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Allison Geyer: The problem with being a 'basic white girl'

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White people can be such nerds.

There. I said it. Human beings of western European ancestry have historically proven to be, at times, total squares who occasionally struggle to think of cool stuff themselves, so they look to young, urban trendsetters (read: not white) to blaze the trail when it comes to music, fashion, dance, even language.

It happened with R&B. It happened with headdresses. It happened with the Harlem shake. It happened with twerking. There’s even a word for it. “Columbusing”: The act of discovering something that is not new and claiming it as one’s own.

Take the concept of “basic,” for example. You know, the word used to describe women who love leggings, Ugg boots, infinity scarves, autumn-scented candles, shopping at Target and reading “US Weekly.” They clutch Pumpkin Spice Lattes in gel manicured hands. They fill their Pinterests with fake quotes from Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. They are excruciatingly banal. They are moderately privileged. They are almost exclusively white.

But “basic” was a thing even before it was a thing. The good people at BuzzFeed tracked the word’s first known contextual usage back to the 1984 song “Meeting in the Ladies Room” by the all-girl R&B band Klymaxx. (Side note: That is an amazing band name). It describes a “basic woman” as someone who, basically, consorts inappropriately with a non-single man.

Urban Dictionary’s first entry for the term “basic bitch” is from 2009, citing black comedian Lil Duval and black YouTuber Spoken Reasons as the sources who inspired the concept’s popularity. The term popped up in hip hop songs over the next several years, describing an uncouth, uncool, inauthentic woman.

Then Kreayshawn, a white, female artist from California, rapped about basic bitches and their lust for the status brought by mainstream designer goods in her viral 2012 song “Gucci Gucci.” She performed at UW-Madison that same year, and I suddenly felt relieved I never forced my parents to buy me a Coach purse back when those were cool. Basic had been full-on Columbused, much like “YOLO,” “bae,” and my personal favorite, “ratchet.”

That’s when white people started going crazy. Google Trends data show the “basic bitch” phrase entering the public lexicon around 2011, but the pumpkin spice madness seems to have reached critical mass now, in the fall of 2014. The whole Internet is overrun with listicles describing the habits of basic white girls, tips on how to tell if you are are one or not and musings on why fall is the most basic season of them all.

Some women have decided to bask in their basic-ness, calling it a much-needed celebration of unbridled femininity. Others revile it, calling the stereotype a form of veiled misogyny and consumer anxiety. Is there anything more basic than pseudo-intellectual think pieces deconstructing and overanalyzing a dumb meme that doesn’t even mean what people think it means?

As a white person, I fully acknowledge that I can’t even begin to understand the minority experience. But I can learn about it, talk about it and try to be part of the solution.

“Basic” started its linguistic life as a term within African American vernacular English and ended up slapped on some white girl’s Instagram feed with a hashtag in front of it. That’s probably not as contentious as Iggy Azalea’s rise to fame imitating black Southern hip hop, but isn’t it kind of the same thing?

Some decry it as cultural appropriation; some defend it as cultural appreciation. I’m sure there are elements of both, because not all people are monsters. Culture is dynamic, as is the exchange of ideas.

But good intentions don’t trump ignorance. Because at its very root, borrowing things from other cultures, piecemeal, without giving due credit and respect to their origin, reinforces white Western society’s time-honored domination (and dare I say exploitation?) of other cultures.

White people, why do we have to make everything all about ourselves? That’s just about as basic as you can get.

Wait, am I using that word right?


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