White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … And Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation
by Lauren Michele Jackson
Published November, 2019
It happens every year. Besides the ‘Best of’ lists that heave into view as early as late November, there are the conspicuous ‘Worst of’ lists. Contrary to their tone, these lists also itemize the things we enjoyed most over the past year, if only too much. These things became part of our daily routine, infiltrated workspaces as well as the home, were used by celebrities, broadcasters, brands, neighbors, and schoolchildren. You might catch them on T-shirts, first from some out-of-nowhere brand sold exclusively on Instagram, then on Etsy, at Forever 21, and finally spotted at New York Fashion Week. You’ll hear them in a song, or two or five, a deft handshake with the culture or, more likely, flagging down the eye of Cool. Eventually, the saturation is too much to bear, usually right around the time some politician incorporates the trend for cred among constituents. But they aren’t dead yet, not until one final blow. I speak here of words, and our ritual killing of a vocabulary whose greatest sin is popularity.
Worth their weight in clicks, word banishment lists may be found everywhere come the winter holidays, but Time magazine once bellowed the loudest. In 2011, as part of a now-defunct ‘Wednesday Words’ column, Time.com opened a poll asking readers, ‘What Is 2011’s Word of the Year?’ Providing a list of fifteen words including ‘occupy,’ ‘humblebrag,’ ‘Arab Spring,’ and ‘winning’ – truly a sign o’ the times – the rather amiable question only begged readers to ‘vote for your favorite words.’ Barely a month later the publication was back with another poll, a decidedly more contentious question in hand: ‘What word should be banished in 2012?’ The query, along with some of the listed options, was borrowed from a long-running list collected by Michigan’s Lake Superior State University (LSSU), which has been naming words to banish yearly since 1976. Time’s list included words such as ‘baby bump,’ the prefix ‘bro-,’ ‘sexting,’ and hashtags, period. The winner was a trio of acronyms leftover from the Wild West days of netspeak: OMG, LOL, and WTF.
Though snarky and off-putting in the way much of the internet has become, the poll offered sound reasons for leaving behind certain turns of phrase. ‘Baby bump,’ for example, invites spectators who monitor women’s bodies, whether the individual in question is indeed pregnant or bloated or neither (in the resounding words of Queen Cardi B, ‘Let me fat in peace’). The prefix ‘bro,’ attached to gender-neutral words such as ‘romance,’ ‘hug,’ or ‘crush,’ allows straight men to safely engage in affectionate behaviors lest they be considered gay or feminine. Adding ‘bro’ replaces the much harder work of reconsidering the limits of a patriarchy men otherwise cleave to – that in exchange for power men cannot submit to one another’s company or have a glass of pink wine without a masculine nickname involved (brosé all day, young prince). Another word on the list, ‘boss,’ exemplifies everything awful about the new-millennium hustle with a dash of corporate feminism according to Sheryl Sandberg. (Unfortunately for us, the gig economy made sure the fictive liberation of ‘be your own boss’ wouldn’t disappear.)
Time continued its word banishment coverage without incident for a few more years. The rising 2013 poll included the words ‘adorkable,’ ‘artisanal,’ ‘cray,’ and ‘literally.’ ‘YOLO’ (‘you only live once’) won the title. The 2014 list quarantined ‘twerk’ out of a field with ‘FOMO,’ ‘selfie,’ and ‘swagger.’ Then Time made a misstep. Jumping the gun in an early-November 2014 poll, the updated and further antagonistic post ‘Which Word Should Be Banned in 2015?’ included the word ‘feminist.’ The copy speaks in second person, addressing an imaginary reader: ‘You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.’
The splashback was enormous, and managing editor Nancy Gibbs offered an apology on behalf of the magazine for the word’s inclusion. Within days, ‘feminist’ reached a peak of 51 percent in the pile of ‘to be banned’ words, boosted by campaigns on the misogynist troll nests 4chan and 9gag that encouraged users to vote in favor of its eradication. Time never published the final results or announced a winner. It quietly retired its word-banishment program then and there.
