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White People Speaking AAE

July 9, 2010

Scene from 'Malibu's Most Wanted.'

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?

Rapper Paul Wall.

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.

Flavor of Love contestant 'Buckwild'.

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.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Emily permalink
    October 23, 2010 10:02 am

    I didn’t really think about this much at all before taking a Linguistics course, but the idea of acquiring another dialect is so fascinating. Especially one that is so centered on race. It seems strange to me though, that African Americans who speak AAE are expected to learn Standard English, but it is regarded as nearly impossible for a Standard English speaker to learn AAE exactly. Is one dialect more difficult than the other to learn? Or are we just being biased? Moreover, I don’t think that someone attempting to speak Standard English would be called “unnatural”, they would just be viewed as trying unsuccessfully, probably with the idea that ‘they’ll get better.’ This probably has to do with the fact that AAE is associated with a specific culture and Standard English is supposed to be universal.

  2. Samarah permalink
    October 25, 2010 10:32 am

    In relation to the comment and article above, I think that it’s very interesting how the language we use reflects the way we want to be perceived by those around us. For Buckwild AAE was a tool that she used to create a specific public persona. Just as for some native speakers of AAE Standard English is a tool they use in order to make different impressions on different people. It seems to me that if speakers of AAE can use Standard English (which is not their native dialect) without negative connotations that speakers of Standard English should be allowed to use AAE, or any other dialect for that matter that they have command of, in situations where the language they speak reflects the perceptions of others. That being said it is interesting that when people attempt to use dialects that they do not have mastery of it is considered either a negative reflection on them or insulting to those that do speak that dialect. Why do we have such strict rules about who can speak certain dialects, and what kind of atmosphere do these rules create?

  3. October 27, 2010 12:26 am

    What a double standard that these people’s AAE had to be proven to be authentic in order for it to be accepted! It’s very strange that something as fluid as speech should be so rigidly regarded as something you are born with or into and cannot change. The same feelings of fakeness and dis-ingenuity would apply if an American tried to acquire a British dialect later in his/her life. Why, if someone has the desire to and are able to, should they not be allowed to change their speech to showcase or embody a certain persona? It’s unfair that one is expected to conform or at least obtain competence with Standard English but they cannot use a dialect outside of their background without social criticism. For a culture that boasts social mobility, equality, and acceptance, we certainly do not give people much freedom in breaking ties from where they were born or allowing them to demonstrate where they want to be.

  4. A. Chiu permalink
    October 28, 2010 4:01 pm

    The double standard that the AAE of non-African Americans is often questioned can be unfair, but I think that this kind of doubt is reasonable in many situations. It’s not intuitive that someone speaks a language that doesn’t match their face–I get taken aback when I meet non-East Asian looking people who can speak East Asian languages without any problems, and I’m tempted to ask how and why. It’s intuitive to accept their speech if the why is that it’s the language or dialect of their culture, or of the environment that they grew up in, but much less intuitive if there is no such proof. How would you be able to tell if someone, who has no obvious connection to AAE, trying to learn or speak AAE is doing so because it’s something they’d like to identify with or genuinely appreciate, and not because they want to make fun of it?

  5. Caroline permalink
    October 31, 2010 6:08 pm

    I think that while non-AAE speakers have been borrowing AAE syntactical forms and slang for years, when a non-African American speaker emerges who appears to have mastered AAE, we are very quick to question their legitimacy. A. Chiu brought up the question of why would you learn a language you weren’t connected to and I have sometimes found myself wondering the same thing. But then again why does anyone learn another language or dialect? Someone’s natural relation to a language should not dictate how capable they are in mastering it. By the same token however I think our fascination in discovering the authenticity of a-typical AAE speakers comes from the fact that incomplete mastery very often does seem like mockery.
    After years of taking spanish courses I would consider myself semi-fluent in Castilian. When I was in Barcelona a few years back I remember trying to communicate with store clerks without falling into the stereotypical American tourist who doesn’t make an effort with the language. I remember was ordering ice cream one day and struggling to pronounce the Catalan for the size I wanted. When I failed in Catalan, I repeated the size I wanted in Castilian Spanish. The store clerk looked annoyed at failure to produce his dialect and just asked me to point to what I wanted. I remember being a little hurt and confused. To this man I either spoke Catalan properly or I didn’t try. I’m sure he understood my Castilian, but since I was already a foreigner in his eyes he seemed to prefer I didn’t even communicate that way.
    When non-AAE speakers attempt to learn the language they are bound to make mistakes but to a natural AAE speaker those incorrect usages might indicate that they shouldn’t try the dialect if they can’t use it right.

