Friday, September 29, 2023

Black students discuss code-switching, the popularized misuse of AAVE online

October 12, 2022
<p>Design by Madison Echlin.</p>

Design by Madison Echlin.

Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

Scrolling through a TikTok “For You Page” is hardly complete without glancing at the comment sections.

Users do this searching for laughs, explanations, arguments and support. 

No matter the context, it’s nearly impossible to find a comment section that doesn’t have terms like “slay,” “queen” or “miss gurl.”

These words are all examples African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. 

AAVE is a variety of English spoken predominantly by African Americans and can be considered a dialect, ethnolect or sociolect. For many, it is a part of daily life.

“I use it at home and like with my friends,” journalism sophomore Kendall Turk said. “It’s so embodied in our culture and how I talk.”

In popular culture, AAVE is largely misunderstood to be “bad” or “incorrect” English. 

Turk said code-switching, or the halting of AAVE usage in certain environments, became necessary for her to be socially accepted.

“I started to notice that (I spoke differently) when I first went to my elementary schools in first grade,” Turk said. “When I’m in interviews, or when I’m around people, I try and turn it off… because I don’t want to seem unprofessional, or illiterate or unintelligent.”

Journalism sophomore Anthony Brinson III said that moving from a diverse community to a predominantly white institution like MSU was a huge culture shock.

“It made me have, in the back of my mind, that I should code switch,” Brinson said. “(Non-Black people) wouldn't really understand what I'm saying or they wouldn't really relate to how I go about things when I'm talking to them.”

With the rise of social media platforms such as TikTok, AAVE is gaining traction in non-Black communities – as it is increasingly being seen as trendy way to speak.

The dialect appeals to popular culture the way that many other Black trends do, such as box braid hairstyles, Y2K fashion and hoop earrings: Credit to its origins rarely afforded and they become popularized by white people under a new name.

“It is a little bit infuriating because I find (that) yet again, another change we’ve created has been taken and popularized,” Turk said. “It’s just kind of annoying because you’re always like, shunned and shamed (for AAVE). A lot of Black kids, we learn at a young age that when we’re around certain groups of people, we have to talk a certain way.”

Electrical engineering junior Jauwan Ward said that the popularized misuse of AAVE a weird phenomenon to observe.

“It's like, you're trying hard,” Ward said. “You … try too hard to try to use it because we do.”

Countless AAVE words have been popularized on TikTok, such as “bestie,” “cap,” “finna” and “be f—ing for real.”

“The main one that comes to mind immediately is 'period,'” Brinson said. “There was a trend recently … where a white girl made a whole song using 'period.' It was funny at first, but as it went on … it was very evident that she wanted to capitalize off of mocking Black culture.”

Turk said that an issue that directly arises from AAVE’s widespread usage by non-Black communities on social media platforms is the erasure of Black culture and voices.

“I think it just really perpetuates racial oppression because … if Black people do it, it’s wrong, but when white people do it, it’s trendy and acceptable,” Turk said.

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Like Turk, Brinson feels that the phenomenon is racist.

“It seems as though it’s colonizing all over again,” Brinson said. “It feels like we can’t have everything to ourselves, with our language and how we speak. It seems as though they want our culture only when they deem it accessible … only when it’s useful for them.”

Along with the appropriation of AAVE, non-Black communities have also contributed to this erasure by mocking the works of Black artists, such as Taraji P. Henson’s monologue in the “Hidden Figures” movie.

In the film about three Black women and their revolutionary, uncredited discoveries for NASA, Henson, playing Katherine Johnson, delivers a speech about racial segregation and discrimination.

"I work like a dog day and night, drinking coffee out of the pot none of you wanna touch," Henson says in the film.

The phrase has since been popularized as an audio on TikTok, where creators dub the speech and relate it to their own problems – often doing the dishes or arguing with their parents.

Brinson said that instances like this invalidate racial issues.

“They try to compare it to things that aren’t comparable,” Brinson said. “It just makes it seem like they don't take it as seriously as it should be taken.”

Turk said the popularization of certain fashion and cosmetic trends goes hand in hand with the misuse of AAVE. Hoops, she said, are called “ghetto” on Black women, but “clean” once Hailey Bieber wears them.

“With the clean girl aesthetic, I feel like it’s anti-Black,” Turk said. “It’s anti-Black because there are certain aspects that Black women can’t do. We cant always slick our hair down.”  

Turk said that rather than limit AAVE’s use, which she doesn’t think is possible, it is more important to spread awareness so that non-Black communities acknowledge the source and context of the dialect.

“I think school can touch more on that in classes like English literature,” Turk said. “It’s important to talk about that and teach kids about different styles so that everyone understandings that you’re not unintelligent. I think it would … also help other minorities who are looked down on (because of) an accent or (that) they speak a certain way.”

Brinson said that this acknowledgment is essential.

“If it’s genuine that (non-Black people) appreciate something we’re doing, it’s fine for me, personally,” Brinson said. “As long as they understand what is good to say and what isn’t and doing their best in being knowledgeable about parts of our culture.”

Brinson also said that he understands how people make mistakes. He felt that it is unfair to hold them to a standard of being perfect and instead, education systems should focus on teaching students how to appreciate other cultures. 

When it comes to social media, Turk urges individuals and creators to spread awareness.

“I just think it's important to always use your platform to speak about things,” Turk said. “Hopefully, people can understand and become informed but I feel like it's just … sometimes I feel like we're like talking at a wall.”


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