Sunday, March 6, 2011

Language Appropriation

by Emily Hacala

Language appropriation, as defined by Jane Hill in her article "Linguistic Appropriation: The History of White Racism is Embedded in American English," is a type of complex cultural borrowing that involves a dominant group's "theft" of aspects of a target group's language. Hill argues that this process, especially when a dominant White group "borrows" from less prominent racial groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, or US Spanish-speakers, will "add value to an 'American' identity - one that is prototypically White... at the same time, the project of appropriation denigrates and marginalizes members of donor groups" (Hill p.160-161). Linguistic appropriation allows the dominant group to control the language of the target group in a variety of different ways: from changing word meanings entirely to associating certain words or phrases with cultural phenomena such as being "cool." Furthermore, linguistic appropriation can indirectly perpetuate racial stereotypes by allowing the dominant group to claim features and qualities that will then define the target group, such as "hypermasculinity" or "coolness" from African American culture or "hypersexuality" from Spanish.

These racial stereotypes can often have a very negative effect on the group being targeted. Over time, linguistic features may become inextricably linked as a part of the inherent nature of the racialized group. Hill notes that, "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 p.169). Problems within a racialized neighborhood or group can then be attributed simply to "essential nature" and as a result can lessen efforts made to remedy the policy or attitudes that might actually be causing these problems. In addition, members of the targeted group could internalize these negative attitudes and stereotypes, so that some may consider their own language to be incorrect or a "lesser" version of White Standard English.

Cecilia Cutler's article "Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop, and African American English" introduces Mike, a white teenage boy who has adopted African American Vernacular English speech patterns as well as an affinity for rap music and style of dress typically associated with African American youth (baggy jeans, sneakers, backwards ball cap, etc.). Despite Mike's affluent background and attendance at private school, he began to strongly identify with African American culture around puberty until his mid-teenage years when he distanced himself from the "black identity" but continued to speak in AAVE phonology and lexicon. Save for a few instances, Mike's grammar was generally inconsistent with that of AAVE. However, Mike still strongly identified with hip-hop culture and lifestyle, which is often considered to be a multi-cultural style and therefore available to non-African American youths. Cutler argues that this "allow[s] whites access to a commodified, ephemeral black experience at various moments of phases of their lives without required overt claims of black ethnicity, and the sociolinguistic meaning of AAVE appears to be adjusted in the process" (Cutler p.435).

The cinematic masterpiece "Bring it On: All or Nothing" (the third installment in the "Bring it On" movie series) provides an example of how racial stereotypes can be reinforced via a member of a dominant group's appropriation of the linguistic and cultural features of a racialized group. In the film, Britney is the captain of the cheerleading squad The Pirates, a white (with the exception of a wealthy Asian "model minority" female cheerleader), extremely wealthy squad until her father loses his job and her family is forced to relocate to Crenshaw Heights, a poor and predominantly black neighborhood. The movie seems to blend racial minority groups into one category - her new school (and eventually new squad) is a mix of Latin@ and African American students that make up one racial minority group with a combination of AAVE and Spanish speech patterns. Initially, Britney is completely rejected by this new group; her clothes and speech are too different (or too white), and she is simply referred to as "white girl" instead of being called by name. Britney's friends from her old "white" school voice their fears about her seemingly inevitable transformation into a "wigger" after she stands up for her new friend and teammate Kirresha in the following dialogue:

(Skip to about 48 seconds into this VIDEO - I apologize for the poor video quality but there are subtitles)

Winnie: "Because after you make friends with those people, you start shopping with them. Then you're dating one and the next thing you know you're going to be on some bad talk show screaming at your baby daddy..."
Britney: "Winnie, you're such a candy cane."
Winnie: "And you're such a wigger."

Not long after this scene, we witness Britney's transformation from this (rich, preppy white cheerleader, center):

to this:

Britney adopts the slang terms, styles of dress (booty shorts and cornrows), and styles of dance (krumping) the seem to define her new squad in order to fit in with her new "real friends" and new Latino boyfriend, Jesse, that has replaced her blonde, white boyfriend, Brad. This "white girl's" appropriation of her racialized minority squad's culture, dress, and speech is what ultimately allows the once "cheer-trocity of a squad" from Crenshaw Heights to win the final competition and become recognized as a team worthy of competing with the rest (ie. the white teams).

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