Authentic Voices

Philip Booze

5-minute read
For most African Americans, the knowledge of their own cultural and family history only goes back a couple of generations. A massive part of that history is language.

A few weeks ago I was in a cafe and heard terms I was very familiar with being referred to as "TikTok Slang". The words/phrases they were speaking about I knew had origins from black communities in California. At that moment I felt an indescribable discomfort.

In my first two years of college, my main group of friends was from the California Bay area. The Bay has some of the richest Black cultural history and language. I appreciated so much that there was a space in this town that didn’t seem to care much for me, where I could be myself. I admired my friends from the Bay so much because they were themselves wherever they went. 

This choice came with consequences. Once we ventured outside the safety of the apartment, house, or dorm room, the way we chose to speak and the slang we chose to use (along with the color of our skin) negatively impacted how we were perceived, treated, and the opportunities provided to us. From finding a house to rent without sending a white friend in your stead, to getting told not to speak authentically in certain environments, not to be our authentic selves. This was not new to me. It comes with being Black. This is why many Black people have to code switch.

Now, let's return to the cafe, where a group of white folks is describing terms that I learned from that group of friends from the Bay as “TikTok slang”. 

As the internet became more popular and profitable for individual users and creators, there was also an increase of folks from all over adopting not only Black dialects but Black mannerisms and stereotypes. Audiences began to gravitate towards this content, especially from non-black creators who were often using it inauthentically. 

This issue, broadly, is referred to as “Digital Blackface." It has been widely studied and discussed, but it is still a major issue among content creators. If you want to be better informed on Digital Blackface, I've linked an article that details it pretty well at the end of this piece. Viral videos of white or non-black creators using black culture, language and mannerisms are what ring in my head when I hear our dialects being referred to as "TikTok Slang".

“Slaps” and “hella” specifically were terms my friends from college used frequently, but they had to be used in a very specific context to be understood correctly. These were terms I never adopted into my vocabulary because using them correctly was never authentic to me. There was a lot of nuance and context in the way my friends used these terms. That nuance was something that couldn’t be taught--it just had to be understood. The concept of language being contextual was not new to me (or most Black people who have friends from various densely Black cities). Regional dialects often have a geographic fingerprint tied to the proper usage of their terms. I could give you a list of Bay Area-specific words or phrases and 3 different ways each has been used as an example, but if you tried to use them it’d take Bay Area locals two sentences to know that you didn’t know what you were saying.

I wish there was no need to unpack the way Black folks in America have had their history and ancestral culture stripped from them, but it’s important to reference because it's the foundation of this issue. For most African Americans, the knowledge of their own cultural and family history only goes back a couple of generations. A massive part of that history is language. From the Gullah that was spoken by slaves in remote areas that are now part of the Carolinas to the thousands of unique regional dialects spoken within Black communities around this country, regional terms symbolize a specific cultural connection. are rich and unique. The dialects, like any sublanguage, are built on context and nuance, and that context is connected to the history of the region and the people who speak them. When those dialects and terms are taken and misused by people who are unaware of their history, there is a serious risk of even more of that history being washed away as terms are appropriated and turned into “pop culture fads.” A language that was once regionally specific is now referred to as “millennial speak” or “TikTok terms." 

One of the things that I learned socially was how much we (Black folks) value our regional uniqueness, especially within language. I made friends with many Black folks from New York, San Mateo, the Vellejo/Bay area, New Orleans, Memphis. Each brought with them a very unique dialect that was specific to their region. As I spent more time with them, I found myself using some of the terms that they brought with them. There were also many terms and phrases that I knew were not mine to use--terms that were protected by those from their region of origin. I became very comfortable knowing that everything isn’t for me to have access to, specifically within language. 

To those who wish to be allies and improve their relationship with Black language, by using thier own authentic voice, I leave this:

  • Don't let the internet be your only reference point for new slang in your vocabulary. Let your physical community influence your language, and hold your friends accountable to do the same. 
  • Engage with as diverse a friend group as you have access to. Listen 3x more than you speak, especially when in other cultural spaces.
  • Lastly, leave everything where you found it. If you go into a black household/community and learn some new phrases, leave them there. 

When sharing space with others, it is incredibly important to understand what is yours, theirs, and shared. Look around and make sure you aren't so spread out that others must live small around you.

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