(Un)Clutching My Mother’s Pearls, or Ratchetness and the Residue of Respectability

31 Dec


The recent news that ATL rapper Shawty Lo (of Laffy Taffy fame) may be the potential star of a new reality show featuring him, his 11 children, and his 10 baby mamas had this feminist searching for somebody’s pearls to clutch,  seeing as how even the First Lady’s love of pearls has not inspired me to cop a strand of my own.

I watched the trailer for this latest train wreck out of Atlanta in mild disgust and mega internal conflict. On the one hand, I felt compelled to embrace this potential portrayal of what one friend called an “alternate family.” I mean, my family, composed of my single mom, my only-child self, my cousins who were stand-ins for big brothers, and more recently my step-family is certainly “alternate.” At least I felt that way as a kid when I was asked to fill out those old-school ditto sheets with the members of my family, which curiously left absent slots for cousins and aunties and grandparents. 

And when I see the “rabid” nature of respectability politics that makes grown-ass women feel justified in referring to other sisters hustling trying to make it as “brood mares” I am reminded that I don’t ever wanna be down with the myopia and pathology of the respectability racket either! It is so absolutely clear that this respectability shit IS.NOT. working, no matter how much we remix it. The refusal to see that requires what I like to call indignant ignorance, and frankly ain’t nobody got time for that!


On the other hand: this Shawty-Lo biznass is utterly ratchet! And ratchetness gives me pause, every single time! It’s meant to. Ratchet acts are meant to be so over-the-top and outrageous that they catch your attention and exceed the bounds of acceptable saying.

This is the manner and mode of ratchetness that Bey seems to be invoking (successfully or not, you be the judge) in this pic which had the internets all ablaze over the weekend. 

Let's Get Ratchet! Let'sGetRatchet!

Let’s Get Ratchet! Let’sGetRatchet!

Bey’s ratchetness is about flamboyance, about doing the most, and “Bey-ing the most.”

Shawty-Lo’s brand is “ghetto” “hood” ish on steroids.

In this regard,his show is certainly poised to succeed. (And it ain’t even aired yet.)

 So my initial thought to my friend on FB was: “When there’s a show about a woman and her ten baby daddies then we can have a discussion about alternate families. Until then, this just sounds like women with few options capitulating to Black male patriarchy.”

By-and-large, I believe this is true. But it is also true that I find something fundamentally off-putting about a brother with 11 kids by 10 different women, even though it appears that he supports them all, claims them all, and works to have some level of relationship with their moms. I’m tired of brothers not having to be emotionally accountable for their relational choices. I’m tired of the way patriarchy’s love affair with capitalism sets men up to think that manhood and fatherhood are tied to one’s bank account.

 Patriarchy exempts men from having to emotionally grow the fuck up.

 I mean, it’s great that Shawty Lo knows and claims all his children.  But um, WHEN did that become the standard?!

Men don’t want superficial relationships, but they have little motivation to cultivate the habits of character—emotional generosity and maturity, selflessness, self-confidence (not EGO) – that are necessary for good relationships. Intuitively most men reject women who want them only for what they have, and rightfully so. But these same men are rarely challenged to cultivate the kind of emotional consideration that they seek in others.  They want these things from women, benefit from the time we spend cultivating these attributes in our friendships with other women, but are so ill-equipped to provide them themselves.

 Even still, in the crevices of my wrinkled forehead are the residues of my own respectability politics, my ambivalence about the limits of our alter(n)ations, and our excessive celebrations of alterity.  Even as our generation works hard to stop clutching the pearls and with it the respectability that we think is held in tact by the thin tie that binds, we are confronted with the challenges that led our foremothers to embrace respectability in the first place. We might not be striving for big R-type Respectability, but we are all over little-R respectability. 


Well, “ask me what I do and who I do it for.” For the future kids, for my mama, my grandmama, my aunties, all those people, for whom I am the embodiment of hope.

When I was growing up, watching way too many girls become mothers before they had the resources to make sustainable lives for themselves and watching my mother hustling to make ends meet, I caught the cautionary tale real quickly. Whatever you do, don’t do this. 