LSSU, the alpha and omega of this lexicological affair, soldiered on. Its top nominees that year were ‘bae,’ ‘polar vortex,’ and ‘swag,’ the last noted as receiving ‘many nominations over the years.’ Said one submission, from Alex, from Roanoke, Virginia, ‘I am tired of hearing swag to describe anything on the face of the planet. By the way, your website is ‘swag.’ ‘ Of another nominee, ‘cra-cra,’ Esther from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, complained, ‘I hear kids (including my 6 yr. old) saying it all the time.’ The words from 2015 to be banned in 2016 led with ‘conversation,’ offensive for its invitational quality (i.e., ‘Join the conversation’); ‘problematic,’ deemed either weaselly or whiny; ‘manspreading,’ deemed superfluously gendered; and ‘giving me life,’ which Anna from Sault St. Marie considered hyperbolic. With Time out of the way, other outlets leaped to deliver the secondhand news. ‘These 13 Annoying Words Are Banned from 2016’ read one headline. The Associated Press strung together as many of 2017’s words as it could in its lede: ‘Focus, If You Will, on a Historic, on Fleek Listicle Containing Words Nominated for Bigly Banishment.’ Words from 2017 and 2018 tell a postelection story as well as anything else, featuring ‘post-truth,’ ‘echo chamber,’ ‘disruption,’ ‘unpack,’ ‘fake news,’ ‘gig economy,’ and ‘covfefe.’
LSSU’s Banished Word List has always been an exercise conducted tongue firmly in cheek, as per its full name, ‘List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.’ Nobody with common sense expects words to evaporate because someone or even a group of someones wants it so. The submissions sound insufferable, but we ought to take stock of our language, at least on occasion. Our clichés say a lot about us. Phrases like ‘peacekeeping force’ or ‘down time’ – on LSSU’s 1996 and 1997 lists, respectively – are applied to how we describe the world and ourselves and thus describe what we think we know about the world and ourselves. Some clichés, such as ‘welfare queen,’ ‘axis of evil,’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ encourage a racial perspective that looks truer and truer with each repetition, sounding like something real, as if meaning something apart from the racism whence they came.
But across the forty-three years of LSSU’s archive, something disquieting emerges, too. It starts in the ’90s, when phrases like ‘you go, girl’ and ‘da bomb’ enter the frame, and later ‘dawg’ and ‘bling.’ The common feature of these additions grows more glaring in the 2010’s, dramatized by Time’s appropriation of LSSU’s project. In addition to ‘feminist,’ that fateful 2015 list proposed the following for the chopping block: ‘bae’ (shared with LSSU), ‘basic,’ ‘bossy,’ ‘disrupt,’ ‘I can’t even,’ ‘influencer,’ ‘kale,’ ‘literally,’ ‘om nom nom nom,’ ‘obvi,’ ‘said no one ever,’ ‘sorry not sorry,’ ‘turnt,’ and ‘yaaasssss.’ The list, with few exceptions, curated words derived from black and feminized speech. Only three entries seem genuinely critical of discourse we find ourselves in without notice: ‘bossy,’ a common slur against women with expertise and authority; ‘disrupt,’ the Silicon Valley motto; and ‘said no one ever,’ a sarcastic equal opportunity rejoinder. But the cutified ‘obvi,’ ‘I can’t even,’ ‘influencer,’ and ‘kale’ together suggest an immature, girlish archetype worthy of scorn – like young women don’t have enough to deal with.
