I began looking at Angela Reyes’ 2005 article “Appropriation of African American slang by Asian American youth” from the Journal of Sociolinguistics because I was working on the early draft of “So They Think They’re Talking Black”. That video evolved from solely being about African American Vernacular English and blaccents to how these things are used by idols in conversation, in songs, on variety shows and, originally, by a largely non-Black fandom.
A few months ago, I came across – and then promptly roasted – a twitter account supposedly belonging to a Korean-American young woman who’d come to the US when she was younger who’d made a thread about her right to AAVE.
And one thing that stood out in the thread – that I referenced in the video I was making at the time, but scrapped – is how she claimed that the user came to AAVE as a form of assimilating into (White) US culture so she’s not appropriating at all.
And it reminded of, as these instances do, of TK Park’s insistence that k-pop/k-hip hop couldn’t possibly appropriate African American culture because you can’t appropriate what you’re forced to partake in (as he honestly seems to believe that Black Americans have forced Koreans across the diaspora to do… hip hop.
But also … let’s talk about how that plays out with Reyes’ article
Reyes has me from the introduction where she points out that non-Black people actually benefit from appropriating African American linguistic patterns/vocab because they don’t actually experience the oppressions that led us to build that language:
Yet that non-African Americans benefit from appropriating the verbal dress of a group that has been the target of much discrimination and racism in the United States is a complex subject that deserves more attention from scholars of language and ethnicity. Eble (2004) notes, ‘Adopting the vocabulary of a non-mainstream culture is a way of sharing vicariously in the plusses of that culture without having to experience the minuses associated with it’ (2004: 383). (509)
“While non-African Americans may gain local social prestige through peppering their speech with African American slang terms, they do so without suffering the daily experiences with discrimination that plague the lives of many African Americans” (509-10)
Reyes is looking at the “why” behind this adoption of AAVE and pinpoints Asian American positioning along “a black-white racial dichotomy” (where, presumably, they can’t be either).
Reyes shapes her central argument around looking at how Asian Americans build their identities in the US in relationship to African Americans around them and on television to perhaps navigate around/push against stereotypes about Asian identities in the United States.
Pausing here to recommend bell hooks’ “Eating The Other” which IS NOT about Asian identities consuming an African American Other but is useful to build a framework of why the Other is consumed by a person outside of the group
Here’s another useful way to understand what Reyes is writing about (also peep several of my favorite themes)
In this article I consider how processes of racialization, appropriation and authentication are integral in examining the ways in which speakers actively construct their identities through discursively constituted links between linguistic styles and categories of persons. (511)
Here’s Reyes’ ACTUAL thesis for this article (four pages into the article, this feels like a buried lede but it’s actually just how academic writing works)
Reyes put her work together as the result of a four year (1999-2002) ethnographic study of a Asian American video making project near Philly’s Chinatown where Reyes was a volunteer and staff member. Most of the tens involved in the program were from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and they lived with their families to poor urban/multi-ethnic but primarily Black neighborhoods in the city (as 1st gen or 1.5th gen)
I don’t think that Asian American kids who adopt AAVE are doing so in a relative vacuum where they’re not ever coming into contact with Black Americans in person (in the same way that most East Asian kids in China, Japan, and Korea generally are). However, those friendships don’t excuse the performance of Blackness.
Especially if the performance of Blackness/usage of AAVE largely ends once they’re successful enough (Awkwafina) or vanishes when they’re around a predominantly white or (older) Asian audience (mmm… Eddie Huang?)
Now, I’m on the section about the way the teens “racialized slag or authenticated identities as slang speakers” (Reyes, 517). I find this bit about Asian American teens linking “slang” to “ghettoness” really familiar and frustrating
This first discourse excerpt from a project session of the video-making project in 2002 reveals how the Asian American teens directly linked ‘slang’ to ‘ghettoness’, and later racialized the use of slang as ‘black’ speech. In this interaction, Macy (Vietnamese American female) is trying to teach Will (Chinese American male) how to speak slang, specifically the phrase na mean. Anh (Vietnamese-Cambodian-Chinese American female) and Van (Vietnamese American female) also enter the conversation.
1 Macy: say namean (.)Will [come on
2 Van: [I can’t talk slang
3 Macy: you can’t?
4 Will: what’s slang
5 Anh: [slang
6 Macy: [sla::ng
7 Will: oh what’s slang oh- oh sla::ng
8 Van: except if I’m really mad
9 Will: [namean (.) namean
10 Macy: [hmm hmm hmmthe ghettoness comes out
11 Van: heh heh yes heh heh Why?
Because (like Reyes actually points out), they’re associating slang with ghettoness (a bad thing) and with meanness – as Van can only “talk slang” if she’s “really mad”. And ghettoness is 100% pejorative (is it ever used positively?)
