Recently, phrases such as “That ain’t it,” “It be like that,” and “They pressed” have emerged as go-to lines that students use to express any displeasing emotion, adding on to a long list of colloquial phrases that originate from black culture. Despite the origin of these phrases, they have noticeably been adopted by non-black students from privileged backgrounds. What many students do not know, however, is that these phrases are all examples of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), and that their increased normalization can be considered a form of cultural appropriation.
AAVE, also commonly referred to as Ebonics, is a dialect, ethnolect, and sociolect of American English natively spoken by working class Black Americans, according to reachout.com. Although the vast majority of Andover students do not identify as working class Black Americans, many still routinely use AAVE with very little regard to its origins or implications. The rise of social media coupled with Black artists’ domination of mainstream culture through music has further contributed to the popularization of AAVE.
For centuries, dominant groups in power have ridiculed Black people’s vernacular as a means of undermining their intelligence and further justifying their oppression. But now, non-black people from privileged backgrounds, those who have systematically held and continue to hold a higher amount of institutional power, have begun to integrate these words into their daily vocabulary without any social repercussions. This normalization of AAVE by non-black students, who may not necessarily understand the centuries of oppression, discrimination, and stigma backing those words, is representative of a larger double standard that exists between dominant and oppressed racial groups.
Discussions surrounding cultural appropriation typically manifest through the lenses of clothing and accessories, but the use of Ebonics by non-black people, particularly those who are unfamiliar with its origins or implications, fits the definition as well. Cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture or group in power seizes an aspect of a less dominant culture. In the case of normalized AAVE, members of the dominant culture, specifically white people, have appropriated elements of Black vernacular. This is evident in not only the double standard previously mentioned but also in the fact that AAVE is routinely used to express and respond to stereotypically black emotions and feelings, such as intense apathy and irrational anger.
This issue won’t be resolved, nor should it be addressed, through the restriction of speech. But the sudden and frequent use of AAVE by privileged non-black students at Andover suggests that black vernacular is being used for purposes other than simply communication. Although we do not advocate for the elimination of these phrases from non-black speech, we do hope for more critical self reflection on the origins of AAVE and the subsequent implications of using it.
Ultimately, the rapid normalization of AAVE becomes more than just a question of cultural appropriation, but eventually a question of respect. We need to better assess why we choose to use the words that we do and the meanings behind them. It may not seem that deep, but it is. It really, truly is.
This editorial represents the views of The Phillipian, vol. CXLI.