When non-Black celebrities like Olivia Rodrigo speak with a 'blaccent,' is it appropriation? Experts explain.

Olivia Rodrigo stands next to an American flag in front of a White House seal
Teen pop star Olivia Rodrigo on a recent visit to the White House — where, one expert noted, she did not speak with a "blaccent," as she has on social media. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Teen pop star Olivia Rodrigo is the latest non-Black celebrity to face criticism for speaking in a “blaccent” and using AAVE (African American vernacular English), who joins others in being called out for the same offense — including Billie Eilish, Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande and Awkwafina (and her Crazy Rich Asians character Peik Lin).

In a controversial video mashup, resurfaced last week, Rodrigo, who is Filipina-American, speaks in a way that is commonly known as Black vernacular, using forced phrases like “I be trending,” “AF” and “y’all,” sparking accusations of cultural appropriation.

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Rodrigo was also called out for using AAVE in past tweets.

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Rodrigo has not publicly addressed the criticism, and a request for comment by Yahoo Life to Rodrigo’s publicist did not receive a response.

Still, some fans stood up for the teen, wondering if she really deserved such criticism for using slang like a “regular kid.”

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But Deandre A. Miles-Hercules, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara calls such defenses “very tired and predictable,” noting that people say, “‘She’s not hurting anybody…’ but in a society with such stark economic and social inequality … to be creating wealth by using Black language and culture is reprehensible — and it is meaningful.”

It’s that economic divide, say many experts, that’s at the heart of why appropriating language — or fashion or music or hairstyles or anything else — is problematic.

Related video: The difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation

Still, Miles-Hercules says, the Rodrigo situation is “almost a non-event,” because “this is so common and so old and so tired that it didn’t register to me as surprising or anything. It is what I’ve come to expect to see. I think of language and culture as inseparable.”

Part of the problem is how people discuss such instances of appropriation — being reactive, case by case, rather than looking at the systemic inequalities behind the issue, the researcher and many others say.

“I don’t find there to be a sophisticated debate about cultural appropriation in the media,” British critic and writer Afua Hirsch told George Chesterton in a GQ UK in a September 2020 story prompted by Adele being photographed in a Jamaica-flag bikini and bantu knots. “It’s less the act and more the ignorance behind it that is the issue,” Chesterton wrote, further quoting Hirsch, who said, “I’m often asked to come on TV whenever a pop star wears cornrows and defend the idea that I would like to police their hairstyle. There is little interest in the broader picture of imperial racism and white supremacy that forms the context. So it ends up being a reductive conversation about whether it’s OK for white people to do something, which is not my business.”

Miles-Hercules (who uses they/them pronouns) echoes that, noting, “I’m very rarely interested in the individual, but more in the structural level, because racial inequality is rarely individual.” As an example, they point to platforms like TikTok, “where they’re actually censoring Black content and boosting white content that’s being stolen.” Due to those types of inequalities, they say, “We have to step in on a structural level.”

What is a “blaccent”?

Miles-Hercules says it is “a register of speech that appropriates features of what gets called African-American English, or Ebonics, often at a syntax or grammar level. It’s rarely appropriated by rhythm or intonation because those are the hardest to acquire.” So, when someone says something sounds “cringey” (as with Rodrigo), they add, “I think what they’re attuning to is a rhythm that sounds very foreign, or not native… It sounds just kind of off… They kind of throw in this word or grammar into what, otherwise, is like a white, relatively standard kind of accent… so cherry-picking individual features to sound cool.”

Lauren Michele Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue & Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, explained the blaccent in a 2018 Vulture essay that examined the speech of Awkwafina as well as her character Peik Lin.

The blaccent used by Awkwafina, pictured here in 2020, has been a topic of examination by writer and cultural critic Lauren Michele Jackson. (Photo: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

“Sliding in and out of a grammar that speeds past certain consonants, utilizes the habitual ‘be,’ and takes on a twang with danks and struggles aplenty, Awkwafina has inspired the resurrection of that dreaded portmanteau reserved for non-Black people with Black voices, hardly seen since Iggy Azalea could claim song of the summer: blaccent,” she wrote. “Peik Lin’s flirtation with Black vernacular, along with the character’s general swagger, clinches the case, and another buzzword enters the frame: appropriation, a word that now commonly connotes knowing, cultural theft.”

When its usage is wrong, Jackson noted, it’s “a feeling, an informed suspicion better felt in the bones than cross-referenced with a grammarian, not because Black languages lack their own grammar, but because, so writes linguist J.L. Dillard in the landmark 1972 study Black English, ‘We could diagram Black English, but we would know no more about it afterward than we did before.’ Either you know, or you don’t.” Still, she pointed out, it’s complicated.

Iggy Azalea.
Iggy Azalea, pictured in 2018, is among the many non-Black celebs criticized for speaking with AAVE. (Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

“A certain millennial cool-kid identity is already predicated on basic appropriations that get overlooked when every case becomes exemplary, instead of evidentiary,” she wrote. “It’s all very messy, and power makes it messy, but treating the blaccent as something authentically Black and stolen doesn’t make it any clearer.”

Even less clear, notes a Guardian story about Riley Keough’s character in the new film Zola, are Hollywood portrayals of characters with blaccents. “Literal blackface is (now) a very obvious form of racist appropriation, but when it comes to linguistics, it is more difficult to know where to draw the line,” explains the piece. “The two used to go hand-in-hand, but African-American Vernacular English, to give it its formal term, is constantly feeding into mainstream (aka historically white) language. It is often the place where the cool words come from – including ‘cool’ itself (flashback to In the Cut where Meg Ryan meets with a Black student to get the latest slang words hot off the street). Appropriation is often called out in music (e.g., Iggy Azalea) but in film it’s less clear cut.”

But of course, as Jackson noted in an NPR interview, “Cultural appropriation cannot stop. It won’t stop. It’s more about the general circulation of things. And unfortunately, we live in a world where the general circulation of things is incredibly racist and incredibly anti-Black.”

The bottom-line problem: Economics

Sure, it’s messy. But because the problem is systemic, many point out that the biggest issue is that it leads the appropriators to profit off of language that can actually be disadvantageous for those to whom it’s native.

And that’s something that folks like Rodrigo appear to understand, as evidenced, Miles-Hercules says, by the fact that she understands when a blaccent brings “cool points” and when it’s “not appropriate to use,” such as on a recent trip to the White House to encourage youth vaccinations. So the excuse that someone didn’t know language is appropriated is “BS.”

“Ignorance related to that is abdication of responsibility,” Miles-Hercules adds. “Not only is it nonsense, I think it’s intentional, it’s cultural amnesia, and it’s part of how racism and white supremacy function — by forgetting things do have roots behind them.”

The point is, notes a piece in Babbel, “AAVE, when used by African-American people, is often associated with ‘undesirable’ parts of society like poverty, drugs, violence and gangs. But when corporations or white people use it, they are co-opting its ‘cool’ potential for their own gain — and giving nothing back to the community that created it.”

Miles-Hercules points out that this is “pervasive,” and that when we talk about what needs to change, “it’s less about policing the language of Billie Eilish or Macklemore but more about making sure, at a structural level, that Black artists are compensated not only on parity with the white artist but are benefiting in a meaningful way — in a way that the structure allows.”

Pop culture, they add, is often treated as an “agnostic concept, but it’s not,” explaining that things are popular, culturally, “because people put a lot of money behind them… If we trace this history, on one hand, you see where you go when want something very, very popular: You see what the Black people are doing — then repackage it, make it white and sell it back to white kids in a way their parents will accept.”