Additionally, the words Time draws from black vernacular are attributed to the same archetype, and the magazine doubles down on its obsession with white girls as the harbinger of vernacular trends. ‘Girls need a word for other girls who name-drop D-listers in their fake Louboutins, going around thinking they’re a Carrie, even though they’re really a Miranda,’ reads the hostile copy for ‘basic,’ whose meaning black culture made popular.* ‘Yaaasssss,’ an expression from ball culture is credited to a viral clip of Lady Gaga. On ‘bae,’ another gift from black vernacular: ‘Yes, this term of endearment has been around for years, but suddenly it’s everywhere.’ Blan, from Sugar Hill, Georgia, was similarly annoyed by its ubiquity when he submitted the term to LSSU. ‘Also,’ he added, ‘the concept ‘before anyone else,’ developed AFTER the word became popular. Reason enough for it to be banned.’
Yes, insufferable about fits. For certain words, the complaints rub more acutely, whether they come from a media publication with international reach or a resident of a town whose population barely reaches ten thousand. Neither would know these words enough to be sick of them were it not for the curse destined to hound black culture wherever it goes – the curse of capital-C Cool. Whatever new arises in the vernacular can and must be borrowed, replicated, and spun into a marketing slogan of some sort. The curse is cyclical, like all good curses, for the desires that drive acquisition also immolate the object of desire. Cool isn’t Cool if everybody does it. The slang once repeated as often as possible is soon pronounced annoying and overused, not by its progenitors but by the very people responsible for its demise. ‘White Americans often turn on the slang they appropriate, deeming it déclassé or trite after a brief period of infatuation-fueled overuse,’ journalist and scholar Samantha Allen wrote in an article for the Daily Beast during the Time controversy. The same phenomenon spurred Todd from Chicago to nominate the death of ‘bling’ in 2004: ‘This once street slang for items of luxury has now become so overused and abused that (everyone) has incorporated it into their vocabularies. Yes, your mom might say it. Nothing could kill the mystique of a word faster.’
The thirst for Cool reappears across the history of American language patterns. ‘Mickey D’s’ used to be black slang for the company that now brandishes the name on its billboards. The ‘Big Apple’ was a Depression-era juke brought to New York City. During my childhood, the West Coast’s skip-scatting ‘-eezy’ and ‘-izzle’ – commonly associated with Snoop Dogg, though E-40 claims precedence – bled into everything from Old Navy commercials with Fran Drescher to Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde. (LSSU elected to banish ‘ ‘izzle’-speak’ in 2005, ‘by far, the abomination that received the most nominations.’) During my mom’s childhood, mainstream America learned words like ‘ jive,’ ‘kicks,’ ‘dig,’ ‘bad,’ ‘off the hook,’ and ‘real.’ During my Nana’s childhood, ‘hip,’ ‘cool,’ and ‘chill’ made their way to the mouths of a growing white middle class, becoming the common, de-raced lexicon we know them as today. ‘Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States,’ James Baldwin wrote in a 1979 article for the New York Times, ‘but they would not sound the way they sound.’
The internet accelerates the process like it accelerates everything. The common send-off ‘Bye, Felisha’ (later shortened to ‘bye,’ with ‘Felisha’ left implied) became popular around the mid-2010s, almost two decades after Ice Cube first wrote those lines for the hood classic Friday. Sixteen-year-old Kayla Newman’s ‘on fleek,’ however, born at the scene of Vine, became popular enough to make banished-words lists within the year. ‘Woke,’ the metaphoric term taken up as early as the 1940s as ‘a call to study and act against anti-black oppression,’ writes Kashana Cauley, lost its vigor after just a few years of interracial visibility. ‘Now it functions merely as a nod to the speaker’s mainstream lefty positions, a smug confirmation that the speaker holds the expected progressive beliefs,’ Cauley writes. ‘What’s been left out is any reference to the structural and political systems that caused black leftists to adopt progressivism – or any understanding that maintaining woke views requires continuous work.’
