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Is ‘Ratchet’ Offensive To African American Women?


A while ago I did a post called, “15 Pictures That Prove Miley Is More Ratchet Than You.” The comments accused me of being racist because, well, those people took the article the wrong way. People misunderstood two things a) that I was using “ratchet” as a positive term b) that I was saying Miley was ratchet because she was comfortable revealing that she does sort of silly/nefarious things like hang out with strippers and smoke weed.

Here’s one comment, “Why is her life any of your concern? .Does she work for you? Does she owe you money? That young woman has worked since she was 8 years old. Have you?. If you want what she Has work for it. This country is so full of hate and pot should be legalized. Your are bully and like your has been the down fall. Love don’t hate. I think you wrote about her because she is white.”

Yes, I only write about people because they are white. What? People assumed that I was trying to tear Miley down by showing pictures of her hanging out with Black people. This somehow made me a racist and not the commenters’ whose first response to seeing a white girl with Black people made them think I was trying to make her look bad. The point wasn’t that she hung out with PoC it was that she hung out with blow up dolls and twerks.

But this is the comment that stood out to me.

“Love how a black woman wrote this article and used Ratchet to “compliment” Miley on her acceptance of the black community. Perhaps Emerald Pellot doesn’t realize that that people call someone ratchet when explaining how dirty, ugly, un-classy a woman is, and is mostly used as an insult toward black woman!! Way to show love to your community Emerald you ratchety ass hoe :)”

Again, this person is pointing out race, when I made no mention of it but what got me was that I had never heard of ratchet being used as an insult to Black women. The term entered my language through popular culture. I heard Lady  Gaga, Beyonce, Azealia Banks, and Rihanna use it in positive terms. They wore gold hoop earrings with the word in it. They looked stylish and cool. They were obviously using it as a point of pride and not negatively. But since so many people were offended by the Miley post, I wanted to know if it were true; was ratchet a racially motivated, degrading term?

I found this article in NYMAG, Ratchet: The Rap Insult That Became A Compliment. The word has origins, “Ratchet can be traced back to the neighborhood of Cedar Grove in Shreveport, Louisiana. ‘You talk to working class black people [down there],’ says Dr. Brittney Cooper, a co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective. ‘Ratchedness comes out of that. And some of that particularity gets lost when it travels.'”

However, it was initially used to describe a woman as negative. According to image activist and former fashion editor of Vibe, “There’s an emotional violence and meanness attached to being ratchet, particularly pertaining to women of color. We’re only seen through this narrow sliver, and right now that sliver is Ratchet. We don’t get to be quirky and fun and live in Williamsburg. Wolves don’t fall in love with us. The only interest that pop culture has in black women is this ratchet world.”

This is an interesting point, Black women are often poorly represented in popular culture. Even the films that win awards portray us as servants/slaves/impoverished however I wouldn’t equate that with “ratchetness.” On reality TV we’re just petty loud mouths, although EVERYONE on reality TV is a petty loud mouth.

However, the article points out that many women of color, although not all, have reclaimed it to take away its negative connotation, “A man or woman can be ratchet in a way that emphasizes their authenticity, their realness, or their fierceness — another word that entered our lexicon in the past decade, in part due to Tyra Banks and her Top Model series.”

This is certainly how I always thought of the word and I’ve never heard anyone say it in a negative way. Hell, I have a gold necklace that says, “Ratchet,” on it. Because they sell them. Because people will buy them. Because people want to be ratchet.

Racialicious points out, ” Folks with certain privilege are willing and able to float in and out of ratchet at will.  We watch shows like Basketball WivesReal 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.”

The point being that many people who aren’t ratchet (or in the article’s case, live in poverty) have the pleasure and benefit of appropriating the term or behavior, whereas “ratchetness” is an unchosen lifestyle for those who live in poverty. I don’t know if I buy that explanation because the boisterous and obnoxious behavior of reality stars that the writer is talking about has long existed before the word ratchet (The Osbournes were so ratchet!) and being a loudmouth isn’t limited to class and never has been.

People would watch people yelling at each other for entertainment no matter who was doing it because that’s what people like to see and people would continue to judge that behavior regardless of class as well. No one looks at the Real Housewives as role models because they wear nice clothing despite acting a fool. Implying that bad behavior is an appropriation of Black culture or poor culture is more problematic because it presumes that Black folks and poor folks are more prone to bad behavior and even promotes the stereotype that poor culture is Black culture.

The article uses the word “ghetto” as an analogy. When you say something is “ghetto,” you’re essentially insulting the people who have to live in ghettos. I believe that because a “ghetto” is a place where people live, it’s not a slang word. It’s as concrete as saying, “That’s so Times Square,” or “That’s so apartment complex!” However, ratchet is slang (and abstract) and isn’t slang defined by the way that we use it and not by much else?  Aren’t all words? It’s culture that decides the meaning of words otherwise “gay” would still mean happy and not refer to a homosexuals and “cool” would just refer to a temperature.

In the case of “ratchetness” I think you have to consider the source and who the word is being directed at and how it is used. What do you think?

    Emerald is an editor at CollegeCandy, lover of coffee, and pretend francophile. After studying writing and popular culture at NYU she decided to be a grownup and get a job. Tweet at ya' girl @EmeraldGritty.