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My Struggles with how white people view AAVE, identity and language

Millennial communication is so deeply rooted in AAVE that many people forget to notice it. For those who don’t know, AAVE stands for African American Vernacular English and is often seen as the academic word for “ebonics.” For generations, black people have adapted and combined  their linguistics from communities all over the globe, from West Africa to Jamaica to even the Caribbean.

Language is not created by happenstance – but is rather built upon and constantly adapting, which is one of the most amazing things about it. It is not only a way of communicating verbally, but also a different way of connecting with the individual you are speaking to. To me, speaking to someone in their native language can be a lot more meaningful than speaking to them in their second, because it shows that you have put in the effort to learn about their culture and methods of communication. It shows you are making an attempt to understand someone else’s “normal,” and respect that might be alternative to yours. This is why AAVE  is such an integral part of black culture to a lot of people, but too often is ridiculed and patronized by people who may not even know where it came from and what it truly means.

So many people think AAVE is ridiculous and improper. If so, what’s to say on those with Boston accents and Boston lingo? What’s to say on those with Southern accents and southern vernacular? And what about the Londoners speaking in Cockney rhyming slang? Are they also speaking improperly?

A few months ago I was listening to a commercial on the radio in which someone purposely mispronounced the term “That is so on fleek.” saying “on flick.” Then, they proceeded to blindly ask, “Is that what the kids are saying these days?”  ridiculing the saying without even acknowledging the fact that flee kas term rooted in AAVE, is not a joke. Rather it is a serious, passionate part of black culture. It is not just what any kid says. It is what many non-black kids say without thinking about where it came from; yet we do not want to claim AAVE in fear of being seen as less than we already are in society.

AAVE is one of the most difficult issues to discuss when addressing culture appropriation, and personally it’s very difficult for me to straight up deem  AAVE spoken by non-black persons is culturally appropriative. Language and linguistics are actually something many people, including me, think of as a very fascinating field of study. It’s so adaptive and mesmerizing to see how cultures, peoples and humanity have evolved over time by means of communication. The truth? Language is a beautiful, prepossessing way of communicating, so to deem any kind of verbal speech as even slightly culture appropriative brings tremendous pain to my heart, and to the hearts of many language-lovers. Language is supposed to be something that brings people together. Language is something that is supposed to be felt. It is not something that is supposed to be taken for granted and used lightly. Language is not a joke, yet again and again, teens and adults everywhere belittle all that AAVE stands for.

Why is it that the only thing that makes the class clown funny is his blatant use of AAVE when he wants to make a punch line? When I think of AAVE, I think of Amandla Stenberg and how she once stated, “What if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” What if?

Why is it that the same people who are using AAVE for their aesthetic are the same people calling us black people ghetto, and ratchet? Why is it that the non-black people who use AAVE end up using it against us? Why is it that as a result of this we end up using something blacks created against ourselves?

I have to admit that I have not grown up speaking AAVE. I have always felt afraid to express myself using AAVE because I did not want people to think I was somehow “uneducated,” as if speaking AAVE and being educated are mutually exclusive. Most of all though, I feared people would think I was “ghetto,” one of the most problematic words used in reference to black culture.  But please, take a moment to reconsider why one cannot be both incredibly intelligent and speak AAVE to a T. Why is it so unfathomable to believe that somebody who knows English might choose to speak AAVE? But then again, maybe it is unfathomable to many people that anybody would choose to associate themselves with black culture. Maybe this is the raw, mind-numbing reality of our society. Maybe.

I remember being at a professional event and one black man was attempting to get the attention of the masses, so he started performing a series of claps until the chatter died down to a dull roar. Once he had the attention of those willing to listen he breathed and said, “Aight.”

Everybody burst into laughter at his candor. He held a straight face. I had to wonder, did he mean to be funny? Or was that just the effect that AAVE had on people? No matter how collaborative and creative something that roots in black culture might seem, could it be true that it would always be seen as some sort of a joke? I wondered. The girl next to me shouted sarcastically, “Real professional!” Why not, though? Why was this not acceptable and somehow improper? I failed to understand what the joke was in a language that laces together millions of people. What is funny? Please, somebody, enlighten us all on how from slavery to 2015, black people finding soulful ways of communicating in any way they could is comical. Our ancestors broke through the barriers of not knowing how to read or speak in a way deemed “grammatically correct” during slavery and evolved over generations sticking with the communication that was at one point all they knew. It was what got them through.

I think sometimes about song in slavery, and how in movies like 12 Years a Slave, it has been said and shown that many slaves used to sing throughout the day. Even when they didn’t know what they were singing or what it really meant, they sang and they sang their hearts out, because they knew whatever it meant it had to mean something more beautiful than the life they were confined to. In a culture where, at one point the only weapon you had was your voice, it was the only way slaves could not be silenced from letting their voices shine. So why now, as the linguistics of this communication has evolved, is it a joke?  Why is it funny? Is black resistance to an on-going plight humorous by any means?

