The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

    Opinion: Black slang is not a punchline

    As a Black student, it can be difficult to walk Urban’s hallways and hear words like mid, finna, ate, rizz and gas or phrases like “it’s giving” and “out of pocket.” Some may be quick to categorize these terms as Gen Z slang, but in truth, they are pieces of culture that have been stolen from Black people. 

    This language is often referred to as AAVE or African American Vernacular English. Its history is often minimized and people are quick to dismiss AAVE by saying it sounds uneducated or co-opting words without giving credit to their creators. However, AAVE’s profound and enduring impact on American culture cannot be understated.

    AAVE is a dialect of American English that has existed for as long as Black people have in this country. Its influence on pop culture is nearly impossible to miss — or, at least, it’s impossible when you’re Black.

    Many non-Black people seem oblivious to the fact that most of their favorite sayings are stolen pieces of AAVE. For Urban to understand the impact of these appropriated terms on Black students, theyit must learn the language’s history. 

     AAVE has its roots deeply embedded in slavery. According to Black Linguist Dr. Krishauna Hines-Gaither, when white traffickers stripped enslaved Africans of their native tongues and forced them to use English, they imbued the language with terms that they created themselves. In many ways, AAVE was the foundation of Black culture in America. 

    “There’s a real history and weight behind [AAVE] that has nothing to do with our generation. It’s something [you’re] borrowing,” said Black Student Union (BSU) Member Micaela Winthrop ‘25. 

    Using code was one of the main ways enslaved Africans tweaked English to suit their needs. Code was a defense mechanism that allowed enslaved Black people to communicate freely without the risk of being heard by an overseer. Black spirituals sung during church and work such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Wade in the Water served as beacons of hope and instructions to freedom. These songs became foundational to the rise of the Underground Railroad Movement and synonymous with messages of Black freedom.

    The element that makes AAVE impactful is that it is solely ours. They represent strength, resilience and joy. Within the Black community, there is a sense of pride that even when our old cultures were stripped away from us, we could create a new one from scratch. Dr. Hines-Gaither said in an interview with the Black Entertainment Television Network, “We’re still coding our language, but now it is not because we are shielding from an oppressor, it is because we have reappropriated a tactic that [we] used 400 years ago.”

     Yet even today, when these words and phrases reach far beyond our community, our own language is still criticized. The prevailing narrative among white people for the past hundred years is that people who ‘speak Black’ are uneducated. 

    According to Linguist Chi Luu in the article “Black English Matters,” “[There exists a] widespread, incorrect belief that Black English [is] an inferior, uneducated form of English associated with illiteracy, poverty and crime.” It is a sentiment that is steeped in racism and the reason many Black students in primarily white institutions like Urban hide and even lose their use of AAVE. 

    Non-Black people who use AAVE get to take part in all the fun of the “Black aesthetic” without having to take accountability or experience the ridicule that Black people are subject to. AAVE is an opportunity for them to cosplay the struggle. “It’s almost seen as cool … [but] it gives people a false perception of what it means to be Black,” said Julien Fisher ‘25, who identifies as white.

    Few people who use AAVE are trying to offend; many use it to try to relate to Black students or to sound cooler. 

    “I use a lot of slang when I’m talking to my friends. … It’s kinda how I communicate and express myself,” said BSU Co-Leader Owen Brown ‘25. “So when I find myself around other people, I kinda feel them almost … trying to throw the slang back at me. Almost trying to ‘Black talk’ me.”

    Regardless of intention, this non-Black usage of AAVE fails to recognize its greater context. With about seven-and-a-half percent of Urban’s student body identifying as Black, being a Black student can become an isolating experience. Because the Urban community is so small, it’s easy for some Black students to feel called out or pandered to when a specific dialect is thrown in our direction. 

    Many are quick to dismiss AAVE as just words, but words do not belong to everyone. Ultimately, Black culture demands respect and was not designed to be bent to the whim of non-Black people. Fisher said, “Just because you try to speak like someone who’s African American doesn’t mean you are [African American]. [It] doesn’t mean you know what it’s like. And above all, it does not mean you get to create your own boundaries.”