Thursday, March 10, 2011

Black Enough?

Jessie Pimentel

     In “Linguistic Appropriation: The history of White Racism is Embedded in American English”, Jane Hill defines how linguistic appropriation functions; “… speakers of the target language (the group doing the borrowing) adopt resources from the donor language, and then try to deny these to members of the donor language community” (1). While she continues to discuss how linguistic appropriation is used to mock African American Vernacular English, American Indian languages and U.S Spanish, an important note to take away from her writing is how mocking brings about consequences that carry on negative stereotypes of African Americans, Latinos and other minorities as being uneducated, violent and unable to conform to standard English. Even though we have discussed in class how such stereotypes continue to create barriers between different ethnicities by promoting the idea that one may be superior to another, (via education, language, wealth, etc.) I find it interesting that linguistic appropriation is also used amongst people of the same ethnicity, which then creates conflict regarding one’s performance of said stereotypes.

     At one point or another I think we have all heard the term ‘Oreo’ which is an offensive term meant to portray a Black person who is described as “trying to be white”. This distinction is often made though language, although it does not exclude factors like what type of music one listens to, where they live, etc. An African American, for example, may not be considered “Black enough” based on how he/she may speak. In some cases, if a minority speaks hyper-standard English in a context in which hyper-standard English or even Standard English is not commonly used, he/she is either seen as nerdy or in certain situations, as performing another ethnicity (whiteness). In this clip from YouTube, from a user who goes by the screen name ‘TokenBlackChic’, satire is used in response to commentary regarding how she is trying to be white due to the way she speaks.

     While addressing comments stating that she was “trying to be better than us [African Americans]”, ‘TokenBlackChic’ makes use of the negative stereotypes that are applied to African Americans, which she in a sense, is expected to perform. Therefore, not only does she claim to “get off of her high horse” of whiteness, but states that she will delve into blackness by perpetuating stereotypes that would label her as uneducated and violent. Although she does not directly address linguistic appropriation by using African American Vernacular English, she quotes one of her commentators who used non-standard English in order to demonstrate what she is expected to sound like, “she be actin’ white and she ain’t….” Essentially, her use of Standard English (or what we perceive to be Standard English) marks her as an outsider. She is not performing ‘blackness’ in a visible/public way (through language) and therefore she can not claim ‘blackness’ until she fulfills some of the negative stereotypes that have been created due to linguistic appropriation “stealing terms” and altering their meaning and the context in which they are used.

     Additionally, while linguistic appropriation assists in the upholding of negative portrayals of minorities (non-whites), it also follows a cycle, coming back around and being placed in opposition to whiteness. What I mean by this is that when language is appropriated by, for example, a white male like Mike in “Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop and African American English” by Celia Cutler, it is seen as a threat to whiteness. Although Cutler does not blame Mikes path of joining a gang, tagging and getting into fights solely on his appropriation of AAVE, she does state “…in spite of its origins in mainstream misrepresentations and its waning as he got older, his hip hop self portrayal has been much more consequential (emphasis added) for him than notions like ‘adolescent phase’ and ‘stylistic flirtation’ might at first imply” (430). What I understand from this quote is that even though Mike has experienced other troubles that influenced his bad behavior, the use of AAVE added to his conduct because he was determined to inhabit the negative stereotypes of African Americans and did so by being violent and disobedient. This essentially depicts the consequence that Hill was describing, as linguistic appropriation turns African American Vernacular English into a threat which taints whiteness and therefore corrupts white youth. In the end African Americans are blamed for using AAVE, making it mainstream, marketing to whites and being a bad influence even though AAVE was appropriated (not forced on) by those who are not expected to use it.

     Again, while I am not saying that Cutler is presenting African American Vernacular English as enemy number one to whiteness, I find it interesting that it is discussed in a way that seems to add to bad behavior while not considering that other factors, like Mike being a spoiled kid from a affluent area of New York City, might have added to his need to behave like a ‘gangster’.

     Linguistic appropriation is something that is never going to stop unless all forms of communication, especially media, were cut off between people who inhabit very different environments. Appropriation can be positive, if seen through a lens that promotes linguistic diversity as it demonstrates that Standard English is not the only form of language that exists in the United States. On the other hand, it also continues to promote differences between people when used to uphold negative stereotypes. Such things continue to racialize various ethnicities, while constantly marking Latinos, African Americans and other minorities as ‘other’ in opposition to whiteness. Additionally, it is important to understand the impact that language can make when creating divisions between different ethnicities and even creating conflict amongst those categorized as the same ethnicity. Language, as cliché as it sounds, is a very important tool that is vital to uphold constant communication between individuals, however, there are times in which language and appropriation must be used responsibly in order to prevent widening the gap between Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and others. When linguistic appropriation is utilized, rather than making language a fetish (by taking something and ignoring its history), it should be held as a significant device utilized for learning and unification.

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