Non-Black People Need to Stop Policing Black Language

by Malaika Jabali

Bye, Felicia! Bae. Fleek. Basic.

The list of words black people have re-imagined, created anew, and/or made to be our own is extensive, especially in the last three years. However, like many of the things we have produced or created, it’s as if we just can’t have nice things—or things that we keep for ourselves. When TIME magazine released a survey about words that should be banned in 2015, they included several terms that originated in black culture. And Piers Morgan recently told black that we should stop using the "N"-word. It seems like everyone has an opinion on how black people should use our language… and most of these people are not black.

This practice of policing black culture and speech is as old as time. As long as blacks have existed in America, the dominant culture has attempted to stifle elements of our identity. West Africans who arrived on America’s shores during colonialism had their language stripped away, were forced into the names their slave owners gave them, as well as into artificial groupings and identities. It may seem like a leap to compare the use of “fleek” to our being forced to adopt English as a new language—thus abandoning our once-native Igbo, and Yoruba, and Mande languages—but policing how black people get to express their culture is inherent in both.

Nevertheless, through grit and resourcefulness, black people retained some of their West African language practices by molding it with the English thrust upon them. We transformed the melting pot of our original languages into African American Vernacular English, Creole, Gullah, patois, and black slang.

This ingenuity has allowed us to become the arbiters and originators of cool.

Non-black kids are often the first to embrace black youth culture. From lindy hop to hip-hop, white kids eat up blackness to the derision of their parents. As it often goes, these traditions finally make their way to the mainstream, even as the dominant culture tries to stop it. Jazz was deemed sinful. Hip-hop was a national crisis. "Bae" is now seen as the bastardization of English. Any association with blackness is considered taboo. While the disapproval of black cultural practices is no longer as overt as it was in the early- to mid-20th century, opposition nevertheless manifests in the mainstream.

Yet black people still keep getting copied.

The art of appropriation has only jumped triple-fold in our current era of social media—an era that democratizes the previously marginalized voices contributing to popular culture at a faster clip. An era when little black kids in Georgia, or Texas, or Brooklyn can have their silly dances and phrases scattered across the Internet and co-opted by Denny’s, IHOP, and headlining Billboard magazine articles.

What these appropriators and policers fail to understand is our re-imagining of English was not only a tool for survival, but a way for us to build community with one another. And to this day, language serves the same purpose. Whether it’s our physical communities in the South and urban cities across the country, to the digital communities we’ve found in Black Twitter, blogs, and Instagram, we use our language to connect with one another. So it is insulting to have terms derived from genuine interaction and ingenuity meaninglessly tossed into the dominant culture like items at a black culture clearance sale.

While I don’t think it’s ideal to limit other people using black slang, it becomes a problem when those who appropriate black terms are given credit for popularizing them—as if Miley invented the “nae-nae” and Diplo invented trap music. The issue is not that these are sacred practices worth protecting. But rather, in the midst of critiquing blackness, dominant groups continue to steal it. By saying that our language should be banned, it maintains that the culture black people produce is somehow inferior to that of mainstream/white people. But at the same time, these dominant groups still profit from the theft. Denny’s gets more clicks. TIME gets more press. Macklemore gets more Grammy’s. The white mainstream is often both fascinated and disgusted by blackness. We keep creating only to abandon our work, because we rarely benefit or profit from it ourselves.

Please, stop policing young people who want to coin another term for “on point,” or for saying zero to 100. Black folks have long been able to code switch, so nothing precludes me from saying “yasssss” and still earning my degrees. Rather than a mark of ignorance, I believe black slang reveals our unparalleled creativity.

So, to TIME, Piers Morgan, and anyone with no investment in black culture, wanting to tell us how to use our own language, I say: Bye, Felicia!

Photo credit: Deposit Photo

Malaika Jabali is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She has a J.D. from Columbia University's Law School. Her J.D. does not preclude her from communicating with cleverly placed emojis on Instagram @missjabali. She also pretends to know about music and travel on her personal blog,

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.