It should come as no surprise that there are plenty of people online who think the judge from the Kyle Rittenhouse trial is “based.” In fact, some on the far right would go so far as to say he’s “based AF.” Still others insist that Rittenhouse himself is “based AF.”
Over on TikTok, you could find streams covering the trial that were running litanies of praise for the young man from Illinois who killed two of his fellow Americans because he believed that, despite being armed with an assault rifle, he had reason to “fear for his life” from someone with a skateboard. In the comments, you’ll see it over and over: Based. Based. Based AF.
Oakland-based rapper Lil B the Based God first popularized the term with the 2007 debut album of his group Based Boys. Three years later, Lil B told Complex all about what “based” means to him. “Based means being yourself. Not being scared of what people think about you. Not being afraid to do what you wanna do. Being positive,” he explained. “When I was younger, based was a negative term that meant like dopehead, or basehead. People used to make fun of me. They was like, ‘You’re based.’ They’d use it as a negative. And what I did was turn that negative into a positive.”
So if “based” was brought into popular discourse by a Black rapper to express a positive feeling, why is it now a beloved term among the far right?
As with many phenomena at work today, it all started with Gamergate in 2014. The conservative commentator Christina Hoff Summers was given the nickname Based Mom due to her ardent defense of gamers who were labeled as sexist. Following the anointment of Summers as Based Mom, this pseudo-title became a commonly-applied ironic honorific for conservatives online. “Based” was particularly popular in the far-right spaces of Reddit, 4chan, Twitter and Discord, where casual misogyny often mixed with ironic racism.
Beyond the far-right groups, the appropriation of Black slang into the popular discourse more generally is nothing new. In 1962, William Melvin Kelley wrote an article in the New York Times curiously titled, “If You’re Woke You Dig It; No Mickey Mouse Can Be Expected to Follow Today’s Negro Idiom Without a Hip Assist.” As Kelley explained, words like “woke” belong to Black America and provide other Americans with a feeling of “pride in something that belongs completely to the Negro.” Basically, in a country that has taken so much from us, white people take our words, too. “By the time these terms get into the mainstream, new ones have already appeared, although some (such as ‘to dig’ or ‘cool’) remain staples of the idiom despite wide non-Negro use,” Kelley wrote. “A few Negroes guard the idiom so fervently they will consciously invent a new term as soon as they hear the existing one coming from a white’s lips.”
Now, it’s abundantly clear every day how much we owe to Black culture. It’s like TV writer Judnick Mayard put it in Wired’s oral history of Black Twitter: “It is the first time in history that we have digital proof that y’all copy us. Every single thing that we do.” This is evident from the dances on TikTok, OOTD posts on Instagram and the commonly-used humor and slang of Twitter. The language of Black people has become so commonly appropriated online that many folks wrongfully attribute it to young people in general. As BuzzFeed’s Sydnee Thompson points out, “AAVE [African American Vernacular English] is a living language that has evolved over centuries, but the ubiquity of the internet has made many aspects of the dialect more accessible and encouraged others to adopt it for their own use.”
She goes on to explain how AAVE terms and grammatical structures are attributed to millennials and the Very Online, “with no consideration given to the race of people using them.”
As for the far right, when they descend on Black language, they do so to intentionally exploit it. Damon Young, the author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker and co-founder of Very Smart Brothas, describes how this conservative tendency to mine value from Black lives aligns with how they engage in politics. “They are very effective at distilling these complex ideas around a single word and galvanizing support around the use of that single word,” he writes. “It’s easier to rail against something than to create something.” Essentially, conservatives steal language from Black America and exploit it for its cultural currency, while also using it to deride, dismiss and actively erode the progress of Black Americans.
So, when some far-right smooth brain with poster’s disease uses a string of Black-originated slang to celebrate a racist judge who just oversaw a travesty of justice, understand that they’re purposefully stripping the words of all their soul-edifying value, and making us and our language laughable. They don’t mean to use “based” like Lil B did when he first imbued it with the defiant positivity he needed to survive as a Black man in America. They mean it as digital blackface, a meme version of a minstrel show.
It’s their casual way of turning our expressions into meaningless phrases — and creating yet another reminder that what’s ours is theirs.