In order to be as explicit as I can, it is important to know why laughing at AAVE after you use it to get a kick out of others is extremely harmful and detrimental to black culture. When I hear non-black people using AAVE, I realize how spunky and flavorful it is and how prevalent it is in our society without us even realizing it. People love black culture but they don’t love black people nearly as much, and are so quick to call us “ghetto” when we speak it ourselves. I laugh at the joke that a non-black person has just said and then I ask myself, well why didn’t I think it was cool when I heard that black girl using it? The unspoken of “it’s only cool when non black people say it” complex has really hampered black progression, but I still find myself resorting to the word “ghetto” every time I see my fellow black girls saying “stay woke” or “on fleek” or even “ya girl.” (You’d be so surprised to see how much of your current vernacular is rooted in black culture. (Yes, YAAASS is Black drag culture.).

Ultimately we hear AAVE chucked around so much by non-black people that by the time we find it on our lips we no longer want to say it because it’s overused by everybody else has essentially exploited all that it stands for. It’s like a game where our words our taken, sucked up for any good they’re worth, dropped, and then people move onto the next.  And then I see how conditioned I am to believe that black people could never be likable or presentable in their own element, that black people are not a people who should be proud of their culture in the slightest. I see how conditioned I am to believe that black people will always in some respect be seen as poor and ignorant (especially black girls.) I remind myself time and time again, No! Unlearn those beliefs. They only attempt to restrict you. I try and try to rub my mind clean of the white girls, the POC girls at my school who use AAVE jokingly and remind me that no matter how cool, how suave a black people thing may seem, it will always be seen as a little bit of a joke.

When I was a kid I was so proud of the fact that I didn’t sound ghetto because I spoke a white man’s English. I spoke properly. But what is proper English? Isn’t one of the most correct versions of English to the original version the English spoken in England? So then technically, aren’t all of us American’s speaking improperly too? Why does AAVE only become improper on black persons?

I will always feel a little bit uncomfortable speaking AAVE just because I have to live behind the stigma of being “ratchet,” or “ghetto,” or somehow improper for not knowing how to speak “correctly.” I love to see how much black culture is getting spread through media but only wish that people knew how to appreciate it instead of constantly taking it for themselves when they want it and,in turn belittling it without thinking about how it might hamper an entire people.

Is AAVE culture appropriation? It would be easy to say yes, and be done with it. But I cannot give a yes or no answer. It’s a language. But it’s also being taken for granted so much that people don’t even notice there’s a problem. I am here to say that there is an astronomical problem with the way we regard AAVE. Being honest here, there are a plethora of culturally appropriative aspects of AAVE in society, yet it takes a lot for me to call language of any kind appropriative. This is the sad reality that we are living in. A reality where we have to question why our language feels like it is being stolen from us, like it is no longer ours to use because we are constantly demeaned when we use it, while everyone else is reprimanded and applauded for making a mockery of it.

I think back to the non-black boy in math class who tells a funny joke using AAVE. How dare he imply AAVE is ridiculous enough to inspire laughter in others? How dare he make a mockery of it in order to appeal to kids who want to feel eccentric for using a culturally significant means of communication whenever they feel like being comical, when the truth inside the truth is that often times the only thing that makes these kids humorous is the AAVE they appropriate time and time again.

So until the ever-growing issues of AAVE are publicly addressed by the masses, I will probably still bite my tongue in class, when the Asian girl says, “This math homework is lit” and probably uses a bunch of other terms in extremely wrong contexts. I will strive to feel more and more comfortable everyday using AAVE, the vernacular that every other non-black kid and her brother carelessly roll off their tongues, embracing it as if it is the Teenage Lingo and not the Black Lingo, while I’m still caught behind the barrier of being ghetto. I am still standing behind the gate of accepting my culture after it has been derogatorily presented to me in a million different pictures.

I will strive to embrace AAVE because although it may make black girls especially feel ghetto or ratchet when saying it, it is a personal journey to overcome. Yet ask yourself why we as a people need to be overcoming something like this in 2015. Why should we have to be scared to love our culture when everybody else gets to embrace it? This is the underlying question you should be asking yourself next time you want to use AAVE to be funny.


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Written by Baudelaire Brookes

Baudelaire Brookes is a Togolese-American young writer who seeks to embrace feminism and social justice issues through the written word. She loves creating and being surrounded by good art and hopes to one day create writing that changes the life of anyone willing to listen, even if it is just one person. She also strives to create influential content on feminism and social justice issues on her YouTube Channel, the Somebody Campaign. She spends most of her time reading and loves films. She lives on deep, intellectual conversations and hopes one day that her life will become a collection of good stories as dramatic as the ones she writes. Baudelaire has never been great at short, concise autobiographies largely because third person biographies give the false impression that the only way you can ever be anything worth talking about is if it’s someone else talking about you. She wonders why first person is so unprofessional and then remembers it’s Earth we are living in. Perhaps self-praise is too arrogant; or rather our society and its people hate itself too much to address it candidly. But, she digresses.

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