Really, It’s Not That Deep: NY Mag Does An Unnecessarily In Depth Piece On The Word Ratchet

April 12, 2013  |  

For those of you who have been hoping the word “ratchet” would die soon, I wouldn’t count on it. In fact, I’m willing to bet it’s about to become an even larger part of mainstream culture, i.e., white folks are about to start using it,  thanks to an exploratory piece on the term in NY Mag. Titled, “Ratchet: The Rap Insult That Became a Compliment,” the article by John Ortved seeks to uncover the origins of the word in a way that leaves me asking the (ratchet) question — although I’m not even sure that’s the correct use of the term now –what the f#&% for?!

As the piece goes:

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.”

You can certainly say that again. For an example of that lost particularity, see this entire article in NY Mag.

The first appearance of ratchet in a published song was in 1999, when Anthony Mandigo released “Do the Ratchet” on his Ratchet Fight in the Ghetto album….In 2004, Earl Williams, a producer known as Phunk Dawg, recorded a new version of the song, featuring the better-known Lil Boosie (currently incarcerated), from Baton Rouge, as well as Mandigo and another Shreveport rapper named Untamed Mayne…. In the liner notes of the CD, Phunk Dawg wrote a definition of ratchet:  “n., pron., v, adv., 1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, narsty. 2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc.”

But the popularity of the song, and the adoption of ratchet by other, bigger names in the business — especially as rappers from the “Dirty South,” like Lil Wayne, T.I., and Juicy J came into vogue in the later 2000s — meant the definition of the word could not stay in the hands of Lava House Records. “It’s not necessarily negative. You could say ‘I’m ratchet’ to say ‘I’m real. I’m ghetto. I am what I am.’ It can be light, too,” Williams, the producer, explains. When ratchet is used in hip hop, it can also mean cool, sloppy, sleek, or flashy.

When I read these definitions of the term that black people have been using since the ’90s, I really question what service Ortved thinks he’s providing with this article. I guess it shouldn’t be all that hard for me to figure out considering NY Mag’s readership and the obvious understanding that people who have been using this word without needing an urban dictionary explanation of it already know what it means. So is Ortved trying to introduce this word to the mainstream so white people who want to be cool can add it to their vernacular? Or is he trying to shield them from some “underground” term that they have a right to know the meaning and connotation of to either avoid use of or use against us? Or my third explanation, which I personally believe is the case more than anything, is he wasting everyone’s time with much ado about nothing.

Michaela Angela Davis would likely disagree with that last point, as she seems to believe the term “ratchet” has far-reaching consequences for black women, telling NY Mag:

“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.”

And the use of this term is to blame for that? Pop culture has only been interested in Black women’s failings since the beginning of time. Ratchet may be the catch-all phrase that captures the negativity those outside the black community may enjoy shedding a light on, but whether this word is here or not, the light won’t shine any brighter or dimmer. And to be perfectly honest, I’ve never thought about the term ratchet in any specificity to Black women. In my own personal use, I relate it to everything from behavior that is ignorant and suspect to the utmost level, as well as simply “turning up,” as one would say now (i.e. having a good time) I wonder if there will be an expose on that phrase next?

And I hate that this article even makes me think about what things I apply to this term because, frankly, it’s not that deep. Yes, you should absolutely be aware of the language you use and when, where, and why, but taking an urban slang term and turning it into something bigger than it needs to be is not just counterproductive, it’s a waste of time. I’m still trying to figure out what Ortved got out of his research and what he thinks his readers will get out of this piece other than a headache and a feeling that yet again African American culture is being set up to be misappropriated. Have we spent this much time exploring the origins of frenemy and what white women’s embracing of this term could mean for the future of female friendships as we know it? Or how the use of “fetch” further spurs the growth of mean girl culture? Of course not. Those are safe words, right? The people using them could never mean any ill intent. It’s only when Black people come up with slang terms that they have to have a covert negative meaning.

Since Beyonce was so heavily referenced in Ortved’s ratchet expository — which I don’t even have time to touch on — I’ll just take a page from her Instagram and ask: can we live?


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