AAVE “lite”? Question about slang appropriation
January 1, 2019 2:01 PM   Subscribe

I see a lot of “woke” white people using what I have always considered to be AAVE in their social media posts, but I don’t see it being called out and my internet searches have not turned up anything, so I can’t get a read on whether I’m being too picky (or whether language has changed so much I’m not picking up on it). In particular, the phrases “been a minute” and “on the regular” always jump out at me when I see them.

I’m a person who tries to be always learning and growing in regards to anti-racism and anti-oppression, but this is stumping me. Are these phrases a kind of cultural appropriation?

I’m looking for answers about this kind of language use in particular, not any variation of “don’t be so picky/It’s not a big deal/ you’re just a SJW” kind of thing, so please don’t bring that here. I’d especially love to hear from folks with expertise in this area (lived experience of course counts!)
posted by fleecy socks to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a late 40s white woman and I use the phrases in question quite frequently. I'm not really sure what your actual question is, however. You say, "I can’t get a read on whether I’m being too picky" but that "don’t be so picky" is not an acceptable response for you. So what would you like to hear?
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 2:14 PM on January 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Good point. I am clumsy with language sometimes. I guess I don’t want answers that boil down to “it’s no big deal, don’t worry about it”. I would like answers that include some understanding of how language gets stolen and used by others, and if the examples I gave are part of this.
posted by fleecy socks at 2:22 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I hear these phrases out in the world and, if I like them, I use them. I have no idea from whence or where they originated, or recall where I first heard any of them, so I don’t see how my use of them could be called cultural appropriation. It’s just picking up slang. I am sure that I am not alone in this.
posted by amro at 2:25 PM on January 1, 2019 [30 favorites]

Just as a data point: NPR has a podcast called "It's been a minute" - which is hosted by Sam Sanders, who is African American, but, y'know, NPR, so the phrase could easily have entered/been reinforced in liberal vernacular that way?
posted by parm at 2:26 PM on January 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

"on the regular" is a phrase that seems to have become mainstream, probably from rap. I'm not sure if it is actually an AAVE phrase or merely a convenient rhyming phrase that became standard, but I think it is safe to assume that any random person using it is not doing so with the idea that it is AAVE.

"been a minute" I don't really know why it would have come from AAVE, it's a phrase I have used since I was a kid in Australia. Here's someone in 2011 who appears to have just noticed it a couple times and then been told it's been around for a while.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:27 PM on January 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

According to the Wikipedia page on the word cool,

Ronald Perry writes that many words and expressions have passed from African-American Vernacular English into Standard English slang including the contemporary meaning of the word "cool."[19] The definition, as something fashionable, is said to have been popularized in jazz circles by tenor saxophonist Lester Young.[20] This predominantly black jazz scene in the U.S. and among expatriate musicians in Paris helped popularize notions of cool in the U.S. in the 1940s, giving birth to "Bohemian", or beatnik, culture.[7] Shortly thereafter, a style of jazz called cool jazz appeared on the music scene, emphasizing a restrained, laid-back solo style.[21] Notions of cool as an expression of centeredness in a Taoist sense, equilibrium and self-possession, of an absence of conflict are commonly understood in both African and African-American contexts well. Expressions such as, "Don't let it blow your cool," later, chill out, and the use of chill as a characterization of inner contentment or restful repose all have their origins in African-American Vernacular English.[22]
I think that if you look into it you'll find that a large amount of American slang has African American roots.
posted by medusa at 2:30 PM on January 1, 2019 [39 favorites]

Best answer: From my experience as a person who learns all of her slang online, I almost never have any awareness of when a particular current slang phrase originates in AAVE (or any other particular location or dialect.) For your two examples, I did hear "been a minute" in a context that suggested it originated in AAVE, but "on the regular" has been so common in my hearing for so many years that I couldn't tell you one way or the other. Language expands and changes, and slang in particular goes through so many rapid transformations these days, that while there is value in educating people about the origins of things, I think it's sort of trying to hold back the tide to prevent phrases that have been picked up in popular media from entering the popular lexicon.

