Your vernacular is cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is more than a Halloween costume

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equity inaction

Editor's Note: Living in today’s world as a queer person of color has made it clear that spaces are dominated by and fundamentally for white folks. In an effort to reclaim power and uplift marginalized communities, this column acts as a step to holding institutions of power like the UW accountable. 

The Halloween season brings up the important conversation of cultural appropriation. The ASUW released an informative “Consider Your Costume” campaign to combat cultural appropriation. However, I still experience cultural appropriation from white folks on campus due to their stolen vernacular from black, queer, and trans communities. 

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) refers to the American English dialect that originates from and is used by African American communities. Something that has always frustrated me as a queer person of color is encountering white folks, both on- and off-campus, who use AAVE in their daily language. Primarily, I take issue in how societal perception differs between white folks in comparison to black folks when using AAVE. 

“Because language is one of the main tenets of culture, and it’s not theirs to use, it is cultural appropriation,” Brianna Jones, a UW alum and consultant for LGBTQ+ equity at YWCA Seattle, said. “White folks and white queer folks are not aware of the freedom and privilege they experience by being able to ‘put on’ aspects of black culture, in a way that instead of causing them social harm, usually gets them capital or clout.” 

There have been many instances in my three years at the UW where I’ve cringed at cisgender white girls yelling “yasss queen!” and “slay me!” or meeting white gays in queer spaces on campus who talk in a “blaccent” and use stolen AAVE made famous by RuPaul’s Drag Race

White folks can use AAVE like a costume, wearing it when it benefits them and taking it off before retreating back to their privileged white bodies. They perform blackness without having to face the societal and institutional oppression of being a black person.

“To be black and queer and to use AAVE, which frequently means speaking how you naturally talk, does immediately limit your access,” Jones said. “It’s one of the largest reasons code-switching is so common — not for self-hatred or internalized oppression, but instead it’s the realization that we cannot advance in white society and fully speak as ourselves.” 

Code-switching is the act of changing the way one speaks, depending on the situation. This is mostly done by communities of color in fear of sounding too informal in an effort to conform to society’s preference of whiteness. However, like Jones mentioned, it’s not an act of self-hatred for one’s identity, but rather an act of survival. 

White folks use AAVE for aesthetics while communities of color code-switch to survive. 

“There will always be white people who feel entitled to co-opt my blackness, except for my historical trauma,” junior Ryan Wagstaff said. “Ask yourself: Is my attempt to sound black letting me connect with another through listening with the intent to foster a real relationship or is my attempt infantilizing who that person is?”

Wagstaff makes a great point in how stealing AAVE infantilizes this community as nonconsensual objects for white gain while continuing to claim black culture from themselves when it is convenient.

“A lot of white people want to ‘act’ and be like black folks, but let their racism and ignorance run rampant,” junior Eddy Castillo said. “Most of the time I hear white women and white gays using AAVE while black folks are shamed for using AAVE on the claims that it isn’t ‘grammatically correct’ or that it sounds ‘ghetto.’”

Castillo builds off an important point that I’ve experienced myself. When white, cisgender queer folks in my spaces would use AAVE, they would be credited as being “sassy” and “funny.” Yet the same usage of AAVE through the mouth of a black queer/trans person would be perceived far differently. 

It’s time we address that there are various forms of appropriating a community’s culture. Leaders on campus, faculty, staff, and the student body need to recognize that the issue of cultural appropriation is not always as simple as a costume we may wear one day of the year. It’s also recognizing the engrained stolen vernacular that exists in our society and the issues we perpetuate when we use them. 

Reach contributing writer Andre Lawes Menchavez at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @itsjustdrey

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