Using AAVE to Boost Media Engagement Isn’t Cool
( Ian Flores / Rowdy Magazine Graphic Designer )
I didn’t want to be mad at Target for their “Black Beyond Measure” collection but during Black History Month, even the best intentions must come under scrutiny. It’s the shortest month of the year, so we don’t have time to be forgiving.
The long history of cash grabs and exploitation of Black culture for financial gain has made the Black community hypervigilant. Performative activism and capitalistic attempts to milk the month are nothing new. The most recent example? The use of AAL on the clothing pieces Target offers in the collection.
African American Language (AAL) goes by many names: African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Black Vernacular (BV), Black English Vernacular (BEV), Black Vernacular English (BVE), Ebonics (a term some choose not to use citing a derogatory connotation). You may also know it as “the source of the twitter slang your fave will be adopting next month”.
Basically, it’s a collective term for the patterns of language Black people tend to use and popularize in their day-to-day speech. AAL is notorious for its comedic quip and influential-ness, but most notably social media appropriates it as trendy language.
( Ian Flores / Rowdy Magazine Graphic Designer )
Another well-used but little-known example of adopting AAVE as a “trend,” while perpetuating harm to the black community, is the Habitual Be.
It “is essentially an uninflected form of “be,” or just the base form of the be verb that's used to display the habitual characteristic,” according to Joshua Martin, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at the University of Florida who studies AAVE and the intersection of race, language and technology.
In pop culture, “the same language that Black people are discriminated against for using, is applauded” he said.
“People say that that version of be is a conflated version of all other versions of be, that it’s lazy, that it's broken, that it's improper or bad grammar,” Martin said. “When people who actually natively speak it [AAVE] use it, they are discriminated against.”
Discrimination is especially prevalent in “professional settings.” For example, if native speakers use AAVE in a job interview they can be judged, Martin said.
In speaking with three linguists where AAL is concerned, their varying opinions in the professional and academic sphere reflect the conflicting beliefs on social media. There is agreement that AAL holds weight for the Black community and is an important part of culture. Yet, the conversations around the use of AAL and about who gets to use it tend to bring up concerns of appropriation versus appreciation.
The possibilities for harm are plenty. For many of its speakers, AAL is a main source of the unifying experience of Black culture. It celebrates the creativity, humor and quirky beauty of the Black community, in spite of the oppression it has faced.
For Diana Boxer, a UF professor who has a doctorate in linguistics, the use of language represents the changes in perception of the Black community.
“It’s a positive evolution that non-Black people want to adopt AAVE, she said. “It says ‘that’s cool, I want to be like them.’”
However, the problem lies in identity.
Alexis Davis is a masters student in linguistics at Florida Atlantic University. She is also a naitive speaker of AAL. For her, AAVE (or as she prefers to use, AAL) is a piece of a rich culture that is exploited without due credit or regard.
“A lot of people desire AL right now. They want to speak it. They want to use certain words, certain grammatical constructions,” she said. “They want to sound a certain way, but they don't want to actually be Black at the end of the day. So, we have to want to be Black and being Black is a part of speaking AAL for me.”
When non-Black groups use AAL terms and don’t understand the source of the language or give credit to Black people, they are asking to be a part of an in-group. But they don’t have the same struggles as the in-group. While they recognize the worth of Black culture, they don’t reach or rectify the pain of the Black experience.
Plus, the viral language is a valuable commodity and Black people aren’t getting paid for it. Things become even worse when large corporations use AAL as buzzwords to try to monetizable social media engagement. I don’t care how genius you think Domino's Pizza’s Twitter team is; They didn’t come up with “on fleek” themselves.
Do a bit of intuitive leaping with me: his username is @nodarkness (dark like black?); he dismisses AAVE as foolishness; and he demands to “speak English”. While it could imply nothing about his character or which “isms” he might have, the disdain is reminiscent of intolerance. I’m sure he ✨has many black friends✨ though.
The haughtiness that @nodarkness has in calling AAVE “gibberish” is not an unfamiliar sentiment. In fact, it is one example of the many forms of discrimitation naitive speakers of AAVE (and any language that isn’t “standard English”) face in the United States.
Martin commented that enforcing linguistic separation and rejecting AAVE is one of the last remaining forms of what is considered to be acceptable public racism.
“It's very terrible but you can hide behind that and you don't have to say you're racist,” he said.””You can just say “oh this is just grammar, this is just how English works,” he said.
Martin said he thinks people need to accept it as a language.
The reasons AAVE and AAL are often seen as less valuable are tied to the ways power can label something as useful and respectable. Those in power maintain power by marking arbitrary lines of separation between themselves and the people they exert power over. The powerful characterize things that are not features of themselves as lower in worth. Linguistically, there is no difference between language and dialect. The true difference is in how language is accepted.
“The difference between language and a variety is that a language is a variety or dialect with an Army and Navy and if it doesn't have a military, it's typically considered a dialect or variety.... So what is a language and what is a dialect depends on what's in power and who are the speakers that have power in a society” Boxer said.
Ultimately, Martin said, politics is what separates language from dialect.
“There is a prestige issue there to where languages are given a certain level of prestige and access where dialects are belittled and seen as improper broken grammar,” he said. “Linguistically and objectively they're equal.”
Regardless of whether or not AAVE is given status as a language, it’s clear communities will continue to adopt its terminology, grammatical structures and distinctive intonations. The LGBTQ+ community is one that is known to utilize AAVE and often gets pushback for it, though the anger may be misplaced.
According to Alexis Davis, a lot of the terms come from Black queer women and Black trans women.
“I think they might not be on different sides,” she said. “They actually might stem from the same thing, which is that a lot of times black people no matter who they are they don't get all the credit that they deserve.”
The need to consume Black culture and fascination with Blackness is one we should check when we see things like themed “merchandise” and people attempting to dictate which words are “in.”
Black people and their productions are often only given a place in society if they contribute to White pockets or White joy. Is their price for existing entertainment? Meanwhile non-Black people tend to want to dictate what’s cool as if they maintain authority.
“Black people aren't necessarily doing these things so they can be consumed by non black individuals,” Davis said. “I think it's on non-black communities to really step back and look at why they're interested in using our terms and using our phrases and using our words without acknowledging who we are versus their sassy black friends.”
Black people’s use of language is taken, criticized, but then put on a t-shirt, and they never see the profits.
Sure, Target’s collection is a step forward since it featured Black creators’ artwork in some of the T-shirt designs. But it was one step forward and several back into habits of feeding on Black culture.
Production companies get royalties when their shows catchphrases are put onto merchandise so all I’m saying is if the Friends people get paid for “how you doin’” on a shirt, Black people should be recognized for what “they do be” doin’ on Twitter.
Alazne Cameron was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and is an Online Activism writer at Rowdy Magazine. She loves food-based metaphors, alliteration and social justice. Her favorite food is food for thought (but anything with a cheesy, creamy Alfredo base is a close second). You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @alaznecameron for more information.