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How one scene in ‘Girls Trip’ hilariously addresses the problem of cultural appropriation

Tiffany Haddish, Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith star as four reunited friends in “Girls Trip.” (Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures)
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“Girls Trip” is a raunchy comedy that centers on four college friends who reunite years later for a booze-filled weekend in New Orleans. But Malcolm D. Lee’s new film also captures how people of color are often tasked with alerting others to cultural appropriation.

Regina Hall stars as Ryan Pierce, a relationship expert who appears to — as her book’s title, “You Can Have It All,” would suggest — have it all: a successful career, a picture-perfect marriage and a quirky agent, Liz Davelli (Kate Walsh). Liz means well but proves to be problematic at times, casually throwing around phrases like “hashtag black girl magic.” (She is not black.) Ryan pulls her agent aside early on in the movie to discuss the latter’s inappropriate use of black colloquialisms.

“Liz, and I say this out of love,” Ryan says, “please refrain from saying things like ‘Preach,’ or ‘Go, girl,’ ‘Bye, Felicia,’ ‘ratchet’ or any other colloquialisms that you might have heard or looked up on Urban Dictionary.”

And that’s it. Ryan is polite, but she gets straight to the point. As the woman sitting next to me in the theater remarked, “That’s how you say it!”

The scene depicts a situation that other people of color might find familiar and is discussed within many minority communities but is not often addressed so concisely on screen.

In December, Slate published a conversation featuring Code Switch blogger Gene Demby, Slate writers Aisha Harris and Jamelle Bouie and sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom in which they discuss the burden black people face of “managing white emotions.” Bouie states that people “vastly underestimate the extent to which our lives are filled with a level of racial stress most white people simply couldn’t deal with.”

“And we’re having conversations with people who are sometimes well-intentioned and just starting to wade into these conversations and grapple with these ideas,” Demby responds. “And so it’s hard to figure out where to start, because we’re not in the same place.”

The scene in “Girls Trip” exemplifies the conversations Demby describes, and its use of comedy to do so shows how these divides can be overcome with a light touch. It’s clear that Liz’s misguided word choice bothers her friends, but she is not vilified for it. Instead, it turns into a running joke. Later on in the movie, Dina, played by Tiffany Haddish, threatens to cut Liz off from alcohol after she exclaims, “For real, though!”

Language spreads quickly, especially in a world where slang-filled tweets can go viral in a matter of minutes. Many people are often unaware of where “new” words and phrases such as “throwing shade” or “fleek” originated, and some people are therefore unaware of when it is or isn’t considered acceptable to use them. The best route, it has been argued, is to avoid using slang terms when unsure of their etymology. Ryan’s remark is a friendly wake-up call to those who, for example, jumped on the “ratchet” bandwagon a few years ago without being aware of the word’s origins. (“Ratchet,” originally a black slang term, was briefly reclaimed by black women before it entered the mainstream.)

Pop culture has humorously addressed the cultural appropriation of language before. In “30 Rock’s” seventh-season premiere, for instance, after Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) says, “That’s not how I roll” to Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), he responds, “Thank you for saying that in dated urban slang so that I’ll understand you.”

Walsh addressed the movie’s clever handling of the situation in a recent interview with People magazine.

“I think that [comedies] can concurrently get to the very serious business of solving problems with race in our culture and also laugh about it,” she said. “I think there’s a way to do both and be sensitive and actually do the work that needs to be done in our culture.”