  6. Sarah YJ Moon permalink
    November 1, 2010 3:40 pm

    I agree with the comments above. It is really odd that there has to be a double standard when it comes to non-African-Americans speaking AAE. People generally expect to hear a certain accent from a certain race or color. There are different styles and accents of English, depending on one’s ethnicity. When you go to Chinatown, you hear Asian-Americans, or more specifically, Chinese-Americans, speaking English with a Chinese accent. I feel like AAE can be seen as another variety or accent of English, like the different accents of Asians, although it has its own grammar and lexicon.
    It’s really interesting for me to think about British accents because people of all different races and colors in the United Kingdom speak with a British accent. It is not like Indians speaking with an Indian accent or Koreans speaking with a Korean accent.
    When the accent doesn’t match their ethnicity or color, like we saw with Buckwild in Flavor of Love 2, it is just strange because people have these stereotypes and expect to hear a distinct accent associated with a certain race. Since Buckwild was white, nobody expected her to have an African-American accent, which was proven to be “fake” in the end.

  7. Corinne S. permalink
    November 1, 2010 6:23 pm

    I agree that there’s a double standard involved in non-African Americans being scrutinized for their use of AAE, but considering racial issues in the country, it isn’t particularly surprising. Considering how often AAE is looked down upon as “incorrect” or “uneducated,” a non-African American speaker could easily be using AAE to mock people who use it as a native dialect. The backlash against AAE creates solidarity between speakers who use it natively. Because AAE is so tied to African Americans, especially in the media, a non-African American speaker is going to seem out of place, and is going to be under suspicions of using AAE mockingly.

    AAE is hardly the only dialect where nonnative speakers are considered inauthentic- to use a previous example, American speakers who put on a British accent are usually mocked for trying to pretend to be something they’re not. I don’t think this means no one can use AAE if they aren’t a native speaker, but it’s certainly a loaded issue.

  8. Sally S permalink
    November 1, 2010 9:37 pm

    I think that one of the reasons that we find so much resistance to someone’s(such as a white, standard AE speaker) attempted adaptation of a dialect such as AAE is that for as long as the dialect has been divergent from standard AE, it has, without merit, maintained the stereotype of “incorrect” or “lesser” speech. As such, the prejudiced history of America has been reflected in common conceptions of AAE. Therefore, when someone who is not a member of a group that has been the victim of such prejudices attempts to adapt the dialect of a group that has been affected negatively by such stereotypes, there is a slight sense that they are attempting to be accepted into a group for which they have not endured the same prejudices in society.

