On Saturday, May 8, Elon Musk, business magnate and Disney cartoon villain, hosted Saturday Night Live. Musk kicked off the night with a skit called "Gen Z Hospital," in which a group of “besties” react to the news that one of their mothers is fatally injured. The shtick of the scene is that everyone is talking in a way that the writers incorrectly believe to be attributed as "Gen Z" or "TikTok" slang (think phrases like "no cap," "gang gang," and "the tea"). Unintentional or not, SNL’s "Gen Z Hospital" skit is making fun of AAVE, or African American Vernacular English — which is a harmful, racist action globalized on national TV.
Sadly, I'm no stranger to people demeaning and making fun of AAVE. Growing up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of a white town, I was afraid of sounding like the other Black kids. I remember listening to a white middle school teacher tell a Black student that she sounded stupid for using AAVE. She told her that she wouldn’t get a job “sounding like that” and instead of being horrified, I’m ashamed to say that I laughed at her along with the rest of the class because I was, in part, terrified of my own Blackness. I was socialized to know that if I dared to sound like the Black people around me, I would be laughed at, too. I would be considered stupid, too.
According to Dr. April Baker-Bell, associate professor of Language, Literacy, and English Education at Michigan State University and author of Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy, this fear is not uncommon. Baker-Bell's research on the experiences of Black youth in school contexts led her to coin the term "Anti-Black Linguistic Racism," which she defines as "the linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanization, and marginalization that Black Language-speakers experience in schools and in everyday life." (Baker-Bell uses the term Black language to refer to AAVE). She explains that Black youth "look at examples of how white culture is appropriating Black language to market and make money and be successful off of it," she says, referring to the "Gen Z Hospital" skit as one example, "but when they’re in school, they’re told that they can’t use this language."
"I think we don’t think about the impact that that has on Black language speakers, like the self-policing, or the constant red marks on their papers, or the constant being shut down when they’re communicating in this way," she tells Her Campus. "It has huge impacts on the way in which they see their linguistic and racial identities, and I think that that is underestimated."
I saw that impact play out in my own life. My fear-based relationship with AAVE taught me internalized racism that I still struggle to conquer even today, and I know that my experience isn’t unique by any means. A lot of my Black friends find themselves having to “code switch” or imitate whiteness in order to feel more professional within academia and the workplace. Academic and professional attitudes towards AAVE is clear — either you assimilate, or you risk alienating yourself. It’s nauseating.
Once I reached high school, I started to notice that the white kids around me would talk with a “blaccent,” or an accent that imitates AAVE — despite the fact that, like me, they grew up in predominantly white areas where AAVE wouldn’t be naturally picked up. It was all performative. They would tell me that they were Blacker than me because of their ability to poorly imitate AAVE. The same people who made me afraid to embrace my culture were imitating it.
"I remember listening to a white middle school teacher tell a Black student that she sounded stupid for using AAVE."
The popularity of TikTok’s appropriation of AAVE, as well as the imitation of slang used within the Black gay community (popularized by drag culture), has exacerbated this experience. Many non-Black people feel as though they can adopt AAVE because it's "trendy" right now — but AAVE is not a trend. There is a rich history of discrimination against people of color because of their use of AAVE. Like Blackfishing, and appropriation of Black hairstyles, white “creators” will steal African-American culture, destigmatize it and then call it outdated the second it’s out of fashion. This completely ignores the long history of people who faced blatant racism and discrimination long before this trend was popular.
"That’s why [the skit] is so harmful, because what this suggests, then, to us, is that it’s acceptable for Black language to be used and capitalized on by non-native Black language speakers for marketing and for play, but it’s unacceptable for Black people to use it," Baker-Bell says. "In schools, we have Black children who are still not able to use Black language as a linguistic resource, even in their learning. We know that in a court of law, that Black people’s testimonies are not valued because they see Black language as a linguistic inferiority."
She refers to this phenomenon as Black Linguistic Appropriation, or "the ways that Black Language is continuously appropriated, exploited, and colonized." In the case of "Gen Z Hospital," AAVE is divorced from its origins and treated as a collection of slang terms that sound cool. But Baker-Bell points out that AAVE has a rich, complex history that informs its distinctive grammatical and rhetorical features. "It has everything to do with enslavement," she says. "When European enslavers captured enslaved Africans, one of the tools that they used is language planning. They intentionally separated Africans who communicated in the same language so that they couldn’t get away. So, Black language came into existence from that very thing. It’s a hybrid language. We know it’s influenced by West African languages, as well as the English language." Saturday Night Live completely disregarded this history — Michael Che, the writer of the skit, didn't even know what AAVE was.
"White culture is appropriating Black language to market and make money and be successful off of it."
Baker-Bell also emphasizes coded meanings as a distinctive feature of AAVE, which is tied to its roots. "When we had folks who would escape enslavement, they had to be able to communicate a message in a way that communicated something to someone else who was enslaved, ... but that message cannot be understood by their oppressors. And we still see it today: Black language is coded. It usually has multiple, simultaneous meanings happening at one time. That’s one of the distinctions — our language is very coded, because it’s rooted in our survival."
Even more baffling, perhaps, is the fact that not a single writer, actor, or producer (don’t get me started on Elon Musk) realized this skit was racist. Racism is so normalized within popular culture that people can now say that Black Lives Matter in the same breath that they mock Blackness. So, how do we combat this? For Baker-Bell, it starts with proper education about language. "We need to transform the way that we approach language education,” she says. “So many young people are given a very revisionist American history that leaves out some of these historical facts … and learn nothing about language.”
While the skit was problematic, its ideation is a symptom of a much larger problem: The simultaneous appropriation and rejection of Black culture. AAVE is a dialect that deserves to be treated with respect, but with access to education that emphasizes a new approach to language, perhaps society can begin to examine “Gen Z slang” with a more critical eye.
Baker-Bell, A. (2019). Dismantling anti-black linguistic racism in English language arts classrooms: Toward an anti-racist black language pedagogy. Theory Into Practice.
April Baker-Bell, Associate Professor of Language, Literacy, and English Education