And it reminds me of the TikTok videos where Asian (American?) teens “act ratchet” and even claim that word to describe themselves. They get the slang, the posture, and the Blaccent down pat but at the end of the day… It’s hood cosplay. Van’s view of slang (which is, as we come to see, AAVE) is really problematic because she uses it when she wants to or does feel angry, scary, mean… or Black.
12 Van: it makes me feel black, or at least South Philly
Taking excerpts (1) and (2) together, ‘slang’ becomes discursively linked to being ‘mad’, ‘ghetto’, ‘black’ and ‘South Philly’. Van lowered her voice to a whisper when she said the word ‘black’ to me (line 12), which might indicate that Van did not want to be overheard, as if it was embarrassing or wrong to say.
(Note I did laugh at the way Van dropped her voice into a whisper when she said “Black” to Reyes because when I was in college, my Mexican American roommate’s mom used to do that when she talked about me like it was a dirty word. Folks know when they’re doing wrong.)
I have a whole thing about what many people get out of performing Blackness and one of the things is this freedom to be aggressive and to push back against society in a way that your home community doesn’t allow
And so Van – like many other Asian Americans who adopt an aggressively stereotypical performance of African American-ness – finds this freedom to fight back (against whoever) by reaching for the kind of anger Black people as assumed to carry all the time:
That slang makes Van ‘feel black’ reveals how her racialization and appropriation of slang relied on ‘dual indexicality’ (Hill 1995; Ochs 1990). By using slang to directly index herself as tough, Van reaped the benefits of the stereotype of the aggressive African American portrayed in popular culture as violent, criminal and deviant (Ronkin and Karn 1999; van Dijk 1987).
And are punished for it, by the way. We’re mistrusted for the anger they assign to us and assume we’re waiting to unleash. They spread rumors about us because their assumptions are inaccurate, unkind, and assume meanness on our parts
(I’m genuinely a fluffy ball of snark. But there are people who’ve assigned anger to me that I don’t even show and have decided I’m dangerous to them/their fandoms – like “I’m scared of Stitch” dangerous – it’s largely because I’m Black and not soft on antiblackness)
Anyway, Van used (African American) slang to seem tough, she got to benefit from Blackness without experiencing any of the downfalls of being Black in an antiblack world. Consider me bothered. “Yet while the linguistic appropriation allowed her to construct a tough identity for herself, it did not require Van to experience any other aspects of being African American that are lived every day (Smitherman 2000).”
This is a whole huge problem with “hood cosplay”, cultural appropriation, and the claims (from fans and artists alike) that they just appreciate Black culture so much: they don’t actually know our experiences
And they literally don’t have to because all it takes to be “authentically” Black is to absorb Blackness from popular culture and then perform it for an audience of OTHER non-Black people
(because Van probably WASN’T running around “talking Black” to frighten and stand out amongst African American peers – her target audience who ate up the act were probably other Asian Americans in her neighborhood)
Reyes turns to Chun’s study of Jin, a Korean American teenager for following part of her paper. Jin is a teenager who uses AAVE to three indexical effects detailed in the screenshot and following tweets:
First, Jin reproduces stereotypes of hyper heterosexual African American masculinity through his use of AAVE slang terms, such as booty, which emphasizes the objectification of female bodies. Second, through his appropriation of African American maleness, Jin uses AAVE to negotiate his Korean American male identity by challenging stereotypes of Asian American men as passive and sexless. Third, Jin appropriates AAVE slang terms, such as whitey, to criticize European American domination.
- First, Jin reproduces what Reyes calls “stereotypes of hyper-heterosexual African American masculinity” via how he uses slang like “booty” to objectify women’s bodies (I’m not sure I agree with Reyes entirely here)
- Second, he’s adopting African American masculinity (which is again hyper (hetero) sexualized) to push back against the opposite stereotype for Asian men: that they’re sexless and not masculine.
