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Opinion | Black English Doesn’t Have to Be Just for Black People

Opinion | Black English Doesn’t Have to Be Just for Black People
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Rife has been widely dissed on social media for this habit. People find it fake. A part of me did, as well, the first time I caught him on TV. However, I’m not sure we should, in Rife’s case or in that of other non-Black celebrities (such as the Asian American rapper and actress Awkwafina) who dip into Black English. This is something non-Black people under about 40, celebrity and otherwise, seem increasingly to be doing in ordinary life. My students have written papers attesting to this tendency both in speech and texting.

It is Human Language 101 that people style-switch all the time, even when they are not switching into a different language or a distinct dialect from that point on. “Wow, this insurance for my flight is so expensive … but ya gotta watch out for yerself, I guess!” you might say when stressing your good old Everyman pragmatism. Many Black Americans switch in and out of Black English in the same way, using it as a kind of seasoning.

Of course, the question is why a white guy like Rife is doing that, instead of switching into a more vanilla version of colloquial white English. And the reason seems to be that Black English, for him, as for so many Black people, is a comfort zone, where it all gets real.

It was peculiar for a white person to process Black English that way, to the point of making personal use of it, until roughly the late 1990s. But things have changed. Rife, born in 1995, grew up with rap as mainstream music in America, with most of its buyers white, and Dave Chappelle as a mainstream celebrity. It is reasonable to imagine that Rife thinks his audience processes his Black English usage as a warm method of interpersonal bonding in the same way he seems to. In fact, a tweet of his suggests that he hadn’t even been conscious of what he was doing until apprised, and doesn’t even think of himself as shifting into something “Black” at all.

In other words, Rife is not posing or ridiculing; he’s connecting. Linguists call it accommodation. A non-Black speaker these days may do it with a Black audience. On a couple of occasions a while back, I saw one of the founders of the KIPP charter school network, Dave Levin, style-shift into a slight but perceptible Black English sound on and off when he was addressing mostly Black audiences. This is the linguistic equivalent, in its way, of the old habit of the youth voting activist Billy Wimsatt (known as Upski) of starting or closing out his group sessions on college campuses by calling on everyone to dance together. (I’ll admit that I found Wimsatt’s dancing bit kind of fake at the time, but I needed to ease up.)







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