This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Everyone is familiar with “boys,” the youthful male humans who, as the saying goes, will tend to be themselves. But what comes to mind when you see the word boi? If you’d asked me a few months ago, I would’ve said a boi, broadly speaking, was a queer youth who blended femininity and masculinity in some way. In some communities of color, boi is roughly synonymous with tomboy. Among gay men, he might be a youngish feminine man, akin to a “twink.” Bois could also be nonbinary, transmasculine youths. Recently, however, I’ve observed a definitional shift: In Twitch chats, on Reddit, and in the name of a pro–Civil War extremist group, boi increasingly has come to mean just a boy—an ordinary young male. How did this happen? When I looked into the nature of the shift, my investigation led me to a surprising and unsettling intersection of memes, racists, and racists’ memes.
To begin, spelling boy with an I didn’t originate in the queer community. The first major recorded use is attributed to rapper Big Boi (Antwan André Patton) of the duo Outkast, which formed in 1992. The I in Big Boi came from a street spelling of boy in the Black community in the early 1990s or before. Kimberley Baxter, a Ph.D. student with a focus on regional variation in African American English at New York University’s linguistics department, explained via email:
In this case, we’re talking about the alternative spelling of words according to the phonological properties of AAVE [African American Vernacular English], which of course vary from region to region. That’s how you get things like: “Ion like det,” “Naw/Nah,” “Zaddy,” “Dassit” and so many more. These aren’t just spelling “mistakes”; they are an integral part of the written culture of AAVE, in which we are able to fully express ourselves beyond the confines of the “mainstream” language that’s been foisted upon us as the standard of valid speech. There’s a very long and evolving tradition of this, which isn’t limited to the advent of hip hop and R&B, but stretches back for over a century, especially in mediums like poetry and song.
Boi didn’t remain confined to AAVE long once Big Boi brought it into popular culture. The spelling (though not the AAVE pronunciation, which is something like boy-ee or bou-oy) was adopted by 1990s skateboarding culture to refer to the countercultural identity of skaters, in contrast with mainstream young men (Avril Lavigne’s 2002 hit “Sk8er Boi” is a reference to this). Not long afterward, the gay community began using boi to mean a young, attractive gay man, as on the cover of XY magazine in 2000. Concurrently, boi came to be applied not only to men but also to boyish young women—originally young women in skateboarding. By 2003, the dominant definition on Urban Dictionary was a young butch lesbian, and so it remained until 2016.
These were bois as I’d known them. Boi was, and is, an identity term, primarily used by people of color, that traverses the messy, occasionally overlapping space that encompasses masculine women, nonbinary transmasculine people, and transgender men. (An earlier word, butch, pulls off a similar trick of spanning communities that are in the process of pulling apart.) Whole organizations like the Brown Boi Project and Bklyn Boihood took their names from the masculine-of-center, female-assigned people of color whom they represent and serve.
A nonbinary self-described boi from the (very NSFW) subreddit r/bois was the first person who described the growing mainstream, cis-guy use of boi to me as the “meme use” of the word. This Redditor further explained that the subreddit has struggled to keep its character as this meme use has expanded online, replacing the queer usage of the term:
In some ways it’s good that gender lines are less important, and of course things shift definition over the years (in terms of the meme use). On the other hand, r/bois was genuinely the first place I felt like I could be accepted for being a gender nonconforming AFAB [assigned female at birth] person who likes being called a boy.
The big milestone of this newer, meme-influenced use is something called the Dat Boi meme. Dat Boi is a piece of absurdist humor using an image of a frog on a unicycle; the frog is placed in historical, fantasy, or futuristic environments, and the only joke is the strangeness and specificity of him being sighted by, say, Legolas of Lord of the Rings. “Here come dat boi!” the standard text announces, with the response “o shit waddup!” It’s quite charming, as memes go, and was popular enough to have been covered in the mainstream press, including Vox and New York magazine. There was even a minor controversy, covered in Paper magazine, over whether Dat Boi was an example of cultural appropriation because of its use of AAVE spellings, as described above.
This is one of the places where online racists come in: White supremacy bloggers seized on the story in Paper as a locus of what they viewed as lefty snowflake outrage, and expressed their commitment to spreading Dat Boi far and wide in hope of taunting those offended by its use—typical “own the libs” stuff. But it’s not exactly the first place where the alt-right intersects with the trajectory of boi. Years before the Paper dust-up, boi had cropped up in the text of other meme images. And, before or alongside that, online racists had created Black alter egos—sometimes referred to as digital blackface—as a ploy to discredit Black people in the eyes of white liberals.
According to Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher of the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center who studies digital blackface, “[white supremacists] are very, very aware of the complexities of Black political expression, and they’re always looking for wedges to exploit differences between white liberals and Black folks.” These malicious actors co-opt Black ways of speaking in order to twist them, to make Black people seem particularly “dumb,” or to portray them as extreme and violent in their political ideology.
These malicious uses of AAVE are common on 4chan and Reddit, the sources of much of meme culture. There, boi and other AAVE spellings became mixed into memes, some of them explicitly racist, such as We Wuz Kings and some much more innocent, such as Dat Boi. (The current Urban Dictionary definition references another of these memes.) If anyone expressed discomfort with the misuse and abuse of these spellings, racists would double down, making it a special project to dilute their meaning as much as possible.
They were able to try this because of the multiple points of overlap between extremist sections of 4chan and Reddit on the one hand and more mainstream meme-making and online gaming culture on the other. This means that what’s popular among Nazis one day can become defanged and widely disseminated among the youth a few months later. (For example, I found a self-described “nazi boi” on the r/teenagers subreddit months before the word entered common usage there.) Of course, their attempts don’t always work—extremists have influence, but not control over youth culture. Boi, through sheer luck aided by the fact that it’s quite cute and fun to look at, seems to have caught on to an extent few other things have. Now, teens on Reddit or Twitch chat use boi synonymously with guy, apparently unaware of its recent history.
Every rock you look under, these days, it feels like you find white nationalists, and the evolving meaning of boi is no exception. Organized online racists, with a taunt here and a digital blackface account there, shepherded boi away from queer people of color with memes as their medium. Now, if we say it’s racist to use boi, we serve the racists up a new locus for their disingenuous, performative outrage. But if we ignore deliberate attempts to steal and pollute every bit of uniqueness and queerness and originality in the world, we let them win. Ordinary white kids using boi now aren’t doing it with any ill intent, but they’re still crowding out those for whom it once meant something more than just a guy. No one’s to blame. Everyone’s to blame. Forget it, Jake. It’s the internet.