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I’m Not Your “Boo”: The Politics of Language

Linguist Jane H. Hill, in an article entitled “Now That White People Have Declared ‘Bae’ Over, Black People Can Use it In Peace,” defines language appropriation as “a type of complex cultural borrowing that involves a dominant group’s ‘theft’ of aspects of a target group’s language.” Hill explains that the “theft” adds value to White identity while further marginalizing non-dominant groups. This cultural “borrowing” of Black language and phraseology happens regularly, allowing non-Black folk to “try on” Black culture through the use of African-American English vernacular and slang without having to “put on” the cultural consequences of actually being Black in a culture conditioned to devalue and dismiss it.

I read this article and commented about it online almost two years ago and have been both intrigued and dismayed by its postulations ever since.

Language appropriation occurs because of white supremacy. White privilege is why many Whites can’t understand that their cycle of cultural appropriation is a weapon of the oppressor—more than just “copying” Black people but stealing, altering, and profiting from this appropriation without punishment. This sort of behavior—seen everywhere from TV ads to feature films to attempts to be “hip”—disrespects those from whom the art comes from in the first place.

I see this in my role as a teacher every day.

Black people in general advance American culture. When you look at the history of American music, you need look no further than jazz and hip-hop to see that this is true. But aside from music, Blacks have contributed to the national lexicon as well. If you don’t believe me, check out the following words: “bling,” “bootylicious,” “yo,” “wassup,” “holla,” “trippin’,” and, as the article mentioned, “bae.”

Two years ago when I commented to that effect, a woman I grew up with who happens to be White, stated that I was trying to engage in a race war with her, and that “bae” was never a Black word to claim. According to her, no words should be owned by anyone.

I thought that I was attempting to engage in a civil cyber-discussion rooted in not merely opinion, but research as well. I responded eloquently and intelligently to an article and that combination, matched with my status as a Black woman and a Black teacher, appeared to be too challenging for my colleague. It often is.

It seems to me that as long as people shy away from difficult conversations about race, as long as people—White people—choose to pretend that we live in a post-racial America, race relations in America will continue to spiral downwards and out of control.

As I was sorting laundry and watching Good Morning America, I came across more examples of language appropriation in a real world context: Within a two-minute segment I heard the reporters (not Robin Roberts) use the phrases “the struggle is real” and “keepin’ it real.”

Many people admire the way Blacks speak. The way we create and string together colorful and dynamic words and phrases is beautiful and artistic. There is nothing wrong with that. Appreciation turns to appropriation, in my assessment, when there is an insincerity in not only the use of certain words/phrases, but also the context, climate, and purpose for their use. When there is profit. When there are attempts to be cool. And, especially, when this appropriation turns to disdain when Black students—and teachers—are disdained for using these phrases in classrooms and on assessments. Talk about mixed messages when GMA hosts garner celebrity for hipness and students are chastised for using the same phrases!

Language use is political. Certain languages are deemed more socially acceptable than others. English-language learners (ELLs) from France don’t get frowned upon for speaking French, but ELLs from Haiti are openly laughed at for speaking Haitian-Creole. Black students are constantly re-directed to speak “proper” English, yet White students speak Black English as a joke. I even had to check a White colleague recently for greeting me with a, “Heyyyy guurrrllll!” Clearly she spoke to me that way because I’m a Black woman because she didn’t greet anyone else in the room that way, and she and I aren’t even that cool. I found her salutation to be disingenuous and fake—and I politely told her so.

I’m continuously dismayed by this struggle that I must endure in every facet of my life as a Black woman in America  — namely as a Black educator teaching Black and Brown children. It’s taxing. It’s tiring. I’m over it.

I get that it’s important to teach our students to write for their intended audience and that the way they write a text message to a friend is not the way they should write a cover letter to a potential employee. This is deeper than that, though. Language appropriation sends a strong negative message that Black vernacular is acceptable when it is approved of and used by Whites. That’s untrue. That’s unacceptable. That’s a message that this blogger vehemently opposes.

What do you think?

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