  9. Cindy L permalink
    November 1, 2010 9:39 pm

    The different attitudes toward learning a new language depending on who is doing it is interesting. It seems like AAE speakers- black or white- are encouraged to learn SAE and even if it’s not perfect, they are commended for it. If a black primarily SAE speaker learns AAE, it does not seem wildly out of order; perhaps he/she is looking to connect with others of his/her ethnicity that speak AAE. However, a white SAE speaker who learns AAE (not for purely academic purposes) raises some eyebrows. It seems like the general feeling towards that scenario is confusion (with a hint of disapproval): why would a white SAE speaker want to learn AAE? What is the connection to AAE? Perhaps even why would someone want to learn a language that is largely looked down upon? Additionally, if the white speaker makes mistakes in AAE, they are viewed as trying too hard or being fake. Contrast that to a white SAE speaker who learns a completely different language like Russian or French or Japanese. There may be curiosity as to why but without the negative undertone found in regards to AAE. Also in this scenario, if the white SAE speaker makes mistakes in the newly learned language, it is simply a mistake and while it may attract some impatience from native speakers, there isn’t the same ridicule as when a white SAE speaker stumbles in AAE. Even though steps are being made towards accepting AAE as a language and not an incorrect version of SAE and people are altering the way they view it, the way that we as a whole instinctively react to people in the context of using or acquiring AAE is just that- instinctive. It reflects the fact that even though we are working to alter our perception of AAE, the widely held stereotypes associated with AAE are deeply set in our world.

  10. peter enzinna permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:45 pm

    Authenticity with regards to AAE speaks to a concern with “coolness” and cachet, that which both proficient (and/or authentic) and non-proficient speakers are highly aware of. Buckwild’s use of AAE indicates that there is animate she wishes to project, assuming she wasn’t simply trying to mimic Flav’s speech, which would require more than AAE proficiency. The patrolling of this authenticity border speaks to both the insular nature of the AAE community and to the desire of outsiders to incorporate that cachet into their own speech and image.

  11. Chris V. permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:56 pm

    I think it is also interesting to point out that some speakers of AAE are in a sense required to speak it. Growing up in an area that has a high black population, or a high population of AAE speakers, would make life difficult if you did not speak that way.
    In this case, I would agree that Buckwild was faking her accent to create a character for a television show, but I think its important to note that there must be a large number of people who can switch from AAE to Standard English when either is demanded by the situation. In this case, Buckwild might have thought that she could persuade Flav in a manner that is generally accepted as more formal and Standard, so she switched from her AAE speech to Standard English. (Obviously, I can’t prove that this is or is not the case, but it seems plausible).

  12. Sylvia R-D permalink
    April 29, 2011 1:30 pm

    The question of why is it not o.k. to appropriate a language or dialect that is not native to you speaks to the intimate relationship between language and identity. AAE was born out of the intense, painful history that kept African Americans segregated from mainstream society for hundreds of years. As a result, many speakers of AAE feel that their language symbolizes their membership in this distinct community that has shared history. However, that is not to say that all African Americans speak AAE and that someone who is not African American can speak AAE. As Cara pointed out in her post, anyone can learn any language or dialect of that language depending on where they grow up, who their peers are, etc. However, those who do not speak AAE natively and who try to appropriate certain features are seen as foolish, mockable, and sometimes even insulting. Race and identity play a huge role in discerning whether or not it is socially acceptable for someone who is not African American to speak AAE, again, because of the shared history among African Americans in the U.S.
    I find it slightly problematic for someone like Buckwild to use AAE to project a certain persona. In her case, she was using AAE to gain popularity and access into a show that featured mostly African Americans. Although she was white, she wanted the world to see her as someone who had an in with the African American community and she used language to help her do so. However, as we saw by the end of the show, she is not actually a native speaker of AAE, and she was left looking rather foolish.
    On the other hand, society tells us that you need to have a mastery of standard English in order to achieve success. Therefore, native speakers of AAE or any other highly stigmatized dialect should learn standard English (in addition to their native dialect and not in place of), even if it is not native to them, in order to advance in society. This does seem to pose a double standard when we think about Buckwild’s case and how it was not acceptable for her, as white woman, to use features of AAE when she was not a native speaker. However, I think intent plays an important role here. Buckwild adopted AAE for popularity on a T.V. show, while students who come to the classroom speaking AAE learn standard English with the hope of leading a more successful life. Additionally, we need to realize that AAE symbolizes much more than just language for many people, and we should be culturally sensitive to those implications.