From my perspective as someone who manages online conversations, I would strongly suggest that this is not a fight you should pick unless you are 100% rock-solid on the etymology/correct usage and on the harmfulness of the phrase expanding out of its original dialect. (Whether from education you are really confident about or from your own lived experience.) It's the sort of fight people pick when they don't really know enough about the issues to engage on a deeper level - they get hung up on the "right" words and phrases and miss opportunities for actual connection and education.

One instance where it might be a decent argument to make would be if you see one of your non-Black friends using AAVE slang in a way they usually don't when talking to a Black person, especially if it reads as awkward or condescending. I catch myself doing this occasionally and it's shitty. But most of the time people use slang because it's slang they've heard and liked and they don't need to present their credentials to use it.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:34 PM on January 1, 2019 [45 favorites]

Best answer: I think this question is essentially unanswerable, in that it is essentially the same question of cultural "appropriation" versus intercultural sampling. My own feeling is that it is the melting pot effect - cf. this subsection of the AAVE Wikipedia article.
posted by WCityMike at 2:35 PM on January 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

I struggle with this a lot personally. I was raised in the southern US. I was raised in poverty. I lived in "the bad areas" of town. I am v white and was raised in a v white culture (mormonism). Some of my natural, non-internet learned, slang is AAVE as a lot of that slang was developed in the trenches I was in. I find this often comes up with 'to be' type conjugations - so for myself I just always try to investigate it. Am I 'putting on a voice' or am I talking like I learned on my granny's knee? Just because I know "proper" english does it mean I can't ever speak as my kinfolk do?

I do get annoyed when it seems like the white folx doing it have no connection to this part of the world? Although I think we should all adopt y'all because it's inclusive and skips over all pronoun issues.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 2:37 PM on January 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

I think the same thing that I think when I find out that YOLO is now an actual word in the dictionary, it’s language evolving and what with the internet, it’s happening at lightning speed. Not only that, the person in Germany who picked up a phrase from a meme or Reddit has no idea where it actually originated, they just see it repeated often enough that it becomes part of their vernacular.
posted by Jubey at 2:40 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Are these phrases a kind of cultural appropriation?

If you’re looking for an objective answer to this I don’t think there is one. I might break the question down to “who is harmed by this usage and how?” if you’re looking for a way to evaluate it. There isn’t a litmus test. It may be more constructive, in fact, to read about language change and the history of your own language and think about how much you’re willing to take out of your speech that doesn’t feel equitably acquired.
posted by Smearcase at 2:42 PM on January 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I don't think this question is answerable without your having carefully defined cultural appropriation, whether it is automatically harmful (which will probably hinge on how you define the term), and to what degree you regard it as an individual rather than a systematic problem. Attempted callouts based on a vague sense that if some form of culture originated other than in Western Europe, it must be wrong for anyone else to get anywhere near it, do not tend to go well. (N.B. I absolutely believe that it exists and that it is harmful, but it is also adjacent to many cultural formation practices that have historically been both inevitable and valuable for humanity, so one is well-advised to have a rigorous understanding of the basis for finding something objectionable.)
posted by praemunire at 2:43 PM on January 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I do think the excuse of "who even knows where words come from??!?!!" is BS because I believe people have the ability to use Google or whatever and find out where their newest phrase comes from and make intelligent decisions about whether it's proper for them to use just because they saw it in a meme/on TV/heard someone say it. Cultural appropriation is real. White woke folx (especially women, I've found) using slang that isn't natural to them to sound more 'down' is a real thing. To me this conversation aligns with We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 2:58 PM on January 1, 2019 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Your two examples seem, to me, to be far more innocuous than the digitial blackface of GIFs or things like 'Yaaaaas queen!"or "bish," both of which bother me so much more than seeing a white person write "on the regular." I'm not sure I have any organized reasoning behind it beyond thinking that temporal slang seems less like appropriating a persona than, you know, actually claiming one as your avatar or mimicking a particular "accent" more closely.
posted by TwoStride at 3:09 PM on January 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I see this often, it's extremely cringey, and it makes me "hmm, yikes" at the person using it. I think the examples you give are not something I would specifically associate with that kind of thing, however, but giving examples of what I've seen here on mefi would make the users so obvious that it would be unhelpful. But to sum up, I find it problematic when it's white women who have no cultural context or background for using various phrases or speech affectations. No one in their own lives uses them, they did not grow up around people who used them, their only exposure to them is via media usage, and they are using these phrases to show how woke and smart and with-it they think they are.

