which their true origins are erased, forgotten, and reclaimed by the very groups who continue to oppress the original innovators. When it comes to American culture, it has been consistently true that Black people have been the originators and inventors of countless types of popular music, language, dance, cuisine, and other cultural elements that we now think of as distinctly “American” phenomena.
And yet, because Black folks have traditionally been and continue to be one of the most if not the most oppressed group in America, it has also been true that their cultural innovations have repeatedly been stolen, co-opted, or assimilated into the dominant (usually white, but also non-black, upwardly mobile immigrant) classes. We as (non-Black) Asian-Americans have tended to participate in this process. It is one of the unforgivable ways in which we as a community have profited from the struggles, experiences, and innovations of the Black community, who have not received any share of this profit in return.
You might be surprised to learn how much of the language you use on a daily basis—especially online—actually comes from AAVE. Did you know that the word “cool” originally came from AAVE? What about “hella?” How about “on fleek,” “keepin’ it 100,” “AF” (short for ~as fuck), “bae,” “basic,” “bruh,” “getting dragged,” “i feel you,” “lowkey,” “slay,” “side-eye,” “woke,” “straight up,” “throwing shade,” or “yt people”?
- For a more comprehensive list, please refers to the following link: “Alternatives and Substitutes for Appropriative or Problematic Language”
- For a good explanation and breakdown of the phenomenon known as “digital blackface,” please refer to the following link: “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs”
If many of these words or phrases just sound like internet or social media lingo, it’s only further proof of the extent to which the appropriation of AAVE by non-Black communities has accelerated exponentially in the age of the internet. Without having any knowledge of the origin, context or proper usage of these terms, non-Black people now casually litter their speech with them to seem “hip,” “woke” or otherwise relevant, all the while deigning to acknowledge where this language actually comes from, or what it means for them as non-Black people to use these words.
As a mixed race Asian-American growing up primarily in the United States, I acknowledge that I, too, have been part of the problem, and am guilty of appropriating AAVE—online and in person. However, I am actively trying to unlearn these habits because I believe they are harmful and disrespectful to Black folks, given my positionality within the racial hierarchy of the United States. In discussing this issue with other Asian-Americans, I have heard countless excuses defending the right of Asian Americans to appropriate AAVE. I have listed some of the most common ones here, along with a response to each one, with the hope that it will be a useful tool in unpacking and navigating some of these conversations.
“I was born in / grew up in X area, and these words were common to the area in which I grew up! So, I have a right to use these words because I grew up in X area!”
The fact that a term originated in a certain area and the fact that a term originated in the Black community are not mutually exclusive statements. Suggesting that they are seems to imply that Black people cannot be from a certain area, and is thus an anti-Black assumption. Yes, a term such as “hella,” seemingly used by all Californians, could have originated in the Bay Area. And, at the same time, it is likely that the term has its origins in Black communities from the Bay Area.
“I didn’t learn these terms from Black people directly, so it doesn’t count as appropriation when I use them.”
Just because you didn’t learn a term directly from a Black person doesn’t mean you aren’t appropriating AAVE or Black culture. You may have learned a term from non-black people AND it could still be an appropriation of AAVE, just as white people might have learned how to rap from other white people but are still appropriating Black culture by doing so.
“I grew up alongside Black community members, so it’s ok for me to use these terms.”
When Black people use AAVE, they are regularly denied jobs, access to institutions of higher education, and/or otherwise judged as speaking in an “uneducated” way by white people and other gatekeepers of wealth. When non-black people use AAVE, not only does this not happen, but they are actually praised by their peers for seeming “cool.” The end result is that Black people regularly have to self-police their use of AAVE (i.e. code-switching) in order to survive, while non-black people can toggle back and forth freely between use of different vocabulary without having to worry about the social or economic consequences of that behavior. It seems important to keep this in mind when we think about how our words (as non-black folks) may come across to black folks who are forced to engage in this kind of code-switching as a means of survival.
“I’m not white, so it’s ok for me to use these terms! When people of color share each other’s cultures, it’s not appropriation.”
Different groups of people of color can share elements of each other’s cultures in ways that are non-appropriative or non-exploitative, yes. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that there *still exists* a racial hierarchy in the United States, and not all people of color have the same advantages within that hierarchy. As a non-Black Asian-American and/or non-Black person, you are still capable of appropriation because you exist within and profit from a system that routinely dehumanizes Black people.
“In the big scheme of things, don’t we have more important issues to worry about than policing each other’s language?”
While the appropriation of language and specifically AAVE may not seem like an important issue in comparison to the abolition of the prison industrial complex, housing and education reform, fighting fascism, or any number of other things, we can only do this work in relation to concrete individuals and communities with whom it is imperative that we build relationships of trust and respect. We cannot tackle these larger issues if we do not clarify and honor our relationships to one another first. Language and identity are vital aspects of our movement work, and we should try as much as possible to understand how our words and actions may come across to others with different perspectives and life experiences.