Monday, February 28, 2011

Sticking With What You Know

By Ellen Walsh

In her article “Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop and African American English” Cecilia A. Cutler focuses on Mike, a white 16-year-old boy from Manhattan’s upper east side who is an example of the term wigga.  A wigga is a white boy or girl who uses the African American Vernacular English and displays common practices of African American culture by listening to hip-hop, wearing the typical clothing like baggy jeans and designer sneakers, and backwards baseball cap.  In his everyday speech, Mike would talk “street” or in what is considered to be slang commonly used in hip-hop music and in African American Vernacular English.   Mike also participated in the stereotypical gang activities by adopting a tag name for graffiti, joining a gang and getting into fights and would get in trouble with the police frequently.  Since Mike had much access to the AAVE from living in an urban environment, it was easy for him to be able to pick up on AAVE elements to incorporate into his own speech (although AAVE is accessible through the popularized hip-hop culture seen on the television, internet, and heard on the radio as well as movies that glamorize the gang and ghetto lifestyle). 
Mike tried very hard to be authentic, but because of his background and race he was seen by many to be unauthentic.  The African American Vernacular English comes with a history behind it associated with individual survival as being a member of the lower class, and kids like Mike follow these practices as a lifestyle by choice.  Being born into an upper class lifestyle Mike searched for the gang culture and picked up on this lifestyle that is considered “unnatural” for him by many.  Mike and his friends even discuss that many people who are actually exposed to that culture in the Bronx and Harlem often ridicule many of the kids from the Upper East Side who have adopted the gang culture as their lifestyle.  While Mike believes himself to be authentic and unlike the rest of the Yorkville gang kids, he still experiences this divide because of his race and demographics.  
It is not uncommon for white youth to participate in black youth culture or pick up on stereotypical African American practices.  One of the most common examples of this is being able to hear anyone of any race on a daily basis using AAVE vocabulary by saying words like “yo,” “what up,” or “word.”  But Cutler quotes Tricia Rose in explaining the popularization and appeal of African American youth culture: “[whites are] fascinated by [black culture’s] differences, drawn in by mainstream social constructions [of black culture]…as a forbidden narrative, [and] a symbol of rebellion” (Cutler 428).   Just as with Mike’s case, being a “wigga” is appealing to many because it differs them from the rest of the typical standard of being white.  This difference in lifestyle is often represented in media through various forms.  Hip-hop music appeals to many people because of its association with being “cool.” 
Although many people have an appreciation for this type of music, it is often seen as unauthentic and humorous when someone who is not African American taking on a rapper identity.  When reading about Mike and comparing him to people I know or see in the media who are similar to him in regards to appreciating gang culture, I though of Kevin G and the mathlete rap from Mean Girls.

In this clip of Mean Girls Kevin Gnapoor performs a rap for his high school’s talent show.  Kevin is the head of the mathlete’s club, which is a club that is typically associated with nerdiness and kids who are un-cool.  Kevin adopts the rapper nickname “Kevin G” which is a typical rapper name because of the use abbreviations.  Furthermore, Kevin takes on his rapper identity by depicting himself in his rap as tough and cool, referring to himself as “James Bond III.”  He uses terms and expressions like “ain’t got nothin’ on me” and “can’t touch Kevin G” as well as using crude lyrics.  Kevin has created this persona because of the popular appeal of rap and because he thinks it makes him cool.  Mean Girls is a movie about images and the perceptions of others and oneself, and since Kevin is typically associated with being a nerd, he tries to gain respect by becoming a rapper.  But this scene is shows how humorous it is when someone takes on an identity that is so different from his or her own.  Just like Mike, Kevin tries to be cool but it comes off as rather humorous, just like the concept of being a “wigga” is often humorous as well.
            Another video that plays off of this idea of hip-hop and black culture being considered cool is Smirnoff’s promotional video released in 2006.

The clip is a fake music video by the “Prep Unit” performing a rap called “Tea Partay.”  The video is in the typical style of a rap video, glorifying the lifestyle of the performers, but instead of the typical “gangster” lifestyle, this ad depicts the lifestyle of the white upper class in New England.  With the rappers and trophy girls dressed in preppy attire rapping about sailing on their parents’ yachts, playing croquet, and rollerblading, this video creates another humorous juxtaposition of the preppy white men using rap—a predominantly African American type of music—to describe their extremely white lifestyle.  They use rap in an attempt to be cool, but given the context, it comes off as humorous and ridiculous.
            These examples show that it is not typically accepted in society to adapt or practice a culture that is very different from one’s own.  In the movie Beauty Shop, Alicia Silverstone’s character Lyn experiences this in many ways.  
As a white girl working in a predominantly African American barbershop, she tries to use certain expressions of the AAVE as her co-workers do, but gets shutdown.  As she says “ghetto,” her coworker stares at her in disbelief, and when she is surprised when a woman says the ‘n’ word on the radio, another coworker says that its okay for the radio dj to say it, but not for her.  The environment she works in distinguishes a clear difference between her and her coworkers.  In attempts to try and fit in she is often rejected and is seen as acting stupid and out of place.  This movie portrays Lyn as a wannabe girl and an embarrassment. 
All of these examples portray those who incorporate AAVE and African American youth culture in their life as amusing because of their inauthenticity.  They also depict this appropriation as silly and inappropriate.  But is this appropriation wrong?  Is identifying with a different lifestyle or culture appropriate?

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