- Third, Reyes says that Jin’s use of “whitey” is criticizing “European American domination” and as a result of this effect, creates an alliance between African and Asian Americans as POC. Which I find fascinating because of the conversations about POC solidarity and where the solidarity dries up as far as Black people and non-Black POC are concerned. And I think it’s complicated but also:
Pushing back against racism and whiteness requires actually fighting against the common goal which is… whiteness and while want to hope that that’s actually why Jin was using that word… performing a stereotyped Blackness ain’t it
Reyes’ subject Sokla used AAVE but also kept uh… putting it down as “ghetto” and using the phrase “ebonics” (which was widely used at one point but I hate that word, y’all) and he never seemed to seem himself as part of African American communities
Here’s a bit of text after Reyes provides some transcripts following Sokla’s appearance in a video that he did for the center that I want to unpack
“His use of African American slang directly indexes himself as urban, hip, cool, and tough while indirectly indexing African Americans as associated with deviant behaviors”
Part of it is that Sokla identified with the African Americans in his poor community and participated with “deviant” behaviors that he associated with them as well: living in a poor neighborhood in South Philly, mistrusting education, and being in a gang. According to Reyes, Sokla actually told her that he wanted to make connections between his life as a Southeast Asian refugee to the life of many African Americans so that a wider audience could understand his struggle
And I get that because it’s easy shorthand but –
I also don’t like it BECAUSE the shorthand uses Blackness to convey non-Black experiences in ways that always render the Blackness on display deviant, edgy, threatening, etc. (Like the one panel I went to during PCA where the panelist praised HyunA for embracing Black music and finding freedom within performing Blackness/Black Music but didn’t account for HOW she was embracing Blackness through some stereotyping.)
“Not only can slang unify youth against adults like Didi, it can also create divisions of identity among youth.”
This immediately reminded me of the way that AAVE is repurposed for stan twitter and how people who aren’t familiar with AAVE used well (usually because they’re not Black or engage with many Black Americans) wind up confused and cut out of conversations. And how that repurposed AAVE can feel like a unknowable code even when the AAVE hasn’t been wildly redefined/gentrified by non-Black stans who’ve adopted it from their peers. The example that Reyes uses involves Didi, an adult in the group that didn’t know the definition of “aite/Aight” (which is AAVE and a portmanteau (i believe that’s the right word) for “alright”) and how the teens in the group wouldn’t actually define it for her.
“While slang is established as the legitimate language as aite replaces ‘cute’ – an MAE word suggested by an adult – an in-group of teens against which Didi is positioned is constituted.”
This article is almost seems to hold like a proto version of what we see on stan twitter and TikTok: non-Black teens and young adults (some of whom are Asian Americans from different diasporic communities) learning and then teaching other non-Black people AAVE/Black culture(s)
The idea of the authenticated slang speaker” is so interesting to me because those are the people who “grew up in the hood” who came to the slang naturally/organically through their connections with African Americans in their communities & are then able (more or less) to teach it
Like in this excerpt that Reyes provides showing two teens, Anh, Macy, and Van teaching Will how to properly use “na mean” (“Know what I mean” in AAVE).
50 Anh: <reading script>there’s something about Ling that Nara can’t
52 Will: <reading script>she’s missing something namean heh heh heh
53 Anh: mm na mean? na na
54 Will: na
55 Anh: na mean
56 Will: namean
57 Macy: namean [yougotta say that
58 Will: [namean
59 Will: na [mean
60 Macy: [na::::
61 Anh: na mean
62 Will: na:::: mean
63 Van: ha ha ha ha you said na:::: mean
64 Macy: <tapping Anh on her shoulder>do you knowJen? do you
65 knowJen Morgan?
66 Anh: no
67 Macy: she’s so::: like- (0.8) her English is perfect, (like) really perfect
68 and youtry to teach her slang and stuff and it is so cute (1.8)
70 Anh: <frowning>na mean it’s like trying to teach Miss Carter how
71 to speak slang
One thing this article makes me want to research outside of the overarching project i’m working on (that is not about sociolinguistics, I just get distracted often) is about Black American teenagers/young adults who aren’t authenticated slang speakers/are unfamiliar with AAVE
(Because the slang I was familiar with from birth to 8-ish when I first visited Florida before moving here, wasn’t AAVE necessarily… because I was born and raised in the Virgin Islands and the slang is… not the same.
And I just think it’s interesting!)
“Although region is explicitly identified as the main marker dividing youth identities, socio-economic status and proximity to African Americans are implicitly indexed as additional, if not more precise, social markers of an authenticated slang speaker (cf. Sweetland 2002). Anh, Macy and Chea live in poor neighborhoods in South Philadelphia with large African American populations, while Will lives in a suburb in North-east Philadelphia populated primarily by middle-class European Americans. Although class and race are not explicitly mentioned, they are the unmarked social factors that are implicitly linked to the salience of place in the authentication of a slang speaker. After all, it is largely socio-economic status that determines place of residence, rather than place of residence determining socio-economic status. The intricate links between place, race and class create the implicit formula that teens invoke to authenticate themselves or others as slang speakers.” (526-7)
So region, socio-economic status, proximity to Black Americans shape who is likely to be an authenticated slang speaker.
A – I thought of Awkwafina and her defenders for her meh blaccent/AAVE usage
B – Will being from a suburb explains much
This actually reminds me of… Bad Rap.
