Sunday, March 6, 2011

Appropriated Desirable Identities vs. Perpetuated Negative Image

by Elizabeth Baik

Today, forms appropriated from African American English permit Whites to claim many desirable qualities, especially preferred forms of masculinity. These include toughness, urban "street-smarts," and especially "cool," a sort of sexy, edgy unflappability that has a very high value in contemporary American popular culture. (Hill, 166)

[...] while they lend to the White people a "cool" identity, they simultaneously index dangerous negative stereotypes. These stereotypes of African American males mean that the extraordinary rates of violence in African American communities and the incarceration of a very high percentage of African American men are considered by many Whites as merely consequences of their essential nature. (Hill, 169)
The logic and otherwise relevant subtleties that bring about this phenomenon of the continuous cycle--of mannerism producing images producing mannierism--are still unclear. How can an image that perpetuate a negative stereotype for one group be assumed by another group and turn into something desirable? This post intends to investigate first the validity of Jane Hill and other linguists' argument that African American English is appropriated by Whites who "pay no dues, but reap the psychological, social, and economic benefits of a language and culture born out of struggle and hard times" (Smitherman 1998: 218). Example from popular media will be used to illustrate the abovementioned benefits of a language and culture--how individuals speak in a particular way, specifically African American English, to better appeal to an audience. Notwithstanding such advantages provided by speaking African American English, however, it is apparent that the positive and desirable image is only achieved in very specific situations with a particular set of conditions, and that the negative image remains negative even for White men in society. Thus, it is not so much that a negative image becomes positive for White men and other outsiders, but rather that the negative image is thought to be interesting precisely because of its negativity. Outsiders do not seem to acquire African American English to assume an identity but in order to momentarily, or at most temporarily, be in character whether they deliberately or accidentally perpetuate and aggravate negative stereotypes of African Americans.

The video below is by luanlegacy. Its 1.5 million views and 23 thousand 'likes' show how much what may be called the Youtube population appreciates, approves, or otherwise tolerates luanlegacy's opinions. Numerous comments on the video quote memorable or impressive things that is said in the video, those that are noteworthy for either its content or the feisty manner by which it was delivered. Following are few moments in the video that I personally found intriguging or relevant to the subject at hand-- speaking African American English:
0:38 They got no type of self esteem
0:52 Slam this bitch
1:24 The bitch was clingy. I don't do clingy
1:44 I mean, it aint gonna be pretty cos relationships go bad
2:39 because I can just be like, "fuck you, nobody asked for your opinion, nobody asked you to be born"

With limited understanding of linguistics, it is difficult to pinpoint the source of resemblance between luanlegacy's way of speech and African American English. As Culter dissected Mike's acquisition of "superficial phonological and lexical features of another dialect," perhaps there are features of the AAVE grammatical system: third singular -s absence, habitual be, systematic copula deltion, R-lessness, TH-stopping, etc. (431) Among the phrases listed above, "they got no" and "it aint gonna" are two of the most popular sentence structures of AAVE imitated by outsiders. Besides, luanlegacy's intonation, speed, hand gestures, facial expressions collectively contribute to his portrayl as a 'diva,' a term often associated with opinionated, vivacious, loud African American women. The way he slowed down and lowered his voice to say, "I don't do clingy," followed by the rather smug facial expression is definitely considered African American mannierism. Also, though he talks relatively quickly throughout the video, "nobody asked for your opinion, nobody asked you to be born" is said extremely fast, a speed at which African Americans often talk at. All of these things help luanlegacy to deliver his message, to be persuasive and heard, even to make his videos popular and widespread. Imagine if he spoke in proper English with even intonation, perhaps said the same message in a scholarly way. As persuasive as his argument may be in this video, if at all, the Youtube population would not have acknowledged luanlegacy's talent in public speaking. His African American English benefited him.

On the other hand, luanlegacy's way of speech was advantageous for him only because he was recording a video that he posted on Youtube. If he were to speak in another form of public domain or to address a different audience, such as businessmen and women, his argument would have held less validity as it was largely based on specific words (ie. fuck) charged with meanings that the Youtube audience would immediately accept and understand. As mentioned earlier in this post, the negative image of African American English remains, albeit more appealing to a specific audience. Indeed outsiders can effectively claim desirable qualities that has a high value in contemporary American popular culture, but it does not mean that these desirable qualities become positive when assumed by White men and outsiders. 

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