AAVE Ain’t For Everybody: The Dangers of Co-opting a Cultural Moment

Guest Author

This article is part of a larger series that focuses on diversity and equity in marketing through the amplification of Black and racially diverse authors. As a company, we are committed to identifying actions we can take in the fight against racism and injustice, and elevating BIPOC voices is paramount to inspiring change. Follow along and read other posts in this series here.


This post is authored by Anaya Duncan, a brand strategist at Henkel. 

“It be like that” (The background)

While it shouldn’t require a McKinsey report to get you to believe why workplace diversity is a positive for any organization, understanding that there are blind spots and pitfalls in marketing that come from lack of firsthand life experience or cultural familiarity should absolutely do the trick.

As a Black woman, the way I’ve navigated the world and the way the world has acknowledged me back is a first-hand, personal encounter that on a macro level has informed the way I operate. But as it pertains to my career in marketing, it’s also shaped the lens through which I view things.

Sometimes I apply that lens to more work-related matters like a creative brief for an influencer marketing campaign; but a majority of the time I’m just like everyone else, scrolling through my social media feeds seeking a laugh, an insightful conversation, or even some inspiration for something work-related—and I am far from the only one doing the latter. More on that later.

“The Tea” (The current state of affairs)

We are currently living in a time where information exchanges are instantaneous and nearly limitless, and there’s no place where that’s more visible than social media. 

Via mediums like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, millions of microbloggers and content creators share unique expressions of self—or oftentimes just a funny story or grievance—with their followers, which can often operate more like a community.

And it’s fairly safe to say that one of the most pronounced and studied social media communities is “Black Twitter” and its ability to drive and push popular culture and slang. (I’ll spare you all the jokes about Black Twitter being likened to Fight Club, because, first and foremost, if you are part of it, one thing you absolutely do is talk about it.) 

In celebratory times, there’s a shared joy expressed by Black Twitter. In times of sorrow, the community bands together and publicly grieves. In times of hilarity, the laughter reaches far and wide. And all of this is typically done in the chosen dialect of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). 

What is often referred to as Ebonics, AAVE is a recognized and legitimate English dialect, but one that is often elusive and difficult to mimic without being fluent in the dialect yourself. In short, if this language is non-native to you, it will easily show.

However, because those Twitter jokes I mentioned do reach so far and wide, it’s not uncommon to see attempts at similar turns of phrase or jokes being quickly co-opted into different brand’s social posts or consumer-facing communications—like email subject lines. 

Whether it’s to ride the wave of relevancy or to directly catch the eye of the Black audience, as a consumer, the end goal remains unknown to me—but specifically as a Black consumer, the initial reaction to brands that don’t already align with said culture is a major cringe.

My first question is always, “Who signed off on this?” Which is swiftly followed by, “Was not one Black employee asked to weigh in on this?” And with current data for brand marketing jobs showing only 6-7% are held by those who identify as Black, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the latter answer is no.

In industries like fast fashion and beauty that are especially vying for the dollars and attention of the young and trendy, I empathize with the desire to stay as current and up-to-date as possible in your communications—but not at the expense of co-opting language and mannerisms without highlighting, acknowledging, and giving a platform to the community that you’re attempting to profit off of. 

This performative usage of AAVE or capitalization off of Black cultural moments is often merely seen as cringeworthy. But, at its worst, it can be viewed as inauthentic, disingenuous, and opportunistic—and can absolutely turn a consumer away. 

As we have seen in 2020, as many brands and companies engaged in large scale declarations in support of Black Lives Matter, performative allyship can and will be publicly called out. And people are more than willing to pull up receipts regarding a non-diverse workforce, lack of BIPOC representation in content and creativity, and lack of vocal or monetary support to causes that impact Black lives. To sum it up, in these instances it is not in your best interest to “fake it ‘til you make it.”

“PERIODT” (The call to action)

I want to emphasize here that the main takeaway from all of this is not that brands and companies should not engage with the Black community and its culture—that would be a silly way to conduct business. But you should do so in a way that is authentic and true to your own brand of business. While co-opting language and phrases may seem like the lowest hanging fruit available and an easy way to stay current, I would like to remind you that, technically, the easiest fruit to grab is often that which has already hit the ground—i.e. the overripe and mushy fruits, which aren’t particularly enjoyable. 

While I cannot provide a surefire guide for how to navigate the landscape of diversity and inclusion both within your organization and externally with the content you produce, I can provide some insight on how to better maneuver through the terrain—and it starts with hiring and retaining Black talent.

As I stated earlier, there is simply no replacement for the experience and POV that comes from being a Black person. And, while the guidance and input Black brand managers can provide on topics such as these is invaluable, I assure you their value adds extend far beyond matters of D&I as well—and that alone makes them quality candidates. 

If your workforce does not remotely mirror the racial and ethnic makeup of the country, I would urge you to look internally as to why that may be the case. As a reminder, systemic racism is not always overt, and oftentimes the status quo is the result of decades-long actions. 

If your entry-level pipeline is mainly sourced by formal interns, but your internships are often unpaid or underpaid, or if your recruitment mainly takes place at certain schools or partner organizations that also don’t have an incredibly diverse makeup, then your recruitment will inherently mirror the pools which you select from. Additionally, if your middle management and leadership are also lacking in diversity, it’s not shocking why someone would be uninterested in “growing” with a company where they don’t see themselves moving up—not to mention the mental and emotional burden that can come from constantly being the only person who looks like you in the room. 

In short: start within. Make sure your recruitment pipeline is inclusive, your workplace environment is supportive and fosters growth for everyone, and company leadership reflects the real world. With these measures in place, you’ll have the resources at hand to make sure your brands are always being challenged internally—which sure beats being challenged externally—and can be steered away from moments of inauthenticity and cheap co-opting long before hitting the “post” button.


With a career devoted to marketing, Anaya Duncan started out in the Insurance and Financial Services industry and is currently a burgeoning brand marketer in the Consumer-Packaged Goods space.

Originally from the Midwest, after graduating from Emory’s Goizueta Business School with her MBA, Anaya is currently located in New York City.

While brand management is her day job, Anaya wishes to further tap into her passion of connecting with people by way of writing and speaking on topics she’s passionate about such as Black Women’s empowerment in business and authentic representation in marketing and media for all people.

Want to learn more? Connect with her on Linkedin!


Visit this page to see more in the series, or check back for our next guest post. CM Group is a family of global marketing technology brands including Campaign Monitor, CM Commerce, Delivra, Emma, Liveclicker, Sailthru, and Vuture. By joining together these leading brands, CM Group offers a variety of world-class solutions that can be used by marketers at any level. Headquartered in Nashville, TN, CM Group has United States offices in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and global offices in Australia, London, New Zealand, and Uruguay.