You wouldn’t wear blackface, and the n-word is obviously a big no-no. But you don’t have an issue posting on Facebook about how yo man ain’t shit, or maybe you still kinda like that Fancy song by Iggy Azalea.
So yeah, we’ve got to talk about that. It’s time to talk about Blaccent.
What is Blaccent?
Derived from a combination of ‘black’ and ‘accent’, blaccent refers to the type of voice used (normally by white people) to imitate African-American ‘black English’. When I hear my 14-year-old brother discuss how his “squad finna turn up”, not only is it highly cringeworthy but it’s also forced and unnatural. Because it’s not natural, he’s attempting to use vernacular that isn’t his own.
Whilst to most white people, this style of speaking may appear as slang or even just poor grammar, this style of speech is actually recognised by linguists as a dialect of English known as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Spoken largely by working and middle-class African-Americans in urban areas of the United States, AAVE has its own unique tone, pitch, pronunciation and sentence construction that makes it distinct from other varieties and dialects of English. For example, speakers of AAVE often leave out ‘verbal copula’ in certain contexts, meaning that they cut out ‘is’ and ‘are’ from sentences, resulting in phrases such as “he workin’ today” instead of “he is working today”.
Where’s It Come From?
Whilst “black” speech has been used for decades to mock black language and culture, blaccent in 2018 often appears now in a new form. With the rise of hip-hop in the 1970s, black culture and song quickly became the new cool. With the white population’s newfound obsession with black culture, came the practice of adopting black speech to appear cool. As a result, phrases and slang that had traditionally been considered uneducated ‘black talk’ became popular among white people throughout the western world.
Fast-forward to 2018 and these words and phrases are so ingrained in pop-culture that most of us don’t even realise that these are AAVE-originating terms. Even in Australia, terms like ‘bae’, ‘finna’ and ‘fleek’ are used by white people on the daily. However, the issue is these terms are used without any understanding of their origins, and without respect for the culture from which they came. Even as someone who considers themselves educated on these kinds of topics, I had no idea that my favourite saying ‘yass queen’ had originated from AAVE-speaking LGBT culture.
This saturation of black speak is arguably most prominent in the music industry, where white artists are increasingly adopting blaccents to gain fame and popularity. From Meghan Trainor to Miley Cyrus, the trend appears to have taken over the music industry, however; there’s no better example than our homegrown “superstar” Iggy Azalea. Rising to international fame with her hit Fancy, Azalea adopts a distinct southern black style whilst performing, but switches back to her native Australian twang when being interviewed.
Why anyone would want to listen to a chronically-white girl pretend to be a Southern African-American woman is beyond me, but apparently I’m in the minority, as Fancy earned Azalea the coveted number one spot in the US Billboard Hot 100. Despite its success on the charts, Azalea’s music is highly problematic as she profits of the use of black street talk when it suits her, and immediately reverts to white Standard English when she thinks she needs to be taken seriously. Azalea’s white privilege shines through here, as she is afforded the economic and social advantages of a white person, whilst cashing in on the profitability of black culture.
What’s the Big Deal?
So you’re probably thinking, what’s the big deal anyway? If AAVE is a certified language, anyone can speak it right? Well, not really.
AAVE is not just a language or way of speaking, but it is a carrier of African-American culture and identity. AAVE was born from early creole language (language developed by black slaves to communicate with European slave-owners in the 17th and 18th century). Over time, this creole evolved into what is recognised as modern AAVE; so as you can imagine it has strong cultural significance for many African Americans. Language is core to a person’s identity, as it is how we understand both others and ourselves – and it shapes how we view the world. It is then clear why AAVE plays such a critical social role in black communities, as it provides a space for black people in a society which often ostracizes them. It is even argued by some that use of AAVE over Standard English provides a sense of liberation against a white-favouring America.
Furthermore, unlike French or German, AAVE is doused in negative connotations, and it’s speakers are often characterized as unintelligent or lazy. Many people, particularly white and upper-class people, believe that AAVE speakers merely do not understand ‘proper English’, and are unaware or unrecognizing of it as a genuine language. These beliefs contribute to the racial discrimination experienced by African-Americans. This is evident as research has shown that racial profiling (a practice by which we identify someone’s race by auditory cues) often serves to disadvantage ‘black sounding’ people. One study even demonstrated that those who ‘sounded black’ were far less likely to receive approval for home insurance. At a deeper level, it is also argued that negative attitudes towards AAVE have even impacted the American criminal justice system. The high-profile case surrounding the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida is an example of just how dangerous prejudice towards black talk can be. During the trial, the testimony of a key witness (who claimed that Martin had been murdered by the defendant) was torn to shreds, as her use of strong ‘black slang’ and AAVE hindered her from being a credible witness.
So when artists such as Iggy Azalea attempt to feign blackness for profit, you can see why it’s so problematic and offensive. When asked by Elle Canada whether she would discuss social and political issues facing the black communities from which she draws her artistic inspiration, Azalea claimed:
“I think it’s important for music to reflect what is going on socially and for there to be those kinds of voices within the industry. But I want to be that person you can listen to for four minutes and not think about that stuff at all”
And that right there is the crux of the issue; Azalea doesn’t need to think about “that stuff” because she has never and will never experience “that stuff.” Azalea adopts blackness for profit without living or understanding black experience.
Blaccent is offensive and unacceptable for the very same reasons that blackface and the n-word are. It’s just another example of how black culture is used by white people for their own personal gain, without understanding its origin or crediting its makers. You cannot take the ‘good parts’ of blackness without the bad. You can’t say that black culture is cool but being black isn’t.