I don't know if it's the same category of cultural appropriation as it is when a white person calls someone or something their "spirit animal" but it makes my skin crawl in pretty much the same way.
posted by poffin boffin at 3:14 PM on January 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

While it doesn't have a separate definition for "on the regular", the Oxford English Dictionary has 11 quotations that use that phrase. All of the sample sentences are 100+ years old. All of them were using "on the regular" to modify some other item but you can imagine that English speakers have likely used this shorthand for a long time.

"Been a minute" also doesn't have an entry but shows up in an 19th century English clergymen's writing.
posted by mmascolino at 4:54 PM on January 1, 2019 [15 favorites]

Best answer: White woke folx (especially women, I've found) using slang that isn't natural to them to sound more 'down' is a real thing. To me this conversation aligns with We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs.

Not to derail, but this is funny because I was going to use "folx" as an example--in the queer spaces I'm in there have been a bunch of conversations recently about how "folx" is an AAVE phrase and an appropriation, not just a gender neutral spelling of "folks" (which is gender neutral already!). As is, of course, "woke."

Most people do this sort of thing subconsciously and unknowingly, but this is part of how cultural imperialism works. One doesn't have to be malicious and knowing to be the perpetrator of harm.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:30 PM on January 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You might be interested in reading the Wikipedia article on (drag) Ball Culture, specifically the ways in which it’s influenced more mainstream US culture.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:50 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just to address poffin boffin's point: I'm a whitish person with no African-American heritage that I know of, but spent a good decade of my younger working life in the company of older black people, many of them with recent Southern roots. Humans - particularly young humans - being mimics, a lot of that slang (and certain pronunciations particular to the work we did) became part of my own spoken language. At some point, after I changed professions, I realized that much of that language was now out-of-place, which made me consider my appropriation (also, the use of language in different professional settings). I scrubbed it, for the most part, but many years later still occasionally find myself using what would probably now be considered very old-fashioned black slang. Some of it's probably part of my written language too, now that I think about it - and I appreciate the post and responses here, so that I can better keep an eye on my writing. "On the regular" tho - I never had any idea that could be considered AAVE. Hmm.
posted by goofyfoot at 6:00 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I do think the excuse of "who even knows where words come from??!?!!" is BS because I believe people have the ability to use Google or whatever and find out where their newest phrase comes from

I think this is mostly unrealistic. You probably know on the order of 100,000 lexical items. How many of them can you give a history of?

It's normal, indeed it's about as close to a universal as you can get in linguistics, that people imitate the language they hear without being conscious of doing so. The individual moments in which this happens come in many textures, some friendly (like accommodation), some more hostile, but millions of these acts every day behave like the millions of collisions in an ideal gas: at the end of the day, you have diffusion. Words move from a particular dialect into more general usage. I'd say personal experience and intuition tend to be so-so guides at best to where a particular phrase is in that process, so I'd err on the side of not calling people out for the phrases they use without a more specific reason than "it's somebody else's dialect".
posted by aws17576 at 7:37 PM on January 1, 2019 [15 favorites]