Not justifying. More like confessing. And inviting us–respectable, supereducated brown girls, the ones who “did it the right way,” whatever the hell that is– to tell the truth about our continued investments in respectability, and about all the ways that our love for all things ratchet is as much about getting free as it is about reminding ourselves of all the reasons why we made the choices we made. So we wouldn’t end up like that. Like them.

I mean it could be good ole fashioned “Chickenhead Envy” on my part.  Cuz damn. It definitely feels like “Hoes be winning.”

But are they really? Are any of us of winning in a scenario where respectable and ratchet are the only two options? 

Yes, the alternate family that Shawty Lo and the Baby Moms have built may be subversive, transgressive, and even admirable in its insistence on creating meaningful kinship bonds despite the dictates of respectability. Alternate families are incredibly difficult to create and structurally discouraged at every turn. And in some ways our affective lives (our emotional selves) have not caught up to the space, time, and resource demands of this neoliberal moment.

Ratchetness emerges under these conditions as a kind of habitus through which (some) working-class folks and folks with working class roots interact with every aspect of their lives from entertainment to family to government.

(Hurricane Chris performs “Halle Berry”–one of the first songs to popularize the term “ratchet” in front of the Louisiana Legislature, watch around the 6min mark.)

 More and more though, I am coming to understand that subversive and transgressive politics do not a revolution make.  I mean how exactly does the subversion and transgression represented here undercut patriarchy?

Just because it’s alternate and non-normative–and thus even potentially queer– should I as a feminist embrace it?

From what I see, this radical reimagining of family works primarily to balance the public portrayals of Black men as oversexed deadbeats against the reality that “as long as he takes care of his kids,” we can’t really have anything to say, because ultimately “he ain’t that bad.”

 What do we do with a man that sleeps around unprotected with all these women given the alarming rates of HIV infection in ATL? (And how many people will come to this post and remind me that the women also chose to have unprotected sex with him?!)

As I watch the mothers of Shawty Lo’s children form strategic alliances all in the name of parenting their children and getting what they need from this ONE man, I think about the continued imbalance of power that Black men have over Black women despite all the ways white capitalist supremacist patriarchy conspires to keep Black men locked into a form of subordinate masculinity.

 I know that should this show become a full fledged series, everyone will focus on the Mamas, on how stupid they all were to take up with dude, who has a reputation for foolishness. Their maturity and the wisdom of their choices will surely be discussed. 

His? Not so much.

As I’ve said before, reality (television) frequently makes Black women the victims of persistent acts of disrespectability.

So even as I unhand my (mother’s) pearls, I think this show among others can invite us to think about Black women’s deployment of ratchetness as part of a kind of disrespectability politics.

Or in Bey’s case, as a kind of joy and celebration, that the rush to respectability simply doesn’t allow.

Elsewhere I have written about ratchet feminism, primarily as a kind of female friendship forged in the midst of complicated relationships among men, their mothers, and their many women.  I think this show will place this concept on the table again, as it demands we think about all of the creative ways women negotiate patriarchy.

At the same time, we have to think about how the embrace of ratchetness is simultaneously a dismissal of respectability, a kind of intuitive understanding of all the ways that respectability as a political project has failed Black women and continues to disallow the access that we have been taught to think it will give. #AskSusanRice

We must ask what ratchetness itself makes possible, even as the gratuitous and exploitative display of it attempts to foreclose possibility. What does ratchetness do for the ratchet and non-ratchet (and sometimes ratchet) alike?

Are Black women not always already perceived as “ratchet” anyway? As over-the-top, excessive, doing the most and achieving the least, unable to be contained, except through wholly insufficient discourses, like ghetto, and hood, and ratchet. AND respectable. 

Are Black men “ratchet”? Can white women be ratchet? Is  this ratchet? 

Kanye and Baby Mom (to be) Kim Kardashian

Kanye and Baby Mom (to be) Kim Kardashian

I don’t have the answers. And I’m not knocking these moms. The best I can do here is own my contradictions and then let go of these damn pearls, because despite my desire to hold on, this ain’t our mothers’ feminism. 

30 Responses to “(Un)Clutching My Mother’s Pearls, or Ratchetness and the Residue of Respectability”

  1. Ari Ami December 31, 2012 at 12:20 PM #

    Amazing Post! I definietely agree with a lot of points you made. I have a lot to think about and reflect upon. Also, Christelyn Karazin can kick rocks (I could have said worse, trust me.) I can’t stand her.

