John McWhorter has two qualifications that make him able to judge whether it’s okay for white people to use black argot: he’s black and he’s a linguist. In his latest column on his Substack site (click on screenshot), Mcwhorter argues that it’s not only fine, but a form of flattery for members of one race to use the language of another, so long as it’s not used disparagingly. Click on the screenshot to read:
The “Elvis” simile comes from the claim, which may be justified, that Elvis used a black style of singing in his early music, but never gave credit to his influences. (McWhorter believes, as I do, that the black originators actually produced better music.) But he also argues that the comparison doesn’t hold water.
First, some of the language that white people are said to “steal” from blacks:
A little while ago, a Saturday Night Live skit depicted a multiracial group of teens communicating in what was depicted as “Gen Z slang,” with the doctor they were talking with having to “translate” his thoughts into it to communicate with them.
A lot of people didn’t like it, because the slang in question was mostly of Black English origin. The complaint is that the skit was denying the black roots of these terms, and instead ascribing them to Americans in general – i.e. (shudder) white persons. As in, yes – the problem was cultural appropriation.
. . . The SNL skit included, among others, yo, bestie, vibes, feels for feelings, salty for irritated, bro / bruh and no cap for “I’m not kidding” (as in, these are actual whole gold teeth, not golden caps on teeth).
McWhorter considers two arguments, and numerous sub-arguments, that terms like that should not be restricted to blacks.
1) Is there a historical precedent where people interact richly but keep their speech varieties completely separate?
He knows of no such cases.
2) Is there a case that even if this is the way it has been, that it would be a moral advancement if we tried to put a stop to it now?
McWhorter considers several arguments for the “moral cessation”, including the parallel with “music theft”, and says that the counterarguments are stronger, including the enrichment of art and language of every group by this kind of appropriation:
But overall, who among us wishes white people had never taken up ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, or rock and roll? I assume there are some who could really wish there had never been Benny Goodman, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, or Eminem and I mean that. But this would be a radical proposition held ever by only a sliver.
Black jazz, is, to my mind, still the best by far, but it was taken and changed into different forms by others, and some of those white artists, like Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Stan Getz, brought something new to the genre. As far as I know, they did no harm to blacks or black culture. Goodman, in fact, was the first major white bandleader to integrate his groups, taking on people like Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. “White” jazz is the most common form of cultural appropriation—a form of borrowing that does nobody any harm, but enriches everyone but the Pecksniffs.
McWhorter also points out that whites have been taking language from African Americans forever, even in the antebellum South, and, of course, this form of linguistic borrowing is good for everyone: it enriches our communication.
Take another oppressed group (well, at least they were once considered oppressed): the Jews. I know of no Jewish person who is insulted, including me, when we hear a non-Jewish person use Yiddish argot like “chutzpah”, “oy vey”, “schlemiel”, and “kvetch.” Indeed, I’m pleased and flattered to hear it! It means that those words were useful, and are considered not insulting but a tribute to the colorful language that is Yiddish. I can’t really see any difference between that kind of “cultural appropriation” and words like “bestie and “vibes” (in truth, I thought these were Millennial words!).
McWhorter thinks we should give up trying to police the racial borders of language for two reasons. First, it never works. Second, and most important, appropriating words and phrases from another culture is a form of flattery, and we all know this. Trying to keep the borders distinct is a futile exercise in tribalism. To quote the expert here:
In light of the above, I suggest we return to intuition here. Yes, even on race, sometimes intuition makes sense, and not just the intuition that white people are racist.
Namely, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Whites talk increasingly more like black people in America as a sign that whites and blacks are more comfortable together socially than they once were.
Yes, racism still exists. But getting past it will happen in increments. What is the progress in insisting that the increments, when they reveal themselves, don’t matter?
And whatever your other discomforts are with “Gen Z” using some black slang, your question must be whether it should be socially proscribed in light of what I have noted above as issues that cannot be waved away. Is the discomfort something you could honestly back with a confident pox on linguistic sharing amidst the broader context of what we are actually seeing?