White People Speaking AAE
One of the most important things to know about African American English is this: not all African Americans speak it, and not all people who speak it are African American. Today I want to discuss the second point, since there are a lot of people who speak AAE and are not African American. Although I focus on white people in this post, mostly due to their representations in popular culture, really anyone of any ethnicity can speak AAE. This is because the language we speak isn’t the direct result of our biology. Rather it has more to do with where we grow up, who our friends and neighbors are, and how they speak. As a result, we often find that white people who grow up in predominantly African American neighborhoods, or who have a lot of African American family and friends, tend to speak AAE in a way that feels very natural to them.
On the other hand, we also find a lot of white people who use features of AAE without really having a tacit knowledge of the grammar and phonology, and as a result are read as faking it in some way. We often see caricatures of these people in the media (Jamie Kennedy in Malibu’s Most Wanted comes to mind–see photo above), and importantly, their authenticity as speakers of AAE almost always comes into question. So what is it that causes a white speaker of AAE to be viewed as authentic or inauthentic? Is it always based on linguistic ability, or can it also be based on social facts, such as where someone grew up or who they’re friends with?
Paul Wall is popular rapper and a white speaker of AAE who very often gets labelled as authentic. His AAE is on point, and he excels at rapping, an art form which comes out of the African American community.
The Village Voice even goes so far as to point out that that “his voice is a deep Southern roll rather than the nasal jackhammer flow that most white rappers have.”
Moreover, Wall grew up in a working-class Houston area which is predominantly African American (Acres Homes), and is married to an African American woman. All of these facts, linguistic and social, have likely contributed to the consensus that Wall isn’t faking it.
Then there’s Becky Buckwild, who was a contestant on the reality show Flavor of Love 2. A white woman from suburban California, she consistently used AAE throughout the taping of the show. Although her authenticity was only lightly questioned in the beginning, it was near the end of her run on the show that she proved herself decidedly inauthentic to the other cast members. In one episode she loses her cool over a fight with another contestant, and consequently loses her “accent”. She then pleads with Flavor Flav in a variety that more closely approximates a standard English, to which he responds, “Can I ask you a question? Where the f**k did your accent go?” [Click here to watch the clip]. Since it is often the case that our most vernacular speech (that is, the way we speak when we don’t feel like we’re being monitored) comes out when we’re in a highly emotional state, it became obvious that her use of AAE was more stylistic than anything else.
Sonya Fix, a linguistics graduate student at NYU, has studied in-depth the speech of white women who frequently use AAE features. She has interviewed a large number of urban white women from Columbus, Ohio, who have life-long affiliations and alignments with African Americans. Further, she has compared their language use to that of media figures such as Buckwild and Rita from the show ‘Whoopi’. In looking at this question of authenticity, she finds that while all of these women make use of a range of AAE features, the “real” women (i.e., not on TV) use salient AAE features such as “is” and “are” absence (e.g., “they nice”, “she a teacher”) sparingly, if at all. Rita and Buckwild, on the other hand, do not make this distinction. Fix suggests that this differentiated use of AAE features may indicate that the Columbus women have an awareness of the cultural stereotype within the media, and are showing a sensitivity to it.
When it comes down to it, whether or not a speaker is judged as authentic doesn’t necessarily mean they are or are not. People who use AAE come from a variety of circumstances, and use AAE for a variety of reasons. In a future post, we’ll look at more reasons why people who aren’t African American use AAE.