Is your ‘Gen Z slang’ co-opting queer Black lingo?

Like all good Gen Zers, the first thing I do after shutting off that phone alarm in the morning is instinctively open my socials. I start with TikTok—while everyone’s For You Page (FYP) looks a little different, you can bet good money on finding a thirst trap. While watching one, your thumb makes its way to the comment section and, there, you find comments from users saying: 

  • “things you did: THAT.”
  • “you ATE!!! and left no crumbs.”
  • “I’m living for this look!!”

Though incomprehensible to some, this way of speaking has become near-native to Gen Z users on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Whether through memes, short-form videos or classic forms of media such as TV, music, and video, Gen Z has been digitally socialized through the media they consume and formed their own vernacular. However, this vernacular did not come out of nowhere, nor was it recycled from users’ media consumption. Instead, it was taken from a once underground scene that has influenced so much of our modern-day lives and mainstream culture for good—ball culture.

What is ball culture?

It’s no surprise that modern ballroom culture, born in Harlem in the latter half of the 20th century by  LGBTQ+ Black and/or Latinx people, has become popularized—some might even say commercialized. We see shows like Legendary (HBO) and Pose (FX) offer an authentic, real-life presentation of what ballroom is with the help of legends such as Dominique Jackson, MJ Rodriguez, Leiomy Maldonado, etc. Brands like Coach partnered with ballroom legends Jack Mizrahi and Stasha Sanchez for their Pride 2021 campaign. 

Despite ballroom culture and some of its most prominent figures just now receiving their flowers within the larger media landscape, their culture—although watered down—has been in front of us this entire time, especially in the way that we speak. Phrases like “you better work,” “they’re serving body,” and “yas, queen” — some of the highest praises amongst queer and femme Gen Zers — have been taken directly from queer Black a/o Latinx people for such a long time, without its due recognition.

Therefore, this is no simple copy and paste from one tweet or post caption to another — it’s a direct appropriation of their culture

How do we address this appropriation? 

As a queer Latinx, I see myself in this history and these people. But, on the other hand, as a white Latinx, I know I am a guest to a scene created by Black a/o Latinx folks, for Black a/o Latinx folks. Therefore, these solutions are by no means comprehensive and final-say.

However, those who are non-queer, non-Black a/o Latinx can safely start by first acknowledging that there is no singular Gen Z vernacular — much of it is an appropriative assortment of words stolen from Black people and culture.

Secondly, we must critically look at the monetization of ballroom culture. When it comes to all facets of the business model, whether brand strategy, advertising, merchandising, etc., it is crucial to avoid using queer Black vernacular in general, but especially during Pride Month. Unless there are queer Black a/o Latinx leaders in the company, it is corporate pandering when consumers see queer Black a/o Latinx faces or vernacular for a campaign with no internal representation to match it. 

Lastly, you must ask yourself: how is your brand supporting and directly engaging with this community? Is your HR team actively recruiting folks from this intersectional community—not just at the intern level but the C-Suite level, too? Do your internal policies radically support and advocate for this community — from healthcare options to paid-time off to discrimination policies? Are you lending your platform and leveraging your resources, whether tangible or intangible, to other businesses or organizations from this community?

Finally, what are you doing to support this community? Are you giving your time (volunteering), your treasure (money), or your talent (skills)?

All in all, next time you try speaking to Gen Z, remember that you are in fact stealing words from the mouth of a culturally rich, grossly underrepresented community. We owe so much to them, especially Black trans women.

However, it is so often that brands gain, grow, and reach profit margins because of this community, but seldom does the community get to do the same. That stops here—let’s turn those question marks into periods and take action now. 

Happy Pride, everyone.

Juan José Amaya is a Senior Partner at JUV. He is a certified Barb running around New York City thrifting or trying to find the best (and cheapest) tacos. Connect with him on LinkedIn!