Posted on July 7, 2021

Much of Our Slang Comes From the Black Community. Not Acknowledging That Perpetuates Racism.

Rasha Ali and David Oliver, USA Today, June 21, 2021

Tap through TikTok and you’ll fall down a slang-filled, dance-crazed rabbit hole a la “Alice in Wonderland.”

A piece of advice: Don’t repeat everything you hear on your sojourn down. Especially if you are white.

White people – on social media and in real life – regularly appropriate African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, like “slay” and “sis” without thinking, and some of these phrases come directly from the Black LGBTQ community. Experts say this perpetuates racism, erases Black contributions and fuels cultural misunderstandings. Simply put: It’s Black linguistic appropriation.

“The divorcing of Black people from the way that we talk is really just another way of liking what Black people do, but not liking Black people,” Nikki Lane, assistant professor at Spelman College, says. “It’s very Elvis to me. You’ll take our music, but you don’t give us credit.”


E. Patrick Johnson, dean of Northwestern’s School of Communication, says appropriating and commodifying Black culture from Black hairstyles to queer language is nothing new and in today’s society it’s inevitable that it will happen.


AAVE partially grew out of the need for Black people to communicate and dates back to enslavement, according to April Baker-Bell, author of “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy.”

“When they were enslaving Africans (they used) language planning to make sure that two Africans who spoke the same language could not get together because they didn’t want that to lead to a revolt … and Black language was developed in spite of that,” Baker-Bell says.

Baker-Bell says Black language is a legitimate language with syntax, grammatical features, phonology and semantics. But when Black people speak AAVE, it’s seen as unprofessional, and they can be perceived as “intellectually inferior” for speaking it.

“It’s anti-Black linguistic racism. It’s truly anti-Blackness passing through our language in the ways we’re told we have to code switch,” Baker-Bell says describing how Black people often have to change their way of speaking to fit into what’s seen as a cultural norm.

Lane scoffs at the idea of a room full of white people saying “let’s spill the tea” with no Black people present.

“You care about what we say, you’re interested in how we speak, you’re interested in taking things from us because language is a cultural production,” she says. “It’s something that Black folks create together. So you’ll take that but you won’t take us.”

What’s even more problematic is “white people coming up off of our language,” Baker-Bell says, like TikTokers rising to influencer status for videos that appropriate these phrases and companies using Black language in their marketing.


The expansion of social media pushed the floodgates ajar for language practices or terms that originated within the Black community to spread exponentially among white people, Lane says. TikTok in particular “is literally based on mimicry,” she says.

Johnson says appropriation is inevitable and it’s common for Black language to be misattributed and though it’s “disheartening” when culture is “commodified without any acknowledgment of remuneration,” he has hope this can be rectified by social media.


Non-Black people speaking this way risk not only appropriating but using certain language incorrectly. Like walking in shoes that don’t fit.

Last month, “Saturday Night Live” aired a skit written by Michael Che titled “Gen Z Hospital” where the premise was to mock words like “bestie,” “sis” and “bruh” and attributed the terms as Gen Z language.

For Black language to be couched as Gen Z language is Black erasure and continues to be dismissive of Black people’s contribution to mainstream white culture. {snip}


In short: Study up on where phrases come from and pause before repeating a new word or phrase. And if you do choose to use these terms, make sure you’re not contributing to the marginalization of Black communities.