My freshman year of high school, my friend Lucas had a shirt from Urban Outfitters that read “MO MONEY MO BITCHES” in huge, gold lamé print. I thought the shirt was hilarious because Lucas was clearly gay. However, his mom didn’t find it so funny and threw the shirt away. Furious, Lucas asked her why she threw it away. She said that the word bitch is a horrible word and shouldn’t be used so flippantly, especially not in a way that associates material wealth with “mo bitches”.
Lucas’ mom has participated in feminist rallies and protests in the 70’s. During this time, bitch was a pejorative employed to insult these women. Thus, she had a personal loathing for the word. Nowadays, the word is nearly commonplace; in a rap song where a rapper desires a “bitch with a fat ass”; in the audience of drag show where someone cheers on their friend onstage with a “Werk, bitch!”; I’ve even heard it as an acronym for a woman “B.eing I.n T.otal C.ontrol of H.erself”, to reject the negative connotations of being a bitch in the case of a woman asserting some sort of authority.
So who’s to say that Lucas’ mom doesn’t have a right to be offended by the word because of the original context she encountered it in? But then again, how many people (realistically speaking, outside of Grinnell) are aware of the word’s misogynistic origins?
This week, there were poster advertisements for the gogo party in Loose Lounge. There were a variety of images on different posters, but one in particular had the words “Twerk Team Thursday Presents: Gogo” with the headliner “LEZ GET RATCHET”. The poster had three white girls looking a hot mess.
I thought twerk was the dance style found on YouTube videos, where the Twerk Team, young black women, shake their asses to music. No really, they are shaking absolutely everything their mama gave them and clapping their asses like a standing ovation.
I’ve heard ratchet used in my hometown of Chicago, but it can be kind of difficult to define precisely. Urban dictionary defines Ratchet as “ as term for someone who is either 1. A whore 2. Dirty/nasty 3. Ghetto as HELL 4. Being annoying 5. Busted.” Clearly it’s not a good thing. And as far as I know, both terms originated within black youth culture and originated within the specific context of black youth culture.
So why were they being used to describe three whites girls serving as an advertisement for a dance party with “Gogo music?”
I emailed the organizers of the parties [Gabe Singer (15’)] for some further clarification. I wasn’t offended because I don’t think I had any right to be. I just thought the poster was a little insensitive and could lead to misunderstanding about the connotations of the words. So in the email, I described the poster as “an appropriation of a cultural term with negative connotations describing a foreign cultural artifact while the origins of both remain unknown to the general populace.”
Singer was very helpful in clearing up any confusion for me. He told me that gogo music refers to the music played in some DC clubs where people come to hang out and dance. When people do dance in these gogo clubs, their dancing is classified as “twerking” and their behavior can be described as “ratchet”. Additionally, Twerk Team Thursdays is a legitimate group involved with these gogo parties and it’s commonplace for radio DJs to advertise for these gigs using the teams twerk and ratchet.
After a little more research, I found that young colored people in DC associate with Gogo as a culture that they identify with. One girl said that “You know anywhere you go in the country, you ask a person where you think they from? You know somebody from DC you know what they stand for you know what they about. Gogo doesn’t come from the hype of how everyone else sees DC it comes from DC.”
Aha! So the terms had deeper connotations than the ones I was familiar with. Singer and the other organizers are from DC, have experienced the gogo life and are trying to bring some DC culture to Grinnell. Awesome!
Discussing this with my linguistics professor Cynthia Hansen, I learned that this is an example of “covert pride”; when a group employs speech or other behavior in which only they understand the significance behind these devices and use it regardless of whether mainstream culture understands it or not. Like an inside joke.
However, something else that Singer said concerned me. Bothered with the fact that I claimed it was strange for the word ratchet to describe white girls, he wrote:
“Both white and black people go to gogos, and these terms are applied to the attendees regardless of race…I think that you are being a little short-sighted when you consider only the origins of these words in determining their proper and improper use. I think consideration of how the use of these terms has changed and how they are used within a particular cultural context is key.”
So I thought for a bit, and I thought Singer had a point. Words have specific origins associated with certain contexts, but words also have a fluid identity that can change over time to broaden in meaning and connotation.
However, while I pursued further information on the meaning of these words, how many people didn’t? How many people saw the words and assumed some meaning of the words based on the poster without knowledge of the words’ actual origins and meaning, either within black youth culture or DC Gogo culture. How many people didn’t even know DC gogo was a thing? I know I didn’t.
By putting this poster out there, complete with covert pride, Singer and others were putting it out there for the public to consume. But when the mainstream society consumes culture without knowing where it comes from, they may appropriate the artifacts into their own culture with skewed meanings. It happens all the time
It happened with the image of a Native American Headdress. An item once used by certain Native American tribes to symbolize honor and respect, it now makes appearances in Lana Del Rey’s music videos and Victoria’s Secret runways.
Lady Gaga’s “Haus of Gaga” is a reference to the Haus(s) of New York Ballroom culture, where young and usually colored queer people gather into a familial type unit that looks out for each other and acts as a family in place of an actual family (Paris is Burning y’all). But Gaga uses it to describe the production team responsible for her fashion and media pieces. Homegirl didn’t exactly give a shout-out to the birthplace of the term as much as she did appropriate it.
It’s even happened with the n-word. The n-word is thrown around by some people who don’t understand the dense history of the word, from its use in hate speech to its re-appropriation by black communities. In a case like this, considering “only the origins” of the word is essential to understanding the word itself and the weight it carries.
On the flip side, I once used the word gypsy to describe a group of girls wearing hoods and shuffling alongside each other. I was berated by a peer who said that I couldn’t use the word “gypsy” because they prefer the term “Santi or Romani people.” She wasn’t either. A friend of mine, who is orthodox Russian and whose familial tree has roots in the Romani people, readily identifies as gypsy. She wore her “gypsy” identity loud and proud when she dressed up as Esmeralda, the gypsy vixen from Disney, for Halloween.
So when does it become ok to use a word outside of its original context? Whose consent does it take to make it ok and after that who is allowed to use the word?
In an America that’s clearly not post-racial, as evidenced by the flood of racist tweets concerning the election, I hesitate to adopt Singer’s stance of an all-inclusive approach to language because that kind of stance can lead to a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication. But I also don’t like to draw lines between who can use what types of language because who am I to police other peoples’ behavior?
Broadly, this entire incident made me think about Grinnell Culture and how, even though we’re for the most part removed from mainstream culture (we are in rural Iowa) we still interact with culture whose origins we may not be familiar with. Even beyond Grinnell, this happens all the time. When it does happen, we have a responsibility to investigate and to understand the culture on its own terms, not from our own viewpoint.
For anyone who was confused about the posters I hope I’ve cleared up some things. For anyone who attended the Gogo Party; stay ratchet y’all.
-Geo Gomez ’15