  2. authorextraordinaire December 31, 2012 at 3:00 PM #

    I don’t mind “knocking”this total lack of principles, morals, ethics and sensibility. Many of our younger generation have reverted to the most animalistic behavior–and not of the higher animals. Pitiable and pitiful. Hollywood types just bought almost the last of the newspapers, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, getting rid of all print. The only means of communication left is entertainment. We won’t even have a fiddle to play while this civilization becomes ashes–or anyone who knows how to play it–or read the music and directions.

  3. jusRhae December 31, 2012 at 6:39 PM #

    i have more thoughts rambling around in my head but, after reading the post of LHHATL i had to hold….btw the post of LHHATL was so moving i would like to know if the series is still on so that i could see whats going on?

    • jusRhae December 31, 2012 at 7:03 PM #

      also like to add, i dont particularly understand reality shows…but i havent owned a tv in two yrs or so….so i’m catching glimpses of things and i’m all kinds of confused, not just by lost of who’s who in celebrities but also wondering why my ppl SERIOUSLY acting like that, in generalities.

      • authorextraordinaire January 1, 2013 at 12:27 PM #

        I’m laughing. When I taught I was diligent to keep up with the latest, styles, slang, music, interests that my students did. It was la research project near the end of each summer, with “catch-up” during the winter holiday. I would watch TV and movies to be sure I knew celebrity names and “wot’s hap’nin.” Loved to surprise students by being able to participate in their conversations. After all, I am a social-HUMAN scientist, and participant-observer is the basic methodology.

        Now, that I no longer teach, I stopped trying to “keep up,” with what does not interest the non-teacher. I can’t tell the difference between a Jay Lo and a ???… They are clones to me, and boring. I “keep up” enough to be generally aware. I am still curious, but not willing to become brain-dead.

      • jusRhae January 3, 2013 at 1:10 PM #

        you know authorextraordinaire, when i have seen bits of these reality trips, it has been with my 19 yr old niece and preteen/teen second cousins and i am sad for them. but for them when i make comments like “what the hell is this crap you’re watching?” or “seriously, why is she crying over him like her life has no meaning?” lmao or even “I truly hope y’all dont think this is how real life is, RUDE AWAKENING!!” they normally look at me like i am from the stone-age or they laugh and ignore any underlining meaning to what i have to say.
        i must say though i am forever on my niece about such ways of living life. that glamorous life that not everyone has, but but say if she is searching for that life, and aspires to it she must be ready for all the bs that comes with. i try not to judge those ppl on tv like they are, their life is theirs and it’s what they want/chose but when i see then i see them as black first, then behavior and i am sad for them. this is not not how my ppl is supposed to be. we are not puppets. but these “reality” bits sure make us appear as such.

      • authorextraordinaire January 3, 2013 at 4:34 PM #

        Once upon a long ago time, when communities had ties and influence–even control– over the customs and aspirations of younger generations the response from your niece and her age cohorts would have been very different. Now that we “think” we are free, no one is telling–teaching–the youth that the cult (not culture) they are following is a new mode for their enslavement.

        I think, if adults could understand, and get across to the youngsters that by following the rulers pop icons (celebrities) no matter their race or ethnicity they are aiding in their own brain-washing.

        This is a subtle lesson the adults of old (1600s to the 1960s) prepared the youth for accomplishment and responsibility–even under the oppression of US apartheid (pronounced apart-HATE.) Our demise accelerated when we no longer had control of our parenting-communal functions. I’m remembering how I volunteered to “work with” gang girls” in a program in Chicago. I was instructed on how I was to behave with the girls by a young, white, female social worker. I was rearing three children, and had taught in Chicago for several years. I was born into the culture. I saw the power play she set up with a group of impressionable black teen girls. I never went back. I needed four inflated tires to drive home at 10:30 PM.

