When I saw this IHOP tweet yesterday, I rolled my eyes but I didn’t think much of it because these things happen frequently and I was in hardcore Choose Your Battles mode.
Then I saw this:
Corporate Twitter accounts continue to use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and appropriate black culture in their tweets and it shows no sign of slowing.
First, let me say that I’m not condemning AAVE as a whole, but the fact that many do is yet another layer to this problem. I’m a writer, grammar nerd, and a lover of language and its pristine use, but that does not prevent me from recognizing the validity of AAVE. Just last week I wrote here that “AAVE and intelligence are not mutually exclusive,” but lots of people think they are. Lots of folks think of black people speaking AAVE as automatically poor and less than, and dismiss anything they may have to say because they’re hung up on the way in which they say it.
For this reason alone, my brothers and sisters for whom AAVE flows freely first deserve better than to have their words bandied about in a transparent effort to shill pancakes. Those words are sometimes my words too, by the way, because code switching is a highly honed skill of many of us. And unless we’re an absolute race traitor gutter snake, when we code switch, it’s not to try and sell something to tha homies.
I don’t think they’re specifically courting black consumers in an effort to sincerely gain huge numbers of customers of color. I don’t think they’re specifically courting black people because I don’t think they think of us as people at all. I think someone in an office somewhere sees how popular these tweets are and they just jump on the bandwagon. Perhaps some SEO consultant somewhere let it slip that black people account for a large percentage of Twitter use. The studies showing this that popped up when Twitter took off may feel a bit dated now, but at its best, the platform’s accessibility is leveling the playing field and making it possible for black voices to be heard in in extremely powerful ways, such as getting more attention for #Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown or activist Feminista Jones’ hashtag #YouOKSis, addressing street harassment.
We have a voice. Your more traditional avenues may not have granted access to it, and especially not to the AAVE iterations of it, but a young lady in the South Bronx can now be heard if she chooses to be. That young man who lives in Ferguson can tweet to us his first-person point of view and it can, and should, spread like wildfire. Even in AAVE. It is valid and necessary.
What’s completely unnecessary is what these corporate tweeters are doing. But, like many other things that make me sick to my stomach, boy oh boy is it ever popular. I can absolutely imagine the thrill of seeing that familiar language in an incongruous setting, like the Missy Elliot lyrics in the IHOP tweet above. I get that. But I also see through it. The juxtaposition of hip-hop, black culture, and specifically AAVE has been mainstream advertising’s favorite tool since the gang first formed on Sugar Hill. TV is full of commercials featuring white people rapping poorly or “breakdancing” for alleged comedic effect.
I’m all for people of any color rapping and breakdancing well, mind you. They are legitimate art forms that I personally love, and it pains me to see them exploited in the name of a back-to-school sale. On Twitter, the privilege that perpetuates that exploitation is even more empowered because of the ease of tweeting. These corporate accounts have huge numbers of followers, and just because someone somewhere working for them throws together 140 characters including the words Bae or Shmoney dance, these tweets circulate far and wide and provide free advertising with each retweet.
The image above is a random sample of @IHOP’s replies to people yesterday. I’ve pointed out the high retweet numbers on the ones including “YAS” and “shmoney dance.” Surely many of these were angry retweeters, but retweets numbers don’t reflect context.
The world in which this is OK is also the world in which Nas has never won a Grammy but Macklemore has four. It’s the world where white YouTube “celebrities” turn huge profits from racist humor that their legions of young, impressionable white fans see no problem with, while black YouTube innovator Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) is harassed relentlessly for pointing out that maybe blackface isn’t an acceptable punchline as we near 2015. It’s also the world where I could be the only black person on a train car recently and observe from a concealed seat as a group of white teenaged boys shout out rap lyrics by a black rapper and hit every one of those “niggas” in the lyrics hard and with gusto. When I stood up and told them to watch their mouths, they were cartoonishly contrite because they knew they were wrong.
Those white boys in their crisp khakis can shout rap lyrics on trains all day and will NEVER be labeled “thugs.” Everyone wants to be black until it’s time to be black. We have highly visible black celebrities going out of their way to distance themselves from their blackness, we have unarmed black boys murdered by the police with regularity, and we have Denny’s tweeting in AAVE. Is there room anywhere for our humanity? For our blackness to be affirmed and sincerely celebrated instead of erased, gunned down, stolen, or parodied?
At this point, I don’t care if the person tweeting these corporate AAVE tweets is a legitimate black teenager or a fifty-year-old white man stealing snatches of words from DVDs of The Wire. It just has to stop. Even if that specific tweeter is black, these are not black-owned companies, there is no visible blackness at play in the products or the markets served, and they’re doing nothing to promote the prosperity or humanity of the community whose language they’re stealing.
To them, it’s just sales. To me, it’s the rampant theft of black culture while simultaneously erasing legitimate black voices and humanity. It happens in every walk of life and it’s not new, but it’s especially egregious in corporate tweeting. There are consultants you can pay to help you with your advertising. There are people who are good at the whole Twitter thing. There are people out there who are creative. Hire them. Companies have certainly had to get creative to find a voice on Twitter. And I’m not even saying hip-hop is off-limits; but consider this: were those Missy Elliot lyrics IHOP used even remotely about pancakes, or a restaurant, or food at all? The arbitrary nature of it is what translates to us being disposable, a full culture being reduced to your clever tweet. We are people, not just your source of clever wordplay. It’s a culture you’re robbing, not a marketing machine that exists solely for you to pillage.
And now, because I can, allow me to conclude in a tweetable format that you’ll understand: