Sunday, February 27, 2011

It's a Hard Knock Life (for white males who speak African American Vernacular English)

By Michael Han

In my last entry, I discussed the complexities of Superstandard English, or nerd speak. For this post, I will be focusing on quite the opposite: young white males who “employ linguistic features”(428) of AAVE. A popular name for this group of people, as Cecilia Cutler writes in her case study, Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop and African American English, is “wigga,” or a “white nigga” (429). Aside from typically being kind of annoying and frowned up in society, the “wigga” actually presents a very interesting topic of analysis, which serves as the purpose of this particular entry.

Part 1: Genesis of the Wigga
 Cutler’s case study is centered around an informant, Mike, a white teen who grew up on the affluent Park Avenue and attended private schools his entire life. What do we associate when we think of the words “gangster” or “thug?” Notions of impoverished living in the ghettoes often to come to mind, not fancy brownstones and private school uniforms. This paradox was personally very interesting for me—growing up in suburban, middle class Long Island, I am not unfamiliar with kids who were particularly fond of AAVE and African American culture. I have always been curious—rather, irritated, that they could tout themselves as being “thug” or “street,” returning home each night in their beamers to their mini-mansions.
            Anyways, Cutler opens her discussion by contrasting Mike’s case with another, that of Carla, a 13 year old white girl who also spoke a variation of AAVE. Unlike Mike, however, Carla grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood in New Jersey. Her speech patterns were attributed to the environment in which she was based (428). How is Mike’s situation explained, then?
            Cutler present several interesting points. She states “Mike’s self-alignment with hip-hop drew on stereotyped conceptions of gangs and African American urban street culture,” a member of a growing “cohort of white, well-to-do teenagers referred to as prep school gangsters” (429). We all know from experience that our teenage years are angst-ridden; they are full of rage and rebellious thoughts towards authority. Living in an upper to middle class life and being schooled in a particularly rigid setting, like a private school with high educational standards and dull uniforms presents an easy construction for teens to rebel against. For one, by altering your persona—whether through adopting AAVE or a certain style of dress, these students are presented with a temporary escape from the dull monotony of easy and affluent upper-middle class life. This also addresses why Black culture is the culture of choice—everything about it, from language to way of dress, stands diametrically opposed to the conception of standard, American English and Culture (white, clean, middle class, etc.).
             Furthermore, perceptions of life on the street are misrepresented by mass media. Movies, like Do the Right Thing and Boyz ‘n the Hood, Cutler writes, served as a medium through which inner city life was broadcasted to those not living in inner-city ghettoes. In most cases this transmission was a glamorized version of what life in the inner city was actually like, which allowed “white teenagers [to] selectively choose to construct their stereotypes about African Americans and hip-hop culture” (434). In regards to music, MTV played a huge role in the dissemination of African American culture (Cutler cites ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ as an example) to many areas far, far away from the actual “streets.” Music videos, which grew in popularity in the late 80s/90s and spread even faster today as a result of websites like YouTube, further perpetuate misrepresentations of black culture—particularly glamorizing the life of someone who grew up on the inner streets:

             Puff Daddy’s Bad Boys for Life is a great example for this entry for several reasons. For one, it portrays the life of a rapper as glamorous and over the top—you get your own tour bus, an entire entourage with convertibles, what appears to be a wheelbarrow of presumably expensive champagne, and of course, an endless supply of buxom beauties (who have nowhere else to be but your Jacuzzi). Who wouldn’t want this life, right? In imitating the speech and dress patterns of rappers, young white males hope to attain the same lifestyles presented in music videos. This video specifically is interesting in that the concept (Puff Daddy moving into the ideal upper-middle class white suburb of Perfectown, USA) refers to the race dynamics I mentioned earlier. The residents (all white) are shocked at Puff Daddy’s presence in their pristine bubble—one woman faints. This acts as a signal to all the rebellious white boys in high school: by imitating the rap stars that they see in the media, these boys find a way to lash out against their oppressors—parents, school, their own socioeconomic statuses.