  4. Ravenpriestess January 1, 2013 at 8:40 AM #

    Two things came to mind as I read this post. Our country bans polygamy but we have so many people being faithful to one partner. Hmmmm… I’m not saying I’m for or against it but it’s something to think about. When you pluck a whole entire race from their native land, you’re bound to see the residuals for many generations. Basically, in plainspeak I’m saying that it was and still is in many African countries to have more than one wife. Yes, for generations we are Americanized but our original culture is being played out. Now most people will point to other causes, but I think that this historical theft of our original culture is the elephant in the room. Secondly, there is indeed a double standard when one views the immorality of one race versus another. I would venture to say that shows like “Teen Mom” and “Keeping Up with the Kardachians” would be popularized if they revolved around young black women. Our society paints two starkly different pictures of black and white women. Sexuality is vulgar and deviant when they refer to the exploits of black women. On the other hand, white women are described as liberating and eccentric in regards to their sexuality. We must not suffer from the blatant double standard that is being literally shoved down our throats.

    The sad part is that black people are becoming the worst offenders of perpetuating this double standard.

    • jusRhae January 3, 2013 at 12:53 PM #

      i second that. and too, i must admit i am totally okay with polygamy as like as there is ample communication, trust and honesty…hmmm much like any monogamous relationship. it still applies.

      you are so right though about “The sad part is that black people are becoming the worst offenders of perpetuating this double standard.

      “, so much so i wrote a poem kinda about such things. its basically stating that we have forgotten who we were, and allowed others (as per usual) to flood our minds with bull****. just real talk.

      • jusRhae January 3, 2013 at 12:54 PM #

        *as long as there’s ample <my typos)

  5. pregnantgirlblogs January 1, 2013 at 10:45 PM #

    Ratchet to me is honey boo boo

  6. Invisible Man January 1, 2013 at 11:51 PM #

    “Black male patriarchy.” You sound like a Black women raised in Kennebunkport now at Radcliffe College trying to get tenure with the white Dean. Aint no Black male patriarchy here! Or let me put it this way,about as much Black male patriarchy that was behind Step and Fetchit, Sleep-n-Eat and “brodah” Tambo back in the days of Vaudeville. Making these decisions are white men who went out and found a modern day “brodah” Tambo and some other sad modern day minstrel Mammy characters to entertain white America while spreading more ignorance through the Black community. Now you might have a point, if the NACCP gives BradahTambo (the Rapper who I never even heard of, cause I don’t watch BET) an Image Award, which is not outside the realm of possibility as they did give one to R. Kelly and Snoop Dog who “uplifted” the Black community by making pimping popular again.

    • crunktastic January 2, 2013 at 3:12 PM #

      I sound like I’m from Maine? Lol. Well, I’m sure they have sexism in Maine, too. And I sound like I went to Radcliffe. Well, there are worse insults. But you know “CRUNKness” don’t come from Maine. Try ATL. (For the record, I’m a Howard U (and Emory)-educated, Louisiana girl. Always gotta rep for the HBCUs and the Dirty, Dirty.)

      Anyway, you are right that patriarchy is ruled by white men in the U.S. context. Black men merely aspire to it. And though economically, Black men will probably never rule “the patriarchy,” the pervasiveness of Black male privilege is nothing to sneeze at.



      • Invisible Man January 7, 2013 at 7:15 PM #

        I could just be a “Maine hater”, ha ha. Actually I had a women break up with me cause I wouldn’t visit her family there! that and I got into a beef with her mother in my own house 🙂 But check. seriously the perverseness of Black male privilege? You talking about on lock down in the county? Where I mean the unemployment line? I mean with all you edu-ma-cation, you should know Brothers aint up in no body’s college, well I’m prone to hyperbole, so let me restate, Black women are surpassing Black men in every thing good, well the sad thing is they are actually joining us in prison. p.s.I wanted to go to Howard, to establish my identify but yall wasn’t giving up the financial aid and I was set on D.C. so I went with those Jesuits on the other side of town. Actually
        had I went to Howard I would have been murdered by those fraternity brothers, but I did want to go,but like the Wutang Clan said C.R.E.A.M

      • Jeanine January 9, 2013 at 12:28 PM #

        I have to say there was a great quote from another CFC blog that always stays with me because its so relevant to so many discussions. I’m paraphrasing “it is possible to experience oppression and simultaneously receive privilege” In this case, the privilege that all men experience in a patriarchal society exists alongside the racial and ethnic oppression that men and women of color also live under. One does not disqualify the other. For example as a women of color I experience oppression but I can also acknowledge that I have a certain level of class privilege. Why is this so hard for so many people to understand?

