For as long as Black people have lived in the United States, our culture has been appropriated by white people. Cultural appropriation is as American as apple pie. Black culture, especially language, is constantly being used by non-Black folks, but especially white people. With the invention and always rising popularity of social media, our language has become fair use for people it’s not meant for.
White people don’t even have culture. I’m not saying this to be mean or hurtful, but like, whiteness isn’t built on anything but appropriation and colonizing. Like, what is white culture? Singing “Don’t Stop Believing” at karaoke? The “ba ba ba” in “Sweet Caroline”? Or maybe the guarantee that a white dude with a guitar of a certain age will break out into “Wonderwall” at a party? Is that your definition of culture?
Whiteness is pervasive, and that leads to the sense of entitlement they feel over other cultures. Black culture is something they can steal because there’s so much to steal from. Our culture was created because we didn’t have anything else. And we can’t even keep it as ours. Because without fail, white people will find it, love it and then run us out of it. We’ve seen it so many times, from our food to our music to our language.
Language is a huge part of Black culture. When it’s spoken by Black people, AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is seen as an inferior language. But when it slowly makes its way into mainstream culture and used by white people, that shifts. Suddenly, what is thought of as “ghetto” or uneducated is suddenly cool and trendy. But Black people never get credit for their contributions to mainstream language, nor do they get to use it without judgment.
In an article on the subject for feminuity, Anisha Phillips writes, “Black people regularly have to self-police their use of BVE (Black Vernacular English) in order to survive, while non-Black people can toggle back and forth freely without having to worry about the social or economic consequences.”
And that’s the thing about the lack of white culture and appropriation of Black culture. Because white people are the gatekeepers of what becomes mainstream, they make the rules. So a Black person who dares to speak using AAVE is seen as less than. But then the white person who views them that way uses the same words and is seen as hip and trendy. Nothing exacerbates this more than social media and “internet speak.” What many people believe is internet speak is really appropriated AAVE. It’s not anything clever or new, it’s just stealing Black culture.
One of the most recent AAVE phrases to become internet speak is “for the culture.” The phrase was popularized by the rap group Migos. They used it to call out their fellow rap artists for using their lyrical style without properly giving credit. Speaking up about their discomfort was done “for the culture.” And the culture they’re referring to is very definitely Black culture, more specifically, rap culture. But considering rap is the only form of music created by Black people that hasn’t been entirely appropriated by white people, it’s easy to see the culture references as the same. Because of how our culture is appropriated, it has become another phrase stolen for internet speak.
When a Black person says they’re “doing it for the culture,” they mean Black culture. We’re trying to preserve a culture that is constantly being co-opted by the same people who oppress us. Blackness, and by extension, Black culture, is constantly under siege in the United States. White America largely doesn’t want us to exist, but they want to bleed us of everything that makes us who we are. Doing it for the culture is our way of ensuring that we have something to pass on to future generations. Even if it’s something as simple as taking a selfie. That picture proves that we exist, that we existed.
Doing it for the culture means that we have a legacy to pass down. Black culture is constantly growing and evolving and it’s important to capture it in specific moments. Because when something is inevitably taken from us yet again, we’ll have a record that we did it first. By documenting it, it’s a way to say, “this was once ours, before it was everyone’s.” Cultural appropriation of our language is so common that without us somehow documenting and keeping track of it, no one will ever know that it was ours to begin with.
The appropriation of AAVE is so common that people probably don’t even know they’re doing it. Some words originating from Black culture include “lit,” “woke,” “bae,” and “basic,” among others. They’re so mainstream now, that white people likely have no idea of the origins of the words. It’s bad enough that white culture has stolen our language. But then to not even acknowledge the people who create it? That’s really one of the most frustrating parts of the whole thing. White people never have to think about what they’re taking, because they’re the ones with the power.
In an essay for the Minnesota English Journal, English teacher Anna Lehn looks at the appropriation of AAVE and Black culture through music and internet speak. “White use of AAVE vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation without relationship, attribution, or historical critique is a form of appropriation that reinforces white hegemony,” she says.
White hegemony, or dominance, is why the appropriation of Black culture is so accepted. That’s why white people think they can use a phrase like “for the culture” to define a culture that doesn’t exist without the contributions of people of color. Because at the end of the day, whiteness is still dominant in this country.
As the conversation continues about how white people can decenter themselves, one wonders if appropriating Black culture and language will be a part of it. It’s hard to know because of how unconscious the appropriation has become. Hopefully over time, white folks begin to realize that there are ways to appreciate our contributions to pop culture without adopting it as theirs. Or at very least, giving us credit for creating the culture.
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