Illustration by Ebony Glenn, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
Much of our everyday language has roots in subcultures. With the rise of social media, the lines between subculture and mainstream are starting to blur further, as mainstream slang has absorbed many popular words and phrases from outlying communities. But does this terminology belong to the communities who created it? What’s the boundary between the natural evolution of language and cultural appropriation? The answer is difficult to define — but let’s spill that tea.
Yas Hunty, Drag Them
Thanks to the popularity of shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye, LGBT slang isn’t just for queers and queens anymore. But when you throw shade or celebrate your friend’s promotion by yelling “yas kween,” you’re inadvertently invoking a rich cultural history — one tinged with ostracization and oppression.
The drag scene as we know it dates back to the late 1800s. Despite laws against homosexuality, cities like Berlin, London and New York saw queer pioneers establish secret bars, wild cabarets and even newspapers, in the case of Berlin’s Der Eigene (The Unique). And no underground movement would be complete without its own language. In the UK, Yiddish, Thieves Cant, Cockney, and other local dialects fused into Polari, which gay men used as a secret code.
Across the pond, the Harlem Renaissance was kicking off, and with it came the origins of modern drag culture. Cross-dressing Masquerade balls became wildly popular, flowing into the Pansy Craze of the 1920s and -30s. This thriving speakeasy scene birthed a broad range of terminology that we still use today. Yet, it wasn’t until recently that these terms passed into common use. Not everyone in the LGBT community feels comfortable with this — and not just because the terms are rooted in underground movements.
The popularity of slang terms can lead to a lot of misunderstandings, with straight cis individuals using words like “shade” completely wrong, or saying they’re “coming out” as a nerd. At best this is insensitive, at worst it’s a willful use of LGBT terms to mock queer people. And sometimes, term misuse is just plain cringe-worthy:
However, the opposite can also be true. When straight people use the terminology correctly, and in good humor, the result can be a hilarious cultural fusion, e.g., a straight ally describing himself as “pillow princess,” or this brilliant exchange from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Unfortunately, oppression isn’t a problem of the past. LGBT people still face incredibly high rates of violence, murder, poverty and homelessness. Complaints about slang and cultural appropriation usually come back to the same point: As long as LGBT people face discrimination, the use of their slang is tasteless at best, and harmful at worst. Yet, can LGBT people lay sole claim to these terms — or were they just the first to appropriate this dialogue?
Intersectionality Is Key
It’s no coincidence that drag culture as we know it began in Harlem, a New York neighborhood home to a large African American population. Speaking to Wired, linguistics professor Rusty Barrett pinpointed the connection between drag and New York’s black community: “African American women in particular were symbolic of a strong femininity, and became a way for gay men to claim femininity in a stance against straight ideas of masculinity.” Barrett explains that many forms of drag originated with drag queens of color — so it’s no surprise that this is the origin for much of the slang, too.
So what slang, exactly, are we talking about here? According to Wired, terms like “reading” and “spilling tea” date back to 1950s African American women. Meanwhile, “throwing shade” and “voguing,” staples of drag culture, were first introduced to the wider public by the documentary Paris Is Burning, which explored the drag balls of 1980s New York City — another scene populated by people of color. When Madonna made voguing famous with the music video for “Vogue,” many criticized her for profiting off of queer culture.
The racial intersectionality of queer slang has lead to a lot of debate over who can really lay claim to these words. If these terms didn’t originate solely with the LGBT community, who has a right to police their usage? The debate is especially fraught when so much slang crosses over with AAVE, which has been treated like a factory of pop culture for decades.
Pop Culture Machine
AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, is the origin point of too many slang terms to name. Salty, lit, turnt, bae, woke … all these and many more phrases can be traced back to AAVE. Suffice it to say, AAVE’s slang game is strong. As soon as a word or phrase gets popular, it will be absorbed by other communities, who strip the terms of context and nuance. New slang is then created, only to be appropriated and replaced — and so on. So how OK is it for non-black people to use these terms?
It really comes down to how you use these words, and why. There’s a huge difference between calling your partner “bae” and peppering your speech with so much slang that you’re basically talking in code. Then there’s the question of pronunciation. Slang is created through speech, after all, meaning these words often reflect accent. So if you’re white, and you have a clipped regional accent, should you really substitute “that” for “dat”? I’ve definitely had more than one conversation with someone engaging in verbal blackface. But wait, does this apply to memes like “dat boi”? “That boi” really doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Then there’s the sinister force lurking in the background. Much of the dissemination and popularity of AAVE can be attributed to corporate marketing. Years before Twitter taught us what it means to be woke, companies were desperate to seem cool and down with the kids, so they teamed up with hip-hop stars to run campaigns that proved wildly successful. With the rise of social media, corporations have a window into dialects that they otherwise couldn’t have accessed. Now more than ever, companies want to seem just like us, and what better way to appeal to a youthful demographic than to speak their language?
The point is, AAVE, when used by African American people, is often associated with “undesirable” parts of society like poverty, drugs, violence, and gangs. But when corporations or white people use it, they are co-opting its “cool” potential for their own gain — and giving nothing back to the community that created it. Yikes.
Dialect Fusion Is A Natural Process
Yet, language always reflects the mingling of social groups, and this is not the first time that a marginalized community has seen their dialect merge with the mainstream. Yiddish is a perfect example of this, with terms like “schmooze,” “chutzpah” and “keeping schtum” passing into common usage. This has even happened to another gay language in the past: Because it was featured on the radio show Round The Horne, many Polari phrases like “naff” were absorbed into modern British slang, their origin as queer secret code forgotten. (Naff, now meaning “tacky,” was originally an acronym for “not available for fucking.”)
Dialect fusion can, in fact, be beneficial to marginalized groups. UK-based Polari gave us “butch” and “camp,” terms that were absorbed into the international queer lexicon. By blocking off slang from common usage, we may inadvertently harm those we want to protect. And of course, Polari itself was a fusion of vernacular from other marginalized groups.
Yet slang is just the starting point. Cultural appropriation happens because those in power want to commodify the groups they’ve cast out. By othering people, the dominant group also makes the marginalized seem different, and therefore desirable. So they want to become like them, using their slang to seem cool and invading their spaces — yet the institutionalized racism and homophobia remain.
Open Mouth, Remove Foot
In an ideal world, the fusion of social groups and cultures would organically lead to the merging of dialects. The problem, as always, lies in oppression. Black individuals and LGBT people are marginalized: Their cultures are seen as unprofessional, they frequently live below the poverty line, they are targeted for prosecution. Yes, words are just words. But as long as people are still oppressed because they belong to certain groups, the usage of their vernacular by those on top — white people, rich people, corporations — will always have sinister undertones.
There is no easy answer to the question of whether using AAVE or LGBT slang is ethical. The line between organic language fusion and cultural appropriation is thin and barbed with institutionalized oppression. The only advice I can give is to tread carefully, and when people say you’ve stepped over that line, listen to them — and step back.