  13. Kara S. permalink
    May 3, 2011 11:39 pm

    Authenticity is a really big issue for how a native-speaker (for lack of a better word, I guess) of AAE, like myself, views a non-African American speaker of AAE. I’m positive that it is unfair for me to judge them differently, but it’s typically a subconscious behavior that I try to consciously correct. In terms of authenticity, how one interacts within and with the African American community (as an outsider) matters. If they are active or fully integrated within the community, then I’m more likely to judge their use of AAE in a positive way. For example, Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, seems to be AAE speaker. Learning that he grew up hanging out with African American youth in Chicago influences how I view his authenticity.

    Once a person’s authenticity is called into question, I, at least, tend consider the usage of AAE to be a type of appropriation. Buckwild appropriated a dialect that she thought would garner attention. Not only that, she completely caricatured AAE in a very negative way. It was very uncomfortable to watch since I had a feeling, from preemptively judging her authenticity, she was not being true to herself.

  14. Lindsay Kelley permalink
    May 4, 2011 12:47 pm

    Other posters have addressed the common stereotype of AAE as inferior or incorrect, but it is important to note that AAE is not always evaluated negatively, or only associated with hip hop culture. Within the African American community it carries a great deal of covert prestige and can buy a speaker a lot in terms of community acceptance and all the perks that come along with that, which Chris V. suggested. And surely, other groups of people living in predominantly African American neighborhoods or with largely African American social networks will be more likely to pick up AAE features fluently, like Puerto Ricans in New York City. Another example I enjoyed reading about can be found in Norma Mendoza-Denton’s book Homegirls on Latina youth gangs, where an Indian girl from their neighborhood took on the gang’s linguistic and cultural practices and was absorbed into the social group without question. I can think of a number of studies on (mostly white youth) appropriation of AAE but I’d like to see more research focused on members of other ethnic minority groups with some degree of native fluency (read: authenticity) in African American English. I would be interested to see not only how AAE has influenced the speech of these people, but if and how close contact with another ethnic group’s language influences AAE as well.

  15. Suzanne permalink
    May 5, 2011 10:06 pm

    Since we thankfully live in a culture and time period where de jure segregation is not the norm, we find it much harder to judge who can speak a dialect based on ethnic grounds. Saying that AAE speakers are not only African Americans and that not all African Americans speak AAE is the apt way to begin the article. On my train ride home, taking the 7, I see a lot of variation in terms of what speech most people would typically place with a certain ethnic group. Whites and Southeast Asians alike are seen using AAE while a number of African Americans are heard speaking either SE or a variety of New York City speech. Certain cues vouch for authenticity. If I see a white person speaking AAE with someone who is phenotypically black and also speaks AAE, I am more likely to accept them as speakers of AAE. In my opinion, the authenticating factor for whether a person has the “right” to speak AAE, depends on their contact with native speakers of the language. Returning to something Sylvia said, the “right” refers to understanding and remembering the painful history that African Americans share. Part of the richness of African American culture is a strong relationship with the spoken word and a value for verbal communication. Those who appropriate AAE without understanding the broader place of the language within African American culture would be considered posers. I know I would feel fake if I started adopting tokens of AAE since most of my friends don’t speak the language. I notice also with my African American friends, they speak AAE when in a group with other AAE speakers and switch to SE with SE speakers. As with any other dialect, we want to speak it with other native speakers. Yet, AAE become more complicated as its use is directly related to race. As difficult to judge as this is, I believe authenticity can be judged by factoring experience along with “naturalness”. So, as far as I am concerned whites growing up surrounded by AAE speakers, along with ethnic groups who feel as though they have experienced a similar difficulty in terms of discrimination (I am referencing specifically use of the n-word) are not faking it.

  16. May 31, 2012 4:50 pm

    If AA’s cannot understand why using AA English will keep them from ever realizing any further possible potential within society, as a group, then that is a very symptom of lack of potential to begin with. It’s unfortunate to say, but true. This is why:

    Language isn’t just a tool that can be modified to the will of a group without deep repercussions, it’s the very framework on which thought exists. Without using the framework, and respecting the framework, as it was designed, you are sabotaging your ability to maximize your ability to think and reason. The structure of the English language did not accidentally nor randomly evolve. It’s structure was designed as a powerful vehicle to assist humans in maximizing their cognitive-intellectual potential. Eschew it at your own risk, especially without a suitable replacement of another similarly designed and tested language (Russian, French, etc..).

