in an article about AAVE, a Black man stands against a foggy background

Stop Weaponizing AAVE

AAVE has not only been stolen and absorbed into mainstream slang, but also used against the African American community in political rhetoric.
December 13, 2022
8 mins read

African American writer James Baldwin, in “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” wrote: “Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.” African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a central part of Black identity here in the US, and it carries with it a long history of external criticism. Oftentimes, speakers are falsely characterized as unintelligent or unfit for professional spaces due to their “poor” linguistic skills. However, despite this criticism, not only is AAVE misappropriated as Gen Z slang, but it is mangled and weaponized in the form of anti-Black rhetoric and MAGA talking points.

AAVE, otherwise known as African American Vernacular English or Black English, is considered a creole by a few, a dialect by some, and its own language by others. This English variant is broadly spoken across America. Because a high concentration of its speakers reside in working-class urban areas, AAVE is stereotypically known as the language of the inner city. A large portion of the African American population is pseudo-bilingual, speaking both AAVE and Standard English fluently with the ability to freely switch between the two as they see fit. However, because AAVE is considered the language of the inner city, its speakers are told to leave it there and “talk properly” in serious, professional settings. However, should any word or grammatical structure be borrowed and absorbed into the popular culture of the white majority, AAVE suddenly gets a pass, though it is rarely acknowledged as AAVE by that point anyway.

This is a regular occurrence in modern American culture. Think through the slang words that young adults and teenagers use nowadays — AF, slay, finna, savage, tea, shade —and appreciate their AAVE origins, because so few of us who use these words even bother. Some of them are said fully seriously, and some ironically because they have fallen out of style, but it’s all a matter of preference, because it’s all just a performance. Whether it’s an attempt at humor or a ploy for attention, when non-African Americans adopt AAVE words without doing due diligence to learn where they came from, they demonstrate flippancy and disrespect toward Black culture.

For these people, using AAVE is like trying on a costume; it’s fun and all, but you can take it off with ease whenever the need arises. They have this ability because they aren’t pressured into code-switching, or “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment.” With no concern for the origin of the words they throw around, they have a limited understanding of the context, grammar and style that a fluent speaker would inherently grasp. It is the burden of the fluent AAVE speaker to adjust to the whims of the majority whenever it decides that AAVE isn’t fun, but inappropriate. The switch is often necessary to avoid ridicule and ostracization, and can reduce one’s feeling of authenticity and worsen overall emotional well-being.

This cultural discomfort with variant forms of the same language might, on paper, sound mildly absurd, but the consistent and significant influence it holds over any given community or space raises questions regarding the motivation behind efforts to eradicate these variants. What is so troublesome about hearing AAVE in the workplace? Allowances are made for foreigners with limited fluency, and most accents don’t bring down a wave of criticism on the speaker. Furthermore, a great deal of AAVE vocabulary is used as slang in the workplace already. As James Baldwin would put it, “It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience.” The casual and ignorant user needn’t fear what the words represent, but hearing those same words spoken by the community that created them over the course of a history rife with oppression serves an uncomfortable reminder of the skeletons in this nation’s closet.

And yet, that is how things are in this country. Picking and choosing, borrowing or stealing freely, while native speakers face criticism or stereotyping if they engage similarly with words that once belonged to them. Over a certain period of time, an AAVE word can become so absorbed by the mainstream community, so instrumental in communication, that the culture will refuse to relinquish it, allowing it to evolve into an unrecognizable mangling of its original meaning. Such is the case with the famous word, “woke.” Once meaning the exercise of reasonable caution to avoid being tricked by others, the word evolved during the Ferguson protests to mean keeping watch for police brutality against minorities.

“Woke” has now been adopted as a key political buzzword on both sides of the aisle, but the brunt of the ideological damage comes from the right. On the left, it implies a commitment to social justice issues. On the right, it’s an insult with a slightly different meaning. It is about social justice, but it ridicules anyone who shows concern for social issues such as racism. Some on the right see it as a criticism of their whiteness, which is troubling, as it ties racism to their very identity. Right wing political figures such as Governor Ron DeSantis have spearheaded the so-called war on wokeness, framing the desire to help the oppressed as a harmful thing for America. It’s one thing to listen to people use the word incorrectly, to watch them steal and assimilate it, to use it like it’s an insult, but it is another thing entirely to use it as a rhetorical weapon against policies that help the community the word was was taken from.

Evan Tsuei, Westmont College

Writer Profile

Evan Tsuei

Westmont College
Economics & Business

Terminally online and chronically sleep-deprived, Evan is a devout Portlander who loves discussing politics, literature and Asian culture. Remember, trains are better than cars, cats are better than people, buy gold, bye.

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