“Cancel” and “woke” are the latest terms to originate in Black culture only to be appropriated into the White mainstream and subsequently thrashed to death. Young Black people have used these words for years as sincere calls to consciousness and action, and sometimes as a way to get some jokes off. That White people would lift those terms for their own purposes was predictable, if not inevitable. The commodification of Black slang is practically an American tradition. “One of the biggest exports of American culture,” said Renée Blake, a linguistics professor at New York University, “is African American language.”
Terms such as “lit” and “bae” and “on fleek” — or, if you’re a little older, “fly” and “funky” and “uptight” — have been mined by White people for their proximity to Black cool. The word “cool” itself emerged from Black culture. “I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States,” James Baldwin wrote in 1979, “but they would not sound the way they sound.”
With “canceled” and “woke,” there’s a twist: Not only have these words been appropriated from Black culture, but they have also been weaponized to sneer at the values of many young Black liberals.