Other words come into and fall out of favor at the whim of the viral web. The 2018 internet coalesced around the acronym BDE, for ‘big dick energy.’ Reporters rushed to mark its relevance, critics followed to decode its meaning, the usual online boutiques and Etsy shopkeepers and New York magazine’s The Cut sold ‘BDE’ merch. The Oxford English Dictionary defined BDE as ‘an attitude of understated and casual confidence’ and added it to the shortlist for 2018 Word of the Year. The music video for Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next,’ already a giddy confluence of digital vernacular and millennial tastes, slapped the letters above the left-side shirt pocket of the distinctive brown uniform in lieu of ‘UPS.’ The substitution was more than icing on the ongoing remix of Legally Blonde but a nod to the understood origin story of BDE, which overlapped with the rise and aftermath of Ariana’s relationship with comedic actor Pete Davidson. While the two were together, Ariana tweeted and deleted her double-digit estimate on the length of her partner’s genitalia. This seemed to solve the mystery of her and him, not in terms of sexual compatibility but spiritual attraction. If Pete Davidson had a big dick, it made sense, because he carried himself like someone with the comfort of knowing he has a big dick, above the insecure and masculine behavior of one who does not have a big dick, which is ultimately sexier than the dick itself. Or, as Tina Ngo tweeted, ‘Pete davidson is 6’3 with dark circles, exudes big dick energy, looks evil but apparently is an angel, and loves his girl publicly the only thing wrong w him is that he’s a scorpio but anyway . . . id married him within a month too.’ BDE took off from there, with Ngo, or Ngo’s tweet rather, credited with coinage.
In truth the online life of the phrase began with writer Kyrell Grant, who used the term weeks before Ngo, in a tweeted memorial of Anthony Bourdain. ‘The conversation about Bourdain happened on a night of my friends and I drinking some orange wine and lamenting that none of us would ever get to fuck him, because not only was he hot, he was a man who was very curious and empathetic, and a good listener – which you know is a rare find,’ she related in Broadly. ‘We came to the conclusion that he must have had a huge dick to match his great personality.’ She tweeted on June 8, ‘We’re talking about how anthony bourdain had big dick energy which is what he would have wanted.’ When the phrase took off, Grant was puzzled – ’I am largely baffled by the traction of it all, as a whole!’ – but wasn’t, as had been said in the Guardian, ‘pissed off,’ until secondhand coverage repeatedly excluded her name, contorting her term in the process. ‘Others were credited or paid for my work,’ said Grant. ‘It sucks because I made zero dollars from it. Well, almost zero.’ (The Cut shortly discontinued sale of its ‘BDE’ tee, giving Grant the profits, ‘of about $250.’) Eventually, her phrase ‘got stale the way most memes do: It got repetitive.’ Grant seemed to mourn the loss of a creative outlet as much as the withheld, or belated, cultural capital. ‘Honestly, I think I’ve already phased out using Twitter for any of my better observations. . . . The mindset that the discovery of an idea is akin to creating it is something that’s too embedded in all of us, and I don’t think it’s going away.’
Another case study: ‘chile.’ Camped out on the behemoth social aggregate site Reddit – more specifically on a subforum of beauty industry gossip – I see an exchange that makes my stomach hurt. The context of the exchange matters little; it was merely one node in the rapidly unfolding timeline of rumor upon rumor coherent to local users who live for mess. The conversation went as follows:
user 1: If [username] picks the story up, CHILE. . . .
user 2: ‘CHILE.’ What does this mean? I’m not hip to the slang anymore.
user 3: It’s slang for ‘child.’
user 4: It’s AAVE slang specifically, to my knowledge.
user 1: love you addressed it as AAVE
user 1: CHILE can be perceived as ‘girl, this drama is going be good’
‘Chile.’ The eternal feature of black Southern speech survived its transport to the North and elsewhere by way of the Great Migration only to be hacked into pieces by the internet. Confused User 2 calls it slang; User 3 concurs; User 4 doubles down in the most incorrect politically correct way – ’AAVE slang.’ The qualified smug – ’specifically, to my knowledge’ – deflates for noting ‘AAVE slang’ lengthens to ‘African American Vernacular English slang’ (gibberish). The absurdity compounds for noting that confused User 2 (correctly) incorporates a loan from black vernacular – ’hip’ – to express their misrecognition. User 1 did nothing wrong but nobody comes out unscathed.
