The 'caucasity': How a viral TikTok video is laying bare cultural appropriation through slang

·10 min read
Brittany Tomlinson, seen here at the 2019 American Music Awards, faces staunch criticism after attributing the genesis of commonly used phrases like “sis,” “snatched,” “periodt,” and “whew chile” to “internet culture,” as opposed to Black culture. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for dcp)
Brittany Tomlinson, seen here at the 2019 American Music Awards, is facing staunch criticism after attributing the genesis of commonly used phrases like “sis,” “snatched,” “periodt,” and “whew chile” to “internet culture,” as opposed to Black culture. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for dcp)

Last week, TikTok sensation the “Kombucha Girl” found herself in hot water after attributing the genesis of commonly used phrases like “sis,” “snatched,” “periodt” and “whew chile” to “internet culture” and “stan twitter,” as opposed to where they actually originated — deep within Black culture.

In the video, Brittany Tomlinson starts by explaining that Black people shouldn’t be offended by other people using these terms, saying that it’s not an example of a “blaccent” or appropriating African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). In response, many social media users came to her defense, agreeing with her comments and adding that they use the terms too. Although the video no longer appears on her TikTok account, it lives on through Twitter garnering over 19,000 retweets and 70,000 likes. Others, however, have begged to differ.

In response to the video (which seems to have been deleted), critical race scholar, journalist and activist El Jones tells Yahoo Life, “That’s usually how this works, everything that Black people create is always public property. That goes back to our enslavement, where our work had to be appropriated for everybody else — while everybody else gets to copyright their [own] work.”

Jones says, “The caucacity of it all is that not only can everything that we generate be taken and used, but then white people can turn around and say, it was never yours in the first place — claiming to be the expert on blackness,” explaining that it is audacious for a white person to rewrite the origin stories of Black colloquialisms, comparing it to a time when actress Lilly Singh committed a similar offense.

Caucacity” — a combination of “Caucasian” and “audacity,” is a term coined in 2019 by the Bodega Boys podcast, and has been used all over social media as a way to “marvel at the baffling behaviors of white folks” and capture their “willingness to take bold risks” due to the comfort that privilege provides.

Jones goes on to say that, “[Black people] don’t have equal platforms because when we challenge [cultural appropriation], we’re seen as angry or called haters,” referencing the 2015 feud between Nikki Minaj and Taylor Swift, in which the pop star assumed tweets from Minaj calling out racism in the music industry were a personal attack. The internet quickly criticized Minaj who, as the Guardian wrote, was “archetyped as the angry black woman, while Swift [was] bizarrely cast as the feminist hero.”

This is a perfect example, says Jones, of Black people resisting cultural theft and in turn, being reduced to negative stereotypes. “When we use this language, we’re ghetto or ignorant, so we have to code-switch. We have to speak in different ways while we’re at work, but then white people can just pick it up because it’s fun and it’s edgy. It’s cool because it’s not going to get them fired and we see this on all levels,” says Jones. “Whether it’s internet speech, or people directly lifting a work and plagiarizing it, our music or our dancing — when they want something, they have to remove it from us so it becomes desirable.” That idea was argued back in 2003 by culture critic Greg Tate, who wrote that white people want to take “everything” from Black culture “but the burden.”

Video: Breaking down cultural appropriation

Jones explains, “Black people continue to be negatively stigmatized and stereotyped by blackness, but then anything we produce can be lifted from us and becomes ‘not black,’” echoing a popular quote — with unknown origins — cited by Nezarial Scott in 2017: “Ghetto is nothing but creativity that hasn’t been stolen yet.” Jones adds: “If they can just strip us of blackness, they can have everything they like about Black people and then we can just go away. They really want our cultural products, but they want us gone and dead and disappeared. They want us in jail,” she says. “They want us deported. They want us in the projects. They want us dehumanized, unable to live. And all they want from us is our language, our lips, our hair and our dances.”

In order to understand the phenomenon, Jones says it’s particularly important to understand that “anti-blackness lies in the appropriation of labor from Black people and their concomitant dehumanization.” She then goes on to quote Eric Williams, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1962 to 1981, who wrote in his seminal 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery, “slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”

Williams goes on to explain how the capitalist “need for [Black] labor” fueled both a racist ideology and its justification. As the two have become intertwined, Jones says that “Blackness in itself is inherently a commodity in white society, therefore everything we have can also be bought, sold and exchanged, and it’s never for us to possess.” Among many examples of privileged groups who have profited from Black creatives, she cites the case of Brooklyn rapper 2 Milly, who made headlines in 2019 after calling out Fortnite for selling his “Milly Rock” dance to gamers without his permission and that of young dancer Jalaiah Harmon, whose claim to fame — the “Renegade” dance, was wrongfully attributed to a white TikTok influencer who subsequently made millions.

But Jones says, “the worst part is then how blackness gets flattened out as though all Black people are a monolith. It’s so reductive. Why don’t they ever want to be like Angela Davis, Joy James or Audre Lorde? They don't want to be ‘Harriet Tubman Black,’ they just want to be ‘I saw it in a music video’ Black,” explaining how this often causes people to associate their experiences of “growing up in the hood” with their own proximity to blackness.

Jones tells Yahoo Life that this harmful pattern can be traced to the “construction of whiteness” — as author David Roediger called it — which she says “is a relatively recent production,” explaining that up until the late 19th century, many groups that are now considered white were not back then. “As America committed genocide against indigenous people, while simultaneously waging war in the Philippines, whiteness became consolidated in response to colonial violence — because they needed all hands on deck for whiteness,” she says.

Furthermore, Jones adds that whiteness and its construction is, “a process of state violence against other people,” but within this construct, “whiteness becomes known as a ‘civilized’ identity and in doing that, white people also feel that they’ve lost something.” She explains that white people began to see Black people as noble savages which she says fuels a “nostalgia,” yet causes them disgust, explaining why “they're gonna kill us and put their knees on our necks, but they also want our cool hair.” She says “It all goes back to the fact that we are not seen as human beings, but as profit instead.”

Jones goes on to say that America was heavily influenced by Black culture, referencing American novelist Ralph Ellison, who she says suggested that “everything that’s considered American culture is actually either generated by Black people or by white people in proximity to blackness,” noting that popular musical genres like jazz and rock both originated from Black people.

She explains that “this idea that the lifting of black languages is a phenomenon of the last 10 years is false. Great authors have lifted black language,” saying that famous literary works like Huckleberry Finn and The Help were essentially “Black slave stories taken by white people who tried to reproduce the dialects of blackness.” Overall she says there is a long history of an “obsession with black speech patterns” and recreating blackness outside of Black bodies seen from the creation of blackface minstrel shows to hip-hop dictionaries, noting that this is the reason that the genius of Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God wasn’t properly acknowledged until she was already dead.

Looking back at the history of Black resilience, Jones says “the thing that's amazing is we were enslaved, stripped of rights and incarcerated, yet through that time we not only survived, which is a miracle in itself, but we also created and held on to African cultures. We’ve been the innovators of language, dancing and music. Through it all, these immense trials, we have had this brilliant creative spirit. That is the beauty of Black people,” noting how enslaved people sang as they yielded free labor and that Phillis Wheatley — the first published African-American poet — was wildly successful, yet named after the slave ship she arrived on.

She continues, “We have always found a voice and created language — even in the language forced upon us. And look at what we’ve done to innovate it. How dare you tell us that [AAVE] belongs to everybody and not to us?” says Jones. “It’s a disrespect of the entire struggle of our enslaved ancestors who fought for the right to our expression and came out of our worst days with that not only intact, but enhanced.”

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