Let’s get ratchet! Check your privilege at the door

A few days ago I had the, ahem, pleasure? of seeing the video of Miley Cyrus twerking. I was a little put off by it but couldn’t immediately identify why. There was the obvious discomfort at the fact that she wasn’t really good at twerking in the first place, but there was something else that I just couldn’t get jiggy with. Then I saw her post this picture and it clicked…

 	Miley Cyrus tweeted a photo of herself showing off her dancing skills with the hashtag #MCTWERKTEAM!

Via @mileycyrus on Twitter

Her skin and class privilege overfloweth in this poorly executed commodification of  twerking and subsequently “ratchet culture.” In an interview following the twerk video Miley said:

“You can’t really explain [twerking]… It’s something that comes naturally. It’s a lot of booty action… I haven’t really seen one bad comment about my twerk video… This is the first thing! I’m like, ‘I can’t sing, I can’t act, I’m dumb, I’m a hillbilly, but I can twerk, so, whatever.’”

Really Miley? Because there were plenty of bad comments posted about these young women (who twerk much better than you, I should add). It seems that only some people can get by solely on being a good twerker. 

Although I could go on forever, this post isn’t really about twerking. However, our dialogue about twerking reflects a larger system of cultural appropriation, commodification, and sometimes exploitation that has resulted in the birth of “ratchet culture.” Ratchet has become the umbrella term for all things associated with the linguistic, stylistic, and cultural practices, witnessed or otherwise, of poor people; specifically poor people of color, and more specifically poor women of color. (Yes, ratchet is a very feminine gendered term. See: Ratchet Girl Anthem). Remember when people who weren’t actually from the ghetto started to use the word “ghetto” to describe everything from their friend’s booty to a broken blender (real life examples)? The same phenomenon is happening with ratchet, even for those who do not use the word itself. It is super easy to borrow from the experiences of others as a way to be “fun,” or stretch boundaries on what is “acceptable,” without any acknowledgement of context or framework.

But being ratchet is only cool when you do it for fun, not if those are valid practices from your lived experiences. We watch shows like Basketball Wives, Real Housewives (of all the cities), and Bad Girls Club where women act ratchet as hell all the time. But they do so in designer clothes and at 5-star restaurants, and this paradox acts as a buffer for the ratchet that is the real reason for the shows’ success. Internet sensations like Sweet Brown are the perfect example of how “ratchet culture” is appropriated and commodified. “Aint nobody got time for that” has made its way to memes all over the internet and is used by folks from different backgrounds as punchlines and witty retorts. Sweet Brown has been contracted to sell everything from real estate to dental services. We witnessed the same trend with Antoine Dodson. It is becoming more and more common for folks to use “ratchet” to sell their not-at-all-ratchet products.

On an (inter)personal level, ratchet works to simultaneously police and defy gender, class, sexuality, and respectability norms. Folks with certain privilege are willing and able to float in and out of ratchet at will. The term ratchet became popular for me when I was still in undergrad about three years ago. All of us young, black scholars (constantly trying to justify the black side of the coin or the scholar side, as if they are polar opposites) were enamored with this term as a way to distinguish when we were or were not on the “right side” of the respectability table. When it was time to party we would say, “Let’s get ratchet!” But when I would go check my mail with my hair still wrapped in a scarf or was overheard talking to my friends from “back home” in our local dialect, I was just ratchet. Another example of the fluidity of ratchet was playing double dutch on the quad. At our predominantly white institution we were presenting a form of community building and fellowship that fell outside the boundaries of “appropriate” and “acceptable.” But our privilege as collegiate scholars allowed us to present ourselves in that way without the same push back we may have received if we were just black girls playing double dutch in a predominantly white community park.

I know that for me and many of my friends, the use of the term ratchet was a constant navigation of our identities as young, sexual, inner city hood Chicago-raised, black girls and privileged, college educated, Western women. I can’t stress enough that pop culture trends like twerking, “aint nobody got time for that,” or even just using the word ratchet to define the wild things that happened at last night’s party are all rooted in someone’s lived experience. Sometimes it’s your lived experience, but if it’s not, please stop for a moment to consider your privilege and what role you may be playing in the appropriation of someone else’s exploitation.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted March 28, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for my ignorance but can you define the terms “ratcket” and “twerking”? I’ve never heard these terms before and was thus pretty lost reading this. Thanks!

  2. Posted March 28, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    “But being ratchet is only cool when you do it for fun, not if those are valid practices from your lived experiences.” yes yes YES. Love this article. We need more of this. Thank you, Sesali.

  3. Posted March 29, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I genuinely don’t understand how to proceed from comments like this:

    “I can’t stress enough that pop culture trends like twerking, “aint nobody got time for that,” or even just using the word ratchet to define the wild things that happened at last night’s party are all rooted in someone’s lived experience. Sometimes it’s your lived experience, but if it’s not, please stop for a moment to consider your privilege and what role you may be playing in the appropriation of someone else’s exploitation.”

    OK – so, stop and consider the privilege – and then what?

    It’s a dance. Should non-African-Americans just never do it? I mean, we’re not dealing with some kind of religious rituals here – it’s an ass-shaking dance people do for fun. Should ass-shaking be restricted to one race? Even if black people invented it, once you create something like a dance or a song or a musical style, how can you say that only certain people are allowed to use it?

    Is an upper-class black girl allowed to twerk? What about someone from Sudan?

    I guess I don’t really get the problem with cultural ‘appropriation’ as you refer to it, as long as you’re not mocking the culture you’re borrowing from.

  4. Posted March 30, 2013 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    @Saito– I don’t think this is about twerking at all. I think the point is that being ratchet/ghetto, or any other term used to describe minority/lower class/poor people (mostly of color), starts off as a lifestyle that is then mocked by soceity.

    So the author is posing for non-lived partakers of under privileged beings to consider how they are advancing the continual ‘mocking’ of those who are in it.

    To which I disagree. I know plenty of under privileged people who take pride that their life is on national display. Like a ‘you talk about it, but we do this’ type of pride. So no harm, no foul. Now, I’m sure that there are members of our society who do take offense; however, my guess is they’re not the ones participating in ‘ratchetness’ or otherwise demeaning activities.

    @Sesali Bowen: Please define privileged. Is it any type of well being? If that’s the case, what’s the average?

  5. Posted April 3, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Well written but you’re going to have to take a back set and relax. We live in a globalized world now and everything is more interpersonally globally connected. Every religion/ culture/ experience are being borrowed right now. I think that’s what makes being social or partying more enjoyable. Keep in mind also women of color also do the same imitating other women of different cultures and background. This whole topic could be unfortunate or fortunate but you have to find the middle ground here.

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