Early in the documentary, there are comments about the rise of rap culture in Asian American communities that have honestly never left my mind because… they’re interesting. I can’t remember who said it, but one of the smaller subjects brought up how, while there were Asian American gangsters who were dangerous as hell and definitely lived the same life as Black gangsters making hits, they were not seen as authentic to the culture… gang culture. So even though they were literally right there (if not in the same communities, they were adjacent to them) they weren’t taken seriously for making the same kinds of moves and music as Black rappers who were, actually, their real peers. It also reminds of how TK P’s goofy antiblack ass seemed to set up Tiger JK’s proximity to Black Americans/our culture in the 90s and beyond as a privilege other early Korean rappers didn’t have in his terrible “Koreans can’t appropriate Blackness from their oppressors piece”.
“This is why Korean Americans like Tiger JK, who grew up in closer proximity with African Americans than Koreans in Korea, have had a particular advantage in Korean hip hop scene at first. Like the rest of K-pop, it took decades before Korean hip hop began to settle into its own style, and that settling is still ongoing.”
Here’s TK’s piece if you enjoy suffering and bad opinions on antiblackness from someone whose antiblackness is a constant built into his smug little sense of self.
(Not that proximity to Blackness and Black people automatically makes a person skilled at repurposing or regurgitating Black slang and culture. There are plenty of East Asian rappers who grew up in the states and claimed community with Black Americans who… suck @ rap)
We’re at the conclusion and it makes some points I want to unpack about the Other Asian and the use of Black slang and other cultural aspects to Be Someone Tough and Interesting in their social groups.
So let’s get unpacking. Primarily, Reyes is writing about SOUTH Asian American teenagers. People who are disenfranchised and erased because of how South Asians were/are viewed when held up against stereotypes of Asian identity – they’re generally NOT seen as the default Asian (American). So these teens who already adrift have to carve out something to distinguish themselves from the crowd and make space for themselves in unfamiliar/new areas:
and they chose (consciously at times) to utilize Blackness via Black slang (and probably a Blaccent)
Two of the teenagers that Reyes studied (Van & Sokla) weren’t just using the blaccent and slang but as Reyes points out: “relies on stereotypes of African Americans in order to construct their own identities as tough, threatening, and violent”.
“As the Other Asian identity disrupted the binary positioning of Asian Americans as honorary whites or forever foreigners, the problem minority stereotype of South-east Asian refugees allowed the teens to align themselves more closely to the location of African Americans in U.S. racial discourses. Van and Sokla’s slang use relied on stereotypes of African Americans in order to construct their own identities as tough, threatening and violent.” (527)
And of course, I’m still annoyed at that. Especially because Reyes doesn’t think that this is them trying to “act black” but rather that they “used African American slang as a resource to fashion their own identities as the Other Asian” (527) but like… they can do both?
It could both be that they were trying to “act Black” AND that they were trying to construct space for themselves in a world where they were viewed as an Other extra hard.
Think about how there’s a subgenre of Asian (American) TikToks where the users would perform mmm… exaggerated Blackness? Calling themselves “ratchet” and “ghetto” and affecting overdone blaccents as they rolled their eyes and necks and snapped their fingers at the audience:
If we look at them the way Reyes looked at Van and Sokla, we’d have to choose between them “acting Black” and them “trying carve space for themselves in a competitive internet video platform where they’re not seen/visible” (a 2020 equivalent of Reyes’ explanation for Van and Sokla)
But… they are clearly acting Black first and foremost.
Even if that Blackness they’re putting on is peak #HoodCosplay and hinges on the stereotypes they tell themselves and are told (by other non-Black people) about how Black people talk and behave
And like Van adopted Blackness to terrify folks with her toughness, these TikTok users are adopting Blackness to… entertain.
They, like Awkwafina apparently, could have grown up in the hella hood or whatever, but what matters is how they choose to represent Blackness.
And few of the folks who build their identities around Blackness while non-Black themselves… actually… represent or understand Blackness (or Black people) very well. Blackness to these folks who strive to be seen as authentically (and entertainingly) Black, Blackness is: aggressive, violent, and threatening.
Often it’s very sexual/ized. Rarely do they engage with Blackness meaningfully?
Even with Anh and Macy, Reyes notes that “African American slang was once again critical in constructing their own Asian American urban youth identities.”
But that construction doesn’t always lend to understanding? In fact, what it tends to lead to is… entitlement.
Because they could “become” Black and Blackness is theirs/everyone’s and so Black people who talk about appropriation and discomfort with how some non-Black identities are constructed out of ours are threats to them.
Anyway, by now, every single teenager observed in Reyes’ study is around the same age as me. They built their teenage identities on acting Black and honestly, I would like to know what they’re like now, how they’ve evolved as people. and how they view Blackness now.
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