‘Chile’ is neither new nor slang. There is a popular meme pulled from the Bravo reality show The Real Housewives of Atlanta, part of the franchise about working women showing women at work. In the relevant scene, Nene Leakes, the show’s star and an original cast member, visits cast mate Kenya Moore at her temporary lodgings in an undisclosed hotel in downtown Atlanta. As Nene steps out of her Range Rover, she huffs, ‘Whew, chile, the ghetto! The ghetto. The ghetto.’ It’s an exaggeration, the exact tenor of comedic airs that viewers come to expect from Nene, the master of the Real Housewives format, which thrives on the illusion of monetary insouciance while exhibiting the most class-obsessed characters you’ll find on TV. In meme form, the phrase and its various abbreviations became applicable to any situation giving one the slightest grief: going though regular airport security instead of TSA PreCheck, Whew, chile . . . the ghetto standard shipping instead of Prime delivery, Whew, chile . . . the ghetto; low water pressure, Whew, chile . . . As the catchphrase detached from the original clip, ‘Whew, chile’ encountered audiences unfamiliar with the sound and cadence of this very black, very Southern exhalation. Some wondered what the country west of Argentina has to do with anything. In a video on Twitter, user Cameron Collins captures his own shock while an offscreen voice begs to know, ‘How do you say woo, chilé . . . woo, chilé,’ adding an accented second syllable. Chillay became such a hit that many black millennials reappropriated it for themselves, exclaiming ‘Whew, chillay’ on- and offline where ‘Whew, chile’ once was. Sometimes there’s nothing left to do but laugh.
Between the yearly kill lists, explainers for the darnnedest things kids are saying, the genre of works that frustrated Grant, elide blackness by ignorance or by choice with identical results. When ‘basic’ hit the mainstream, one long-running magazine called it an ‘epithet’ against femininity. One new-media site described ‘basic’ as an expression of class anxiety. Another site offered readers a glossary for terms like ‘lit,’ ‘fam,’ ‘woke,’ ‘tea,’ ‘lowkey,’ and ‘receipts,’ omitting the black and queer origins of what it also called ‘internet slang.’ Another online magazine gave the word ‘washed’ similar treatment, equating the expression with ‘cool.’ There again is the repeated irony – the cultural roots erased from one term by another term, ‘cool,’ whose blackness got lost on mainstream audiences.
Language does and does not conform to the sorts of top-down and oppressive boundaries imposed by humans in power. Language lives in people. As people interact and change, so, too, will the means they use to communicate ideas and feelings. Barriers to change include geography, which for centuries guarded, for example, the Gullah language of the Geechee people on the Southern coasts; or in the pre-internet world kept black speech slow to dissipate from enclaves on the plantation, the ghetto, and the inner city. The United States has never been totally segregated, but this new world exposes everyone to everyone else in unprecedented intensity. Just like we sound like our friends, just like someone with a new friend group will inevitably find bits of new language and inside jokes slipped into their own speech, vernacular from here and there and wherever sneaks into conversations between people who’ve never been to those places.
The appropriation of black language cannot be stopped, except only if we were to leave for Mars and never come back. At issue isn’t the transmission, but the vacuous want behind it – as if black culture lives to rescue mass culture from boredom. Surely there exists some ethical method for taking on the words of others – white America has yet to find it. For the curse to be undone, the desire must be undone, and undoing the desire means taking a knife to its insides and learning what it’s full of.
The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay is excerpted from White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … And Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, by Lauren Michele Jackson (Beacon Press, 2019), and was published by Public Books on 12 November, 2019. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.