Part II Orientalism, Hegemony and the invasion of the White man

In all of these examples of misrepresentation and glamorization it becomes apparent that essentially, Black culture is commodified, turned into something commercial and acquirable. It is in this capacity that the  “wigga” phenomenon, if you may, reminded me of many concepts I have come across in my Social and Cultural Analysis classes here at NYU. Particularly, Edward Said’s idea of Orientalism and Antoni Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony (I can hear the groans already) come to mind. To present a very, very basic and watered down explanation of both (the idea of me even trying to delve into every intricacy is a funny one). Hegemony focuses on the dominance that one ruling class exerts over other subordinating classes. Orientalism builds off of this idea, referring to the often prejudiced, outsider Western (the Occident) interpretation of the East (the Orient).
Now, how on Earth did any of that remind me of rap and white boys? In a way, young white males, a group traditionally in power, have misinterpreted the culture of African Americans, a group traditionally being subjected to the power of Whites. AAVE and its speakers are often portrayed as cool and tough. White males want to adopt this persona, wanting to appear cool and tough as well, despite their often-affluent upbringings. In an effort to appear authentic “street,” Mike acted out in several ways—from adopting a graffiti tag to having his arms broken and getting kicked out of school. In relation to music videos, rap artists are portrayed in glamorous environments with extravagant and ridiculous things around them. This further inspires White male, who also want similar life styles, to adopt hip-hop slang and the AAVE. Cutler adds in a note at the end of the case study that online rap dictionaries “defeat the purpose of using hip-hop slang and that the role of rap is not to teach outsiders, but to communicate within their community” (440). It is important to point out that though this lifestyle provides “white access to a commodified, ephemeral black experience at various moments or phases of their lives without requiring overt claims of black ethnicity” (435), that at any time, these White males (the ones not living in impoverished areas, that is) can just as easily shed the “gangsta” persona—they can return (rather, they have never left) to their comfortable lives. They never truly understand the hardships that African Americans living in inner cities actually face daily. Instead, these African Americans merely represent a model that can be replicated, solely linguistically, without having to deal with any real life hardships.
             Furthermore, Mike and his friends were discussing how upset they were that the Black community was not as receptive of White people as the White people were receptive of them. Cutler writes “many young whites feel they have the right to appropriate the hip-hop look and language” (435), playing into the idea of cultural hegemony. Mike and his friends, who come off as victims, are not considering the situation from the other perspective—why do whites have to be included in black culture?  They are subconsciously playing into a cultural notion that whites are superior, and that they are entitled access to all other cultures. In actuality, it can be seen that blacks are truly the victims in this scenario, as their unique culture is being encroached on and invaded.

Part III Portrayal in Media

            Finally, it is very interesting to me to examine how the “wigga” is portrayed in media today, and how this affects our perception of them. To start, let’s look at the following images:
Now, how do you feel? Anger? Confusion? A sense of malaise? Perhaps it may be a combination of all of the above, but it is far more interesting to examine why we feel this way. After all, they are people too—people looking for some outlet of self-expression. Hmm. Well, then there’s this:


            A fantastic milestone in cinema history, Malibu’s Most Wanted is a physical manifestation of society’s opinion on the “wigga.” The intricacies of this filme are hard to explain, but the basic plot goes like this: the film’s protagonist, B-rad (His real name is Brad, clever, right?) is so over the top in his attempts to emulate black culture, which immediately places him at odds with both the black and white community. The son of an affluent politician, B-rad wears name brand track suits and drives an SUV, claiming to be a true “gangsta” from the mean streets of Compton. His father, who is up for re-election, is embarrassed and worried that B-rad’s antics will cost him precious votes, so he hires PJ and Sean James, two black Julliard trained actors to pose as thugs and kidnap B-rad, so as to “scare him white.” This plan backfires when real life gangsters kidnap B-rad, PJ and Sean James, disgusted by what they represent—B-rad, a rich, sheltered white kid trying so desperately to be a part of black culture, and PJ/Sean James, who have seemingly rejected black culture, opting to embrace a very white lifestyle by pursuing careers in acting and adopting near hyperstandard English.
            This movie is essentially harping on how white gangsters are often regarded in society—they are looked down upon by both whom they seek to imitate and who they truly are. Perhaps our distaste for this subculture arises from the fact that they represent a form of “otherness,” they are straying from what is regarded as the societal norms. Cutler describes how Mike’s AAVE-influenced speech patterns were “commented on negatively by family members who said he ‘sounded like a street kid or a hoodlum’” (429). Why do parents tell their kids to stop “talking” or “dressing” like a gangster? Again, because it is perceived as being improper—because it is black and not white, it does not ascribe to the dominant societal norm. This again plays into the ideas of cultural hegemony and Orientalism I described earlier. “Whiteness” is so prevalent in American society that it has become a point of reference—if it isn’t orderly, clean or White, it is seen as abnormal. Furthermore, the notion of adopting the persona of an out-group (the “Other”) is in itself an almost moral issue—why would someone from the dominant group (the Occident/West) want to ascribe the beliefs and behaviors of the strange, foreign, barbaric out-group (the Orient/East). Thus, the “wigga” has come to be regarded as a traitor to his own kind—rejected, often hated, by both white and black cultures, he becomes a lone wolf in an unforgiving wood.
As I finish this entry, one interesting question does arise. After examining different aspects and reasons of white males and their use of AAVE, we look back to Cutler’s description of Mike’s friend, a “linguistic role-model” (433), who actually lived in a poor area and served as a “contact with black culture make them a beacon for its promotion ‘amongst white youth’” (434). In comparing Mike and his friend (rich white male/poor white male, affluent neighborhood/poor neighborhood, minimal exposure to African American culture/high exposure to African American culture), is one more acceptable in society? That is to ask, both Mike and his friend speak a form of AAVE, but one has more exposure to black culture, more credibility. Is Mike’s friend less of a poser; is he less of a traitor to his people?

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