    The link between where black people are, currently, and their choice of dialect is not merely coincidental. it isn’t everything, but it’s quite significant. Take the brakes off of your potential, and use English appropriately.

  17. Mary C. permalink
    December 3, 2013 10:46 am

    One of my good friends growing up had an AAE speaking family. When I first started hanging out with her and her family I felt uncomfortable speaking AAE. But I also felt uncomfortable speaking my SAE. Speaking my SAE in their AAE-speaking home felt “stiff.” As a young-self-conscious girl I felt that they just stared at me when I said something in SAE. Because of this dilemma I didn’t talk much in their home (which the family didn’t understand at all). I endured a lot of teasing from the family for being so “quiet.” However after several years of being friends with this girl and her family I picked up on some basic elements of AAE (mostly just the tonal aspects of AAE). After this transition in my speech, I felt that I was able to foster a deeper connection with the family. However, this was only after several years of gradually incorporating AAE into my speech. Also I should note that this was not a conscious decision to “incorporate AAE into my speech.” I am not sure if at the time, I was aware of the language dynamics at play in this situation

    Last week, I presented in my African American English class work done by anthropologist and educator, John Baugh on the challenges in training American teachers in linguistic diversity. One challenge Baugh presents is teachers’ inability to step outside their “comfort zone.” Baugh cites Shelby Steele’s 1991 book, The Content of our Character: A new Vision of Race in America that illustrates the phenomenon of comfort zones within American society. I believe that my childhood friendship with this girl and her AAE speaking family forced me to step outside of my “comfort zone,” at a young age. Often I reflect on this experience and feel very grateful for the experience. I remember many times feeling so uncomfortable at their home. As a child I used to wonder why I felt comfortable at my white friends’ home compared to my African American friends’ home. However, because of this experience I now, feel that I am able to navigate situations outside of my “comfort zone” with more ease. My question is—do non-AAE speakers need to alter their own speech to be accepted within certain social situations where AAE is the primary dialect being spoken?

  18. Gifty Akuamoah permalink
    December 13, 2013 6:19 pm

    Language is unique to the people who speak it. One is identified through the language he or she speaks, it is therefore not strange that AA are identified by AAE. Ghana, which is a highly multilingual society, most people are identified by the language they speak. It is interesting to witness whites who speak AAE because it is somehow the unnatural thing to hear. Majority of the whites who speak are normally the youth and most do so because of the ‘coolness’ factor associated with anyone who speaks the language. AAE has come a long way and has grown from a slang to become a full fledged language on its own hence its understandable that other races would like to learn and speak the language.

  19. Abbey permalink
    June 11, 2014 11:26 pm

    Hi there, I’m a caucasian Australian girl, and I was wondering what your opinion is of someone such as myself using AAVE words such as ‘dope’ or ‘bae’. Words such as these are so embedded in popular culture and so fun to use, but I know some native speakers of AAVE think that it is cultural appropriation to use them. I understand the need not to use words such as ‘ratchet’ that have a negative connotation by being misappropriated by dominant white culture, but am not sure about words such as ‘dope’ which I only recently found out was AAVE. Thank you so much.

  20. Tiana permalink
    September 19, 2014 6:15 pm

    I came here to look for the answer to the same question that Abbey asked. I use the word “bae” too (it’s probably on my top ten list of words I use) and didn’t find out it it was AAVE until a few days ago. I’m Canadian and white and I don’t know if I have the right to use words with AAVE because most of the time, black people are regarded as “rachet” if they speak it. White people using it seems appropriative and mocking almost? I’d like to hear what anyone has to say about this!

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