        Shout out to HU!

    • S. Mandisa Moore January 3, 2013 at 9:04 AM #

      You clearly have a crush on the CFC-as much time as you spend trying to derail conversations around here. I aint mad at you-these some amazing people!

      Just FYI: Black male patriarchy is a thing. It exists. You give it (and white supremacy) more power when you deny its existence. It doesn’t become invalid just because white (heterosexual, non-trans) men have vastly more power than black men (across sexuality, gender expression). Thats just not how it works.

      • jusRhae January 3, 2013 at 12:59 PM #

        just gotta say it, cause sometimes IT needs to be said. CFC, you’re awesome and the dialogue and/or communication lines you present in order for others to put their thinking caps on, or just plainly recognize and acknowledge third eyes – makes me so glad to have found you.

        much love to the dirty dirty, from Htown(44).

      • Invisible Man January 7, 2013 at 7:25 PM #

        But how am I trying to derail the conversation or are you just trying to score some points with Kay and her serious academic studies?

        And did I even imply that there was not major unequal gender balances between Black women and Black men, including insane levels of gender violence. But just because I’m not looking at it through a prism of 1st wave white women feminism you gone roll up on me all snarly like. As long as I got bell hooks on my side I’m good.

        I do love me some NOLA women, but Howard women were rough on a brotha’s ego and I wasn’t driving, so that was basically three strikes and my clothes kind-ah wrinkled, which was my nickname, wrinkles so I would go to the H.U Parties and get laughed at.

    • Kay January 5, 2013 at 5:25 PM #

      Though Black men are often just as disenfranchised as Black women, Black male privilege does exist. The mere fact that as people Black men are valued more than their female counterparts (as evidenced by wage statistics and violence perpetuated towards Black women) simply because they are male is an extension of the sexism that has been part and parcel of the White supremacist structure. However, black male privilege plays out everyday and comes from the macrosystems of oppression in the larger world to the microcosms of the poor neighborhoods, urban areas, and even upper class areas where people of color reside. I come from a poor area where more than 60-70% of people could not read past a fourth grade level or could not read at all. Up to 44% are infected with HIV and crime and stagnation was rampant where I lived.

      But you don’t have to live in Maine to know how things work in the world. I saw all these things everyday, I just didn’t have labels to attach to them until I began serious academic study. Different kinds of oppression exist, and just because you don’t attach a label to them doesn’t mean they don’t.

      • Invisible Man January 7, 2013 at 7:31 PM #

        Key, check it, the “value” of Black men” has nothing to do with Black male violence against Black women. that’s mismatched socks. If I’m wrong please demonstrate? Although Black men are the reason why the AIDS rates are so high amongst Black women, which is really F*cked up in a major way.

      • Invisible Man January 7, 2013 at 7:49 PM #

        p.s question for you Kay. When one Black teen shots another over a pair of Jordan’s, do you label this as a simple act of violence in capitalistic America?

        Or would you go with Frantz. Fanon about self hate at the root of violence between Black people? My point is, if brothas are willing to drop each other of a pair of sneakers or during, (if I might borrow Huey Freeman’s term) “A N*gga Moment” -ie one brotha bumps into brotha and suddenly its on, How do I socratically separate Black gender violence from Black on Black violence arising from the auction Block i.e, the slavery and Jim Crow divide that kept us properly conquered? This is a series question that I wrestle with and have not seen it addressed in all my readings. See, too often I think first wave feminists divides Black people. No excuse me I gotta go cook, red beans & rice cause it’s a monday.

