How Appropriating Slang Can Be Problematic: Yaaaasss Queen, Even for You!
Maybe You’re Not Woke AF
2014 was overall, a very good year. The Giants had won the World Series, the world was introduced to Lupita N’yongo and the idea of Trump being President was just a very funny punchline. It also was the year that brought us ‘On Fleek’, the catchy phrase popularized by Peaches Monroe, a young, Black Vine star. In a 6 second video, Peaches explained that her eyebrows were #OnFleek. Hundreds of thousands of views and months later, we saw it being used by everyone from Ariana Grande to Taco Bell.
Here’s the deal: the creativity and cool factor of Peaches was used to sell pancakes, music, tacos, and everything else in between. Undoubtedly, many people made money off on fleek, except for Peaches Monroe. Years later, Peaches is currently staking her claim as the rightful trademark owner of on fleek, and has created a Go Fund Me to support her burgeoning cosmetic line of beauty products that will get you looking well, on fleek.
But Peaches is a very special case. Thanks to the magic of the internet, we can clearly see the impact of her brief Vine video using the phrase. With so many other slang words, it’s harder to pinpoint specific creators and thus, easier to not rightfully attribute credit. Right now, Woke, Slay, Bae, Yaaasss Queen and Lit are basically unavoidable. Yet the claim that these words are ‘internet slang’ is a bold faced lie- they come from Black and Queer culture. I’ll put it to you simply, flavoring your language with slang that is not native to you may come with more than a heavy does of side-eye, it could also be problematic, exploitative, and signal to the community that you’re borrowing from that you trivialize their personal experiences and tokenize their culture.
Chey Bell, a Bay Area comedian and a PR guru, explains why seeing people ‘fake the funk’ can be so unsettling:
“My immediate reaction most of the time is I’m slightly annoyed. Culturally we [Black people] are the creators of so much of what gives our society flavor and swag and layers of complexity and what makes it interesting. A lot of it comes from us and you see it eventually permeated throughout the world.”
Bell’s point is undeniable. Across the world, you can definitely see the influence of Black American culture, beyond music and dance, films, physical features and yes, especially language has made a ripple effect across oceans. Every year new slang from Black culture is beat into the ground by people who just catch wind of it, without any knowledge or care of its origin. RIP Turnt and Bye Felicia.
When you have Donald Trump tweeting about his ‘haters’- it’s further evidence of how much Black slang has been consumed by white Americans. As I’m writing this, I can already feel the argument approaching. What’s the big deal anyway? Black Culture is just American Culture, it’s part of one multi-colored fabric of ethnicities that blend together, like Irish, and Polish, and Italian communities.
In reality, while Black Culture is loved, adopted, praised, and made fashionable, Black people themselves are still treated like second class citizens in a country that sanctions the murder of unarmed Black men, women, and trans people through police brutality. All this while many Black people lack access to basic resources of housing, education and healthcare. So when you have the inclusion of these words, without the actual inclusion of Black people, it just comes across as a slap in the face. Sprinkling Blackness in your language as a social currency to appear ‘cool’, while simultaneously distancing yourself from the plight of actual Black people is gross. And while we are on this, be reminded that Black culture is not a monolith. Pop culture is saturated from the flavor generated by Queer and Trans people of color. So while you shouting “Yassssss, Queeen, Werk!!”, don’t forget about the ongoing assault on Black Trans women and continual creation of regressive bills that target LGBTQI people.
There is a phrase for that eye-rolling, frustrating, disgust-inducing phenoma that some people have experienced for centuries: cultural appropriation.
Over the past few years, conversations about cultural appropriation have become more popular in our media diet as folks have become familiar with the term that explains precisely why wearing a Native American Halloween costume is fucked up. Cultural appropriation is what happens when elements of one culture are used, caricaturized or tokenized for commercial or entertainment purposes of another culture. Although it is most popularly used in reference to mascots (i.e. Washington RedSkins), costumes, hairstyles (hey Kardashians), and even music (you’re not that fancy, Iggy Azalea) – cultural appropriation can apply to language too.
So where do we go from here?
Well first, Black and Queer culture creators should begin to follow Peaches’ trail and see the dollar signs behind their cultural contributions. Dr. Meredith Smith, an expert in Black Feminist and equity theory, echoes that sentiment:
“As Black people we must know our worth and demand it’s financial compensation. Everybody loves Black culture but Black people, not so much. At the very least we should see the money behind the appropriation of our lived experience.”
Secondly, there’s a line between being caught in the waves of the fluidity of evolving language and adopting slang as ‘cool’ currency. Know that line.
Kyle Freeman, a racial dialogue facilitator and linguistic specialist, acknowledges that the line is gray. “There’s an open debate on how intentional language learning and language use is. On one side of the debate there is the idea that language use is unconscious, the other side suggests we make choices about what we say and we can change what we say.” However, he offers a litmus test you can use. “Do you have significant personal relationships to the people of which are using these words?” Freeman asked. “Are you anti-Black in your attitudes and behaviors?”
In addition to Freeman’s questions, here are 4 questions you can ask to check yourself in your usage of adopting slang.
Four things to consider with using slang:
1) Are you commercializing it for your financial gain?
2) Is it performative? Or tokenizing?
3) Are you using it to ‘level’ up’ to get ‘street’ credentials?
4) Are you in proximity to originating culture?
More than offering any hard rules to follow, I want to leave you with these questions to ask yourself to identify how the words you use may, at the very least, be coming across as inauthentic, and at the very worst, make you look like a giant asshat. Do with it what you will. But remember, you could be on the wrong side of history. There was a time when minstrel shows were incredibly popular and white people wouldn’t bat an eye at seeing a blackface performance – in fact it was all the rage. During those same times, blackface caused a lot of pain and frustration to Black American communities while simultaneously perpetuating harmful stereotypes that led to real life discriminatory laws and policies.
Make sure your words are not verbal blackface.