TikTok Language: What’s up with the Misuse of AAVE?

Adia Ayanna
The Comeback of Culture
9 min readMay 27, 2021


Three hundred comments deep into a TikTok video, I began to hang onto words.




Each scroll sparked more confusion and shock as I counted five, six, eventually twenty comments encapsulating everything wrong with the internet. Unfortunately, it’s expected under a TikTok of a Black creator condemning the use of AAVE by non Black creators— except, right before I was ready to swipe out, I read,

“Why do Blacks think they own everything?”

It was a dagger as I tried to unpack each word’s connotation. Suddenly, I was reminded that I was just another anonymous TikTok, caught in the haywire of TikTok politics for a seemingly small issue: language. Language connects us and allows for words to emphasize an array of meanings. Some of it harsh, while others speak to vast cultural experiences. When it comes to dialects, especially African-American dialects, there’s more to these words than comical sentence boosters that make non Black people appear more “current”.

Dolls Kill Shoe Description

Cherry picking bits and pieces of Black culture without credit is nothing new in social media. However, it’s become apparent that the gesture is being extended to AAVE as non Black creators profit and distort the meaning.

African-American dialects hold weight in America. Long before White influencers could overuse words like, “fleek” and “periodt”, Black people were forced to form an identity inside of White America. Even after years of confronting the racist system, most Black people today are very familar with conforming, or code-switching, when needed. Coined by W.E.B Dubois, Black people wear “two-faces” — their “true” face they can show easily to their loved ones, and the more “acceptable” face in White spaces. This burden of performing assimilation in exchange for acceptance in white america becomes a double-edged sword as more social media outlets and non Black creators sloppily incorporate AAVE into their everyday speech.

Since COVID’s upsurgence of woke-culture, social media has become flooded with infographics about racism and sexism, pushing digital platforms and companies to get creative in showing just how diverse they can get. It’s encouraging to see Netflix adding a “Black voices” tab, and Vogue featuring stories about hair discrimination. Except, what the public understands as “culturally Black” only hits one layer, as the adoption of AAVE, the demonized dialect for code-switching, remains strictly trendy. Unlike Vine where White and Black creators openly mocked Black accents for comedy, TikTok follows in the footsteps of large companies by serving as a “woke” space where being ignorant, or not up-to-date with current nuance, makes you a digital outcast.

This “slang”, as some would call it, appeals to pop culture the same way other Black trends do — box braids, Y2K, hip-hop, etc. Even though the dreaded affiliation to cultural appropriation plagues a lot of us, small TikTok creators like Aisha Williams are growing increasingly weary of the adoption. Williams was amongst many Black creators infuriated by popular TikTokers like Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio basking in accolades for becoming the face of dances that were originally choreographed by black dancers . Much like a lot of pop culture, credit is rarely afforded.

After religiously posting her “outfits of the day” and roller blading videos, Williams recalls waking up to a comment that said “PERIODT” under one of the fashion videos.

She stifles back laughter as she recalls, “trying to decode why the commentor used that word of all things.” Despite the occurrence being small, more popular videos saw the same absurdity when one White creator attacked a Black creator for saying she wasn’t a “City Girl”. As the girl claimed racism, the Black creator begrudgingly explained that the term “City Girl” referred to the popular Hip-Hop duo, which in the Black community, encapsulates an attitude and preference for a lifestyle.

Names like City Girls, or even the classic reference, “Boo Boo The Fool”, hold larger meanings that are tied into colloquial terms only other Black communities would understand. Deeper than just ownership, these phrases, as Felisha Bernard, an Atlantean poet and rapper points out, are the blueprint. Like other creators, Bernard grew up deep in the Hip-Hop culture in a time where rap groups like Three 6 Mafia and OutKast, were rising in the early 2000s Hip-Hop scene.

“My mom would have a fit if she saw me buying those CDs because she said nobody wanted a thug,” she recalled. “Thug” in the Black community has its own set of complications, just as “gangster rap”, where glitzy music videos, sexist lyrics, and flashy chains, were both coveted and fear. The strange reality for Bernard is that the culture she was begged to abandon by her family, later landed non Black people on the map.

“I had to work hard not to sound ‘ghetto’ and now I can hear little White girls calling each other bestie and sis. It’s weird,” Bernard laments.

Common AAVE words

Everything from Miley Cyrus and Kylie Jenner sporting custom grills, to tweens on TikTok weaving words like “slay” and “bestie” holds an odd message — the words are temporary, fun additions to conversations to add emphasis. Just as the conversation around box braids is deeper than hair though, it’s more than phrases being passed around — it’s erasing the reality Black people face when they use it. This in return turns the fun, popular phrases littering TikTok’s comment section dark. Non Black tweens collectively sputter words they hear from famed creators without realizing the cycle they’re apart of.

“It’s sensationalized while also disliking that same culture in person,” Tasha Wilson says. Wilson is a close family friend who also grew up in the era of Missy Elliot and 106& Park — an era where “only Black people cared about that stuff,” she laughs. Wilson’s grievances extend beyond Tiktok however, because as a Computer Engineer who graduated with a 3.9 gpa from Spelman College, her resume practically becomes nonexistent the moment she begins to speak.