  7. Doris Walkins January 3, 2013 at 1:51 PM #

    The question of what is ratchet is quite poignant question bc it forces you to come up with images of what is not considered “polite company” behavior and most often in American culture to behave in a manner that is not polite is to behave like a stereotype of black people, particularly “ghetto” black people or non-assimilated black people (what does assimilated mean really–whole ‘nother topic) or poor white trash (what is that though). On American TV, ratchet is associated with black women and women who emulate what they think it is to be a black woman. If a black woman even gets into a simple argument on a television program, or heck even in real life, people look at her like “here we go, black women love to argue and start shit” but it is perfectly ok for women of other races to have a simple argument and they are not assigned a racial stereotype (though they may be called bitch or emotional…again, a whole ‘nother topic). So it goes back to “what is ratchet?” I think a simple explanation is people who live their life in a way that is looked down upon by other people. With that being said, who is being looked down upon and what criteria is the looker using to determine that the other person is someone to be looked down upon? In this society, most people are looked down upon in successive order based on race and then placed in other successive categories based on their wealth. So, with that being said, the due is 10 “baby mamas” is ratchet according to the media while the dude with multiple wives and numerous children on Sister Wives is what??? I haven’t heard him called ratchet. What’s the difference? That goes back to “what is ratchet?”

    • Jeanine January 4, 2013 at 1:05 AM #

      This may come out messy and confusing 🙂
      I LOVED this post, very thought provoking and it spoke to me on many levels as a young black feminist. I’m still sorting thorough alot of it in my head! But this question of ‘what is ratchet?’ strikes a major cord with me and makes me think of the reference to Bey and her instagram ratchet celebratory photos. When the author spoke of the manner in which successful, educated black women embrace ratchetness in some ways as a means to reject the politics of respectability, I can relate completely! My initial thought is that as an educated black feminist I personally embrace what some may call ratchet and I love it because it is freeing. I am able to step into one role (which feels like my authentic self) and also step into the other authentic side of myself which is the young woman pursuing a graduate degree with a 3.8 GPA. In a way, as I become more comfortable with myself I think I play around with ratchetness in order to shock and surprise my peers. I know this must sound strange but I feel like I want to prove that as a black woman I am dynamic and I want to surprise folks who assume I’m ‘one of the good, respectable ones’. One day I might sit in a classroom with you and go toe to toe in our class discussion and later you might see me quoting Nicki Minaj. My attitude is ‘fuck you for thinking I wouldn’t or couldn’t’. I totally understand what Bey is doing, its like we have to shock those that place us in a box in order to expand mainstream ideas of what it is to be a black woman. Like the author stated I think in a way I find myself wanting to challenge this dichotomy of ‘respectable or ratchet/bitch/whore box that we are placed in. Playing around with ratchetness is fun and liberating to me, and this post brought me a few steps closer to understanding why. I have to say this realization is liberating and sad at the same time.

    • Kay January 5, 2013 at 5:30 PM #

      I think you raise a very important point. A professor of mine pointed out how styles and fashions previously associated with the poor and considered “classless,” will appear in high society after a while and will lose its reputation. It is then that it is reformed and reattached to privilege. This is important to keep in mind when discussing “ratchetness,” as more people adopt certain modes of this lifestyle it will no longer be ratchet. Instead we will come up with new ways of distinguishing who is privileged and respectable and who is not. So basically the whole system is designed to demarcate who is acceptable and who isn’t, and the system is run by those in power. So, yeah….we have to ask ourselves what this term means.

  8. Kay January 5, 2013 at 5:09 PM #

    The more I think about this show, the more conflicted I am. Only because I see the way that women of color are framed in the media, and part of me thinks that this show only adds to the travails we have as women, as people living our lives and wanting the world to accept us as the individuals we are. However, I think about famous movies like “Chocolat,” where a White woman who is a single mother finds love, and her single motherhood is not really a topic that is discussed or analyzed at length, rather it is celebrated. At the same time, people have been commenting on Kim K. and Kanye and don’t exhibit the level of rage and shame that they too, are having a baby out of wedlock. I think part of it that White women don’t have to often strive for respectability. It is freely given, and only taken away under certain rare circumstances.

    It’s the other way around for women of color. We are born with no presumption of respectability or humanness (remember when folks thought that Rue from Hunger Games’ death was LESS tragic because she was black?) and we must PROVE that we are human, and that we are worthy of the mantle of respectability. Because of this, I’m conflicted about the nature of ratchetness and the subtle tones of sexism inherent within it. That said, this show may not be good for anyone, as it will only seek to highlight the bad things that come with alternative forms of parenting and also seek to perpetuate ideas of Black irresponsibility, as well as the so-called competitive nature of women towards each other.


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