In Browsing Black History, we celebrate Black History Month by exploring the origins of internet trends and icons popularized by Black cultural producers, too often left uncredited for their work.
On February 10, 2016, an anonymous Quora user asked, “Is it rude to call an African American Woman sister or sis?” To which user, De’Ontrey Reddish, replied, “It isn't an issue if you truly have developed a sibling-like bond. If you are saying it like, ‘Right on, my sister,’ it can come off as you're just a white person trying to fit in. But, it's nothing derogatory about it.” Fast forward three years and there have been articles written that count sis among popular internet words to sound cool; Google Trends shows a growing interest in the term sis and tea sis; and the word is inescapable on Twitter.
There’s a profound interest in sis. Truth is, it may seem like a novel term but it actually has roots deeply embedded in the Black church and queer communities. And despite its popularity due to digital appropriation, many believe the word is for and by African Americans exclusively.
Naima Muhammad co-host of the pop culture podcast, Tea With Queen and J, describes an unwelcome use of the word sis online. Muhammad got irritated with one Facebook commenter to their show’s page who used the word sis in a condescending manner toward her. She posted an article about how lynching is now considered a federal crime, to which a commenter said, “Naima, what I’m saying is murder is already illegal and is a federal crime along with credit card fraud and kidnapping and child porn. Regardless of how you do it, you still committed the crime. So I don’t know what you’re getting at, sis.”
Naima muted the post and decided not to respond to the commenter, but she was so irritated that she utilized a segment of her podcast, where she and her co-host “throw someone in the pit,” to react.
“You’re not my sister, don’t sis me if you’re not a Black woman or a person impacted by misogynoir,” Muhammad said on air. “Because if you understood sisterhood in the way in which Black people say it and how we say sis to each other, then I wouldn’t have to explain to you why this fucking lynching federal hate crime thing is something that’s important to me.”
According to Merriam-Webster, sis is a derivative of sister that originated before 900 AD. Systir, one of many variants, is Middle English. Other variants include zuster (Dutch), schwester (German), soror (Latin), and siur (Old Irish). The most commonly used application of sister is a female offspring having parents in common, but it is also used to acknowledge a member of a women's religious order that includes the Roman Catholic and the Christian church.
Nicole R. Holliday an assistant linguistics professor at Pomona College asserts that while we have a shared understanding of what words mean, we process meaning, especially for things that are more social, in its context. She believes sis—in addition to being a religious title—represents kinship and power amongst marginalized groups, especially in the LGBTQ community.
“For [gay men] it's [sis] subversive because they challenge hegemonic masculinity,” Holliday says. “By calling each other women, they're taking back the power. ‘Well, fuck this structure. We have our own thing.’ It's kind of like the n-word within Black communities or like women calling each other ‘bitch,’” she says.
In its most recent iteration, we’ve seen sis go from a devout term with religious overtone to Black LGBTQ nomenclature that captures a sense of endearment and communalism sacred to the community.
“I think that the thing about the internet and the meme culture is that usually, it tends to try to tackle really, really big subjects with one word like sis, right?,” Myles E. Johnson, Afropunk’s senior content editor tells Broadly. “So I think the real thing that's happening around the word sis is this gender revolution, that kind of non-binary conversation.”
Johnson, who grew up in Atlanta, which is considered the “the epicenter of the gay South,” picked up the word sis in salons frequented by what he describes as feminine gay men, cis women, and trans women. “I really think there's this reckoning happening about who owns femininity now, and who owns Black femininity, and who owns the capital in the economy that birthed out of Black femininity,” he contends.
Adding, “To put it plainly, it's like Beyoncé used to be the face of it [Black femininity], right? And the Black gay men who would choreograph her or who'd pick out her clothes, or the Black women who may not be able to be as embraced by the mainstream, aka white society; maybe they're helping her in another way that's still behind the scenes. And I think right now is kind of reckoning of like, OK, what is Black femininity? This word sis is so gendered and now it's being challenged.”
On September 15, 2018, Twitter user Brandon Pledger tweeted, “If guys is gender neutral then so is sis. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.”
Pledger’s tweet was shared over 106,000 times, favorited over 370,000 times and there were over 1,000 responses with some protests and others agreeing. The push for sis to become gender neutral or even universal isn’t simple, especially when it comes to people who might not appreciate the pronoun being applied to them (i.e. cishet men) or who are peripheral to Black culture. Semantics matter but when the gatekeepers of a term continue to evolve, the lines between who can and cannot use it can get blurry—especially with a word as multifaceted as sis.
According to Johnson, the best way to find out if you should or shouldn’t be using sis—and who it can be directed towards—is a matter of doing your research. “I think you should just always talk about what you know. I think the reason why you see it [spreading] is because Black internet culture is really the internet culture, just like Black culture is American culture,” he says.
“You see that word a lot because we're going to run everything culturally. It's not going to transform differently; that's just going to communicate negligently. So if you see something you think is cool, then it's OK to mind your business. I'm not really into the exchange and appreciate, I'm just like, ‘mind your business.’"