It’s around this time every year when news outlets across the internet take a look back at the year behind them and think to themselves, “What are some of the buzziest words [we’ve undoubtedly used in headlines] that we think are passé?” These lists and thinkpieces are quick, easy ways of demonstrating the author’s attunement with the previous year’s zeitgeist, a way to tell readers they can and should trust them on matters of cultural and linguistic taste.
Troubling, though, is how often these lists authoritatively declare that phrases and ideas originated by black women, other people of color, and queer people are somehow “over.” What they’re really documenting is that in their rush to glom onto what was once fresh and new, white people and brands often sour something that was never meant for them.
In their rush to glom onto what was once fresh and new, white people and brands often sour something that was never meant for them.
Take the Ringer’s listicle of internet slang from 2016, in which a white writer accurately describes the process in which phrases from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) make their way onto the internet, become popular, and are eventually co-opted by brands.
“What ‘like’ is to the Valley girl, ‘fam’ is to the fuckboy,” Alyssa Bereznak writes in her rather ignorant explanation of a term most often used to signify casual kinship amongst friends. “It’s a jumping pad from one nonsensical sentence to the next, often heard around club promoters and paired with ‘lit AF’ for emphasis.”
At points, the list does manage to flirt with some sense of self-awareness: “Black Twitter invents a word and it’s repeated with joy by the masses until Taco Bell joins in and signals it’s time to move on,” Bereznak argues. “The internet falls in love with these terms just as quickly as it rejects them, like a spoiled kid who loses interest in their Hatchimal the second she sees a commercial for a Hatchimal 2.0.”
Yes, “Brands Saying Bae” are always cringeworthy and Hatchimals are outdated the moment they’re unboxed. There’s a depressing inevitability to the idea that brands will take sayings, phrases, and even hashtags popularized by black people, strip them of their intended context and nuance, and attempt to use the co-opted symbol of “coolness” to bolster themselves.
But there’s something particularly presumptuous about white people stating with absolute confidence that a word is done simply because white people are tired of hearing each other awkwardly mumbling it, keenly aware of how strange it sounds coming from their mouths. Bereznak seems unable to understand the role articles like hers play in the consumption, exhaustion, and eventual dismissal of distinctly black words like “woke,” “tea,” and “lit.” Who, except a white person, would have the audacity to declare that “woke” was the most “raggedy” (girl, we get it, you know a few black people) word of 2016?
2016 was a year of self-conscious white men awkwardly calling one another “bruh” knowing in their heart of hearts that a “bro” or “brah” would have been much more appropriate.
2016 was a year of self-conscious white men awkwardly calling one another “bruh” knowing in their heart of hearts that a “bro” or “brah” would have been much more appropriate. But once words are spoken aloud, literally anyone is free to use them and, as is so often the case, these words that blossomed from the imaginations of young black people were abused and mishandled by white people desperate to have a seat at the black table where the magic happens.
And so now, as 2016 draws to a close, there are a number of questions white people should contemplate about both the past and the future: Was it truly lit? (Nope.) Are we really fam? (Lol. No, girl.) Do you think it’s appropriate for you to unilaterally decide that the locution of black people has gone stale because you no longer get use out of it? If you do, you’re sadly mistaken.