Let’s Get Ratchet! Check Your Privilege At The Door

By Guest Contributor Sesali Bowen; originally published at Feministing

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 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. 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 pushback 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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  • jahcruzer

    So if I understand this post and all the comments…everything white people invented should belong to them? Cause if African descendants own their culture and white people shouldn’t touch it, and Latinos own their culture and white people shouldn’t touch it…shouldn’t white people own their culture and no one else should touch it? Just pointing out a double standard I’m seeing here

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1212387932 Ashley Jones

    Thanks keeks! That all I was trying to say.

  • keeks

    All the same, we are descendants of West Africans. Those dance styles would not be in the Americas if not for our people being moved here. I don’t see how it’s cultural appropriation when it’s something that survived with us in spite of enslavement. Now I can see there being tons of dances that fit the “twerking” description as you said. No one considers it to be the first of its kind. I can see how it might have come from something like “moupuka” which comes from Côte d’Ivoire. As well as Dancehall, since for a couple of decades you have West Indian dances and artists slowly breaking into the US market. So there had to be some kind of conversation between black peoples or even cultural appropriation between black cultures. But it can be upsetting the way that black cultural productions operate in the US. Almost everything that black people make becomes entertainment fodder for mainstream/white America. When it comes to black cultural productions, and not just limited to the US, it seems like no one is ever allowed to say “this belongs to us.” We only create for something to become a commodity and then in couple of decades it no longer becomes associated with us. It becomes “just music” or “just dance.”

  • keeks

    Exactly what I was thinking. I really don’t want to think of this racist ass chick when I think of twerking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.swinney Daniel Swinney

    And really, there’s no reason it shouldn’t have moved from West African culture to West Indian culture to American culture. There is a finite number of ways that the human body can move to music. Once every possible dance move is “claimed” by one culture or another, are we then going to declare, “Ok, everyone, you know what skin color and nationality you are, so you know what dances you are allowed to do (without being labeled an asshole) for the rest of eternity”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.swinney Daniel Swinney

    Isn’t the twerk just a dance? I’m not being sarcastic when I ask this, but is it actually problematic for a dance craze to spread beyond the first group of people to do it? I mean some subculture out there probably invented the Fox Trot, but was it hurtful when people in the next state started doing that dance? Is the idea that white people and otherwise privileged people should have to make up all their own dances? Or if you don’t know how to make up a dance, at least only do dances invented by other white or rich people?

    Also, you seem to eye-roll at Cyrus for not being harshly criticized for being good at the dance. So what? Being a bad dancer is not a character flaw, and not being criticized for it is hardly her fault. The real assholes are whoever criticizes the less privileged twerkers out there, but I believe in all my heart that all the world from Dayton to Denmark to Djibouti should be able to hone and display their twerk skills. Is there a darker side of twerking that makes it more exploitational than the Twist, the Samba, a mosh pit or the Mashed Potato?

    • keeks

      It’s never just a “dance.” And it is pretty insulting if we see a bunch of white women who can’t dance worth a damn making a video called “twerking” like they actually know something. And then they receive a great deal more attention than the WOC who invented the dance and threw it out the ballpark. It’s like how most dances of African origin are only good and popular once white people/lighter skinned individuals take over. Nowadays the big names in salsa are generally not seen as Afro-latin, for instance. It’s not simply a matter of who gets to dance but who gets attention, esp for being a less than skilled dancer, and who gets praise and money.

      • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.swinney Daniel Swinney

        I didn’t know anyone was touting the Cyrus video as being “good.” Twerking was already famous before she did it. It’s not “that thing Miley Cyrus” does now. She isn’t the face of twerking to anyone who doesn’t think Psy is the face of rapping. Again, I fully think the people downing the better dancers are idiots, but I support people’s rights to post harmlessly silly videos on the Internet. Miley Cyrus twerking on youtube is going to get more attention than a better-dancing non-celebrity just like if Jamie Foxx sang a Danish folk song on Youtube he’d get more hits and blog posts than a better and more authentic Danish folk singer would.

        • ellie

          THANK YOU

  • http://twitter.com/09778394 Ssie

    I thought Trudy had some interesting thoughts on this as well:


  • littleeva

    Interesting, though I am a bit confused. If I go to another country, and people are speaking American slang, is that wrong? Should people only be allowed to speak on their own experience. I guess I’m trying to understand the point of this piece.

    Sometimes I think stuff was easier in the 1970’s.

    • Firene

      It’s about cultural appropriation. Honestly, Keeks above explained this very nicely so I won’t repeat it here.

      Understanding the conversation requires understanding the terms, how they’re used, and what’s being abused. It’s exactly the kind of thinking that says “but its just a word/dance/song/whatever” which is problematic because it attempts to state that things have no meaning. That nothing means anything and that these words/actions are just arbitrary phenomena with no meaning.