“I had an interview, and the man repeated the way I said, ‘yes’ in a mocking way,” Wilson continues. She recalls the experience like being outside of her body and watching someone blatantly mock her accent, while not seeing the issue afterwards.

Plenty of high-profile influencers like Jackie Aina have called out their battles to be taken seriously in the digital world. Sure, tons of brands have uplifted Black voices by making them brand ambassadors and faces of their lines, but they still contribute to watering down AAVE until it becomes just another pop culture fad. The more AAVE is reduced to ad slogans, the more respect for Black culture is kept in the box of fads instead of a functioning culture.

“When you don’t respect a culture of people, the last thing you want to hear is them saying you’re wrong for being racist,” Bernard says. Because the label “racist” is the lowest of titles for a lot White people, followed by the comfortability of ignroance, the bigger conversation about why exactly Black people are weary of AAVE misuse is not welcomed, nor listened to.

The first time I ever heard the phrase AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, it was like a light was pointed into my mind to clean out the cobwebs of misinformation myself and plenty of other Black kids were taught. There’s an age-old understanding with a lot of black families that if you want to make it in the world, it all starts how you speak.

But what a lot of millennial and Gen Z began to realize was that the notion of speaking proper English was an antiblack sentiment that stretched as far back as our ancestors living on plantations. Once the veil of ignroance is lifted, the beauty and complex structure of AAVE can be explored. Instead of being a couple of funny words, it blossoms into a language full of rules, structure, and hidden meanings.

Sadly, in our current climate celebrating AAVE for it’s creation and structure is rare when it’s widely known as “unintelligible speech”.

This never-ending preference for “proper English” results in Black Americans develop self-hatred, abandoning their roots, and worse of all, blaming their own culture. Being the daughter of a self-prescribed, “etiquette coach” I was dragged to plenty of etiquette classes where my sister and I were taught how to eat at a dining table, sit with our legs crossed daintly at the ankle, and of course, to not sound like “those Black folks over there,” as our etiquette coach would say.

Because most Black Gen Z and Millennials were baptized in fear of sounding too Black, we all watch dumbfounded as the culture we loved in secret is proudly being adorned by influencers like WoahVicky and Bhad Bhabie. Our eyes widen when we catch non-Black comedians twist their hip, roll their neck, and adopt the sassy caricature black women desperately try to distance from.

Morgan Jerkins eloquently described in This Will Be my Undoing, her memoir of her experiences as a black American woman, that to be proudly Black is, “to speak loudly. Appear loudly with a target positioned on your back.” The war of Black identity creates two worlds where being Black and worthy seem to interject.

Dr. Monique Cofer, a licensed therapist, refers to the bleak outlook as conflicting. Even in her own practice, Cofer had to present herself strategically — relaxed hair, neutral clothing, and training her voice to not come off as too much. While she still feels guilty for trying to water herself down, she still understands the position herself and other Black assimilators feel.

“It’s like getting the lead role in a play, rehearing it, and then seeing someone else go on stage and do it instead. There’s anger, confusion, and pain,” Cofer says. Despite how painful the realization that a choice between how one speaks must be made, the discourse is tricky to have over TikTok.

“I’ve watched so many trends come and go, and I’ve also seen a complete transformation in how critical I am when I speak,” Bernard says proudly with a beam stretched across her face. She wears a baggy, pink t-shirt, low rise jeans, and huge, gold hoops. It was an outfit she was banned from wearing as a middle schooler but found solace in when reclaiming her authentic voice.

“In a weird way, TikTok stuff just reminds me how dope Black people are so I try not to take the appropriation stuff to heart because at the end of it, no one does it like us.”

After our FaceTime call, I felt extremely nostalgic for the culture I’ve been taught to shy away from. Even in my early twenties, I still feel sliced between the interests I adopted because of my upbringing, versus the identity I could have had if basking in my Blackness was allowed.

Dr. Cofer offers the best advice she learned in her journey: it’s never too late, and it’s never defined by the world.

“There’s always going to be some form of discrimination,” Cofer concludes solemnly. “the bright side about us is that we have willpower and a community that actively fights for our rights. It’s not all bad.”

The topic of AAVE has been a complicated saga for a lot of Black people, mainly for the several perspectives to look at it from. If Black people do want a slice of relief, the fact that Tiktok does have a growing community of discourse is an incredible start.

TikTok’s platform is simply another medium where cultural phenomena of comedy, fashion, and language are being shared faster than we can imagine. It’s a digital jungle that can twist and alter information, while also de-mystifying and connecting.

There’s no intellectual way to combat the comment “why do Blacks think they own everything” without feeling a rush of anger to defend the misunderstood dialect Black people still struggle to accept themselves. Instead, people can push crediting Black phrases and allowing black creators to flourish as entertainers outside of being profitable, meme-worthy, soundbite pawns to the same pop culture that regurgitates Black trends.