Best answer: you don't say that you are or aren't white and ordinarily I would think it pointless and a bad idea to guess. this time, I am guessing it, because of the kind of cultural ignorance you explicitly attribute to yourself. I may be wrong, and if I am, I apologize and the rest of this comment will have no relevance to you. but if you are white and don't have a good handle on what is and isn't AAVE, you are not going to develop a feel for it without reading and listening to lots of contemporary black writers and speakers. lists of questionable words & phrases are not a good shortcut and are not going to be useful if your goal is to feel confident in categorizing and objecting to other people's language use: you can't do this with good intentions alone; you also need a good ear.

yes, appropriating black culture and language is a thing racist white people do, both thoughtfully and thoughtlessly. making a big thing of not knowing where words come from is a big part of the thoughtless variety. absolutely.

but going to great lengths to strip their working vocabulary of anything with a known origin in black culture, or consciously accepting only white cultural influences into their daily lives and speech, is also a thing racist white people do.

Self-consciously air-quoting AAVE words & phrases in the distancing 'Isn't it funny for ME to say this' way is another thing. the latter habit is extremely obnoxious and tired and often strikes me as flat-out racist, but I wouldn't class it as appropriation per se because the whole point of the joke is the ironic and fastidious distance -- holding a phrase out at arms' length to display it to the room, as it were. I dare say this isn't what you were doing with "woke," but it looks very like it.

so if you're trying to discern what is acceptable or not acceptable in the speech habits of others, appropriation is just one factor among many others, and not always the most important one.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:44 PM on January 1, 2019 [21 favorites]

(By the way, I have to admit I wasn't familiar with "It's been a minute" at all, so I looked it up and thought, "Oh, it means the same thing as 'long time no see'." And then I thought hard about that phrase. Uh, progress?)
posted by aws17576 at 7:46 PM on January 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It may be helpful to think of this question after looking at multiethnolects Wikipedia article is not that great, but refs at the bottom if this is your thing. Here is an accessible article in The Atlantic. Of course, situations differ. But, adoption of "non-standard" language by majority speakers of the language is a thing elsewhere. I might tend to consider it from the point of view of these questions: "Hey, does this phrasing or way of saying just kind of work better?" in which case it doesn't seem like appropriation to me. Or, "Hey, are these members of the majority population people saying this to express solidarity or identity?" Maybe that's cool (to appropriate some AAVE). But, if it's just to express power, "Hey, those straight white people with their 'Yaaaaas queen!"s, are they just taking that and think it is theirs now? They don't even know where it comes from!" That seems to be what is bothering you and many others, but I have no idea how to push back on that.
posted by Gotanda at 8:44 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of many of these responses, and it gives me a lot to explore. This question came from more of a “ooh, that made me cringe” place than a wanting to call anyone out place, but I liked reading the thoughts around call-outs and language.

I have seen a lot of the more obvious and cringey examples given in the answers, and these particular phrases have always made me cringe in a similar way - probably because I have seen them be used in an out-of-character way by white people who consider themselves to be very aware and knowledgeable/aka woke (in my circles, “woke” is treated the same as “ally” - if you are, you don’t label yourself as such - and if you do claim that label, odds are you’re not really woke or an ally) but it is helpful to get these other perspectives and data points - it’s exactly what I was hoping to get.

Thanks again.
posted by fleecy socks at 11:00 PM on January 1, 2019

Mod note: One comment deleted. Folks, I understand not everybody believes that appropriation of slang terms can be a problem, but the OP is asking to approach it from that perspective, and AskMe's not the place to have a debate or discussion about it.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:26 AM on January 2, 2019

The sting of appropriation isn’t so much the stealing but that cultures have been so devalued that the situation is ripe for this kind of theft. Yes, a white person saying “yasss kween” is tacky and offensive to some, but I think a systemic analysis of what’s going on is more central to good politics than purity of vocabulary.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:37 PM on January 6, 2019

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