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What the backlash against ‘bae’ reveals about society’s attitude toward black culture

Just because Miley Cyrus and Chick-fil-A are using it doesn't mean you should give it up.


Derrick Clifton

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 5, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 8:34 pm CDT

Although many people and brands love adopting African-American Vernacular English, it’s often denigrated and denied the same regard as any other words and phrases borne of popular culture. Unfortunately, the cultural backlash against “bae” reflects how mainstream American society takes a voyeuristic, if not disposable approach to black culture.

“Bae” and words like it—including “yassss” and “twerk”—originated from black communities and were popular for years before everyone else caught on and participated in their usage. But it doesn’t take long before the fascination gives way to boredom, or even complaints about the so-called “overuse” of such words. Somehow, mainstream (and often white) cultural gatekeepers declare that it’s time to ban them and move on to the next hip trends in slang. And in true fashion, some other word derived from black communities eventually makes it way into everyday conversations again.

For one indication, look no further than Time magazine’s year-end online poll of words that should be banned in the new year. In December 2013, after many readers were tormented by Miley Cyrus’ rampant cultural appropriation of twerking, they grew tired of using and hearing the word “twerk” and voted to ban it in 2014. Even Miley moved on to something else that year, declaring she was “over” twerking; she began busting the Nae-Nae instead. Sure enough, Miley recorded the song “Come Get It Bae” with Pharrell, released last May, prompting mainstream curiosity about another unfamiliar word.

So as part of their duty to keep readers informed, Time ran a story about the meaning and ostensible etymology of the word “bae,” explained as “slang that Pharrell likes enough to put in the titles of his songs.” The piece was mocked by Uproxx and Clutch, and for many black people, it read as an out-of-touch way for the legacy publication to stay hip, especially because it’s clearly a term of endearment. But Time‘s guide to bae also drew ire because a white writer offered a so-called primer to a predominately white audience—almost ensuring the word would be Columbused. Led by writer and actress Pia Glenn, Black Twitter lampooned the unnecessary explainer with the hashtag #TimeTitles.

But clearly that pushback didn’t send a strong-enough signal to the magazine, because the word “bae” would appear on Time’s shortlist of words to ban in 2015, alongside “turnt” and “yasssss.” Katy Steinmetz wrote that bae “has been around for years, but suddenly it’s everywhere,” adding that “the cool factor is being smothered.” Steinmetz said, “It’s time to start using something Chick-fil-A managers have never heard of.”

Of course, the list appears to have the intent of being playful and lighthearted. However, even though three words derived from AAVE appeared on the list, the tone took a more serious shift because of one word’s inclusion: feminist. The poll now runs with an apology to readers, regretting that its inclusion distracted from debates about equality and justice. Undoubtedly, people had a right to be outraged about the list, as critics noted how race and culture were implicated by it.

Following in similar fashion, northern Michigan’s Lake Superior University included “bae” on it’s 40th annual “List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse, and Uselessness.” A spokesman for the list said “bae” is an example of a word that some feel deserves to disappear, while others will be surprised to know it even exists. And the only source to give “bae” even a modicum of regard was the Oxford Dictionaries, which declared the word as a runner-up for it’s 2014 word of the year. (Spoiler alert: It lost to “vape.”)

But as Kwame Opam wrote at the Verge, it may be time to discard “bae” because, now, even big brands are also engaging in the “appropriation of urban youth culture.” The Twitter account Brands Saying Bae highlights the many instances where major players in fast-food, beverages and telecommunications use AAVE to make their social media presence appear more hip and relevant.

So, to be clear, “bae” is only a done deal because there’s mainstream consensus from every direction about it suddenly becoming old hat—even though the word’s been popular in black circles for years. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way this can or should operate.

Although black culture understandably appeals to mainstream and white audiences, black slang, dance moves, and other cultural creations weren’t solely created for mainstream consumption. Indeed, black culture doesn’t need to appeal to the mainstream for it to have any legitimacy, as it also exists within a more independent context. So for people not from the community to declare words like “bae” are dead is an exercise in the oppressive, racialized dynamics that make cultural appropriation so problematic.

Instead of appropriating and then disposing of black cultural contributions, including the word “bae,” white people and non-black people of color would be better off approaching black creativity with more appreciation and respect.

And don’t expect “bae” to go away anytime soon—at least until black people have a say.

Photo via TNT/YouTube

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*First Published: Jan 5, 2015, 1:30 pm CST