Featured Image: Shannon Ahren for Alligator
African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Black English and Ebonics, is a dialect with its own grammatical rules, vocabulary, and sentence structure. AAVE is believed to have started during slavery, as the enslaved people were unable to understand English, and many were unable to communicate with each other due to speaking different languages. From this point on, AAVE started to form and take shape, only to solidify over the years.
In the past, AAVE was banned from school settings, belittled, and mocked by racists in America. Even today, people are told they are speaking “ghetto” or “improper English.” Racist cartoons and caricatures would be designed to mock Black people by using exaggerated AAVE, blackface, and racist stereotypes, depicting Black people as uneducated, lazy, animalistic creatures. Yes, this includes old Disney cartoons and classics like Tom and Jerry. These depictions were not limited to cartoons, either. White people — typically men — would paint their faces black and mock the songs and dances of enslaved people as entertainment. This type of act was called a “minstrel show.”
With such a history of white people using AAVE for minstrel comedy, it’s concerning to see how AAVE is being rebranded today.
White internet personalities have recently started to use AAVE — often incorrectly — and speaking in a “Blaccent” to enhance their comedy or to “drag” or insult someone. When called out on their usage of AAVE, the Blaccent disappears for the apology video and they try to pass it off as “stan Twitter language” or “Gen Z language.” Thanks to this behavior, now white and other non-Black people have started to use these terms without knowing the origins of AAVE or what the words mean. This is a similar phenomenon to cultural appropriation, when people claim something from another culture as their own.
Imagine being ridiculed, belittled, and mocked for years for the way you naturally speak, just for white teenagers on TikTok to use this way of speaking to grow platforms with millions of followers.
AAVE is not a one-size-fits-all, either. Different regions of the United States have unique vocabulary and phrases. Black people from New York City communicate differently than Black people in New Orleans. Those who are co-opting AAVE often show their inorganic usage of the dialect by using combining AAVE vocabulary from different parts of the U.S. They also tend to use vocabulary words incorrectly or in awkward conjunction with each other, cluing in native speakers that someone does not understand AAVE and what they are saying.
Now that it is becoming so common for non-Black people to use AAVE incorrectly under the guise of “Gen Z” language, it poses several questions. Many suddenly use AAVE when they get into an internet altercation to sound tougher or more aggressive. Why do so many automatically associate aggression with Blackness? To those who use it to sound “funnier,” why would you use the dialect of which Black people speak to enhance the comedic effect of what you are saying? For those misusing AAVE vocabulary sometimes even to the point of offending others, why would you use words that you don’t understand or know the meaning of? It is absolutely necessary to understand why something is being done, whether or not it is inherently harmful. If you are non-Black and using AAVE terms that you just picked up from the internet, look into yourself and ask why you are saying it. Ask if you are using the term correctly and if you are, is it your place to use the said term at all?
Comically using AAVE and cultural appropriation go hand in hand, with many combining the two to create an internet persona that is quite literally a caricature of a Black person, typically a Black woman. From renaming cornrows to “boxer braids” or “Kim Kardashian braids” to labeling a dialect as internet slang, it’s indescribably tiring to see non-Black people get famous on social media just for the modern manifestation of a minstrel show. Yet again, Black people are expected to share all aspects of our culture without question, something that is not expected of other racial groups.
Allies have to check themselves and their non-Black peers on these behaviors. Listen to Black people — to understand, not to respond.