Gaga Fans: Please Explain

Bianca I. Laureano

I don't usually follow Lady Gaga, but the lyrics of a recent song contain language suggesting bias and discrimination against Latinos, transgendered and gay persons.

Cross-posted from Amplify.

I’m pretty honest about not being into or knowing too much about certain types of media or issues and events that arise. Lady Gaga is one of those phenomenons I’m just not well versed on and have limited desire to be. With that said, I don’t follow her career, nor do I keep up on what she does or wears. This doesn’t mean I’m completely ignorant of what she produces and some of her songs; I have friends that are total stans!

Part of my lack of interest in her stems from recognizing some of the cultural appropriation she participates in. Most apparent to me was her use of costumes, which I’ve seen and grew up with by various performers, such as Celia Cruz and La Lupe (yeah she’s before Madonna, Cher, and Cyndi Lauper). It’s one thing to be inspired by an entertainer, it’s another thing to completely use and claim as one’s own aspects of their identity and performance art.

When I heard that Lady Gaga had leaked the lyrics to a new song “Born This Way” I wasn’t really giving it any thought. Then I read an article by Miguel Perez that discussed why some Latinos are turned off by some lyrics in this song and have connected them to racism. To be honest again, last time I really listened to or cared about something Lady Gaga did, it was when she did NOT cancel her concert in Arizona. I watched part of a video a fan uploaded about her commentary regarding SB1070 and wasn’t really impressed.

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So, the history of Lady Gaga not having too many politically/socially conscious and happy Latino fans was nothing new to me. What was new to me was her use of some forms of language, so I read Perez’s article to see what was used. A full list of the lyrics to her song was provided by the website Pop Eater where you can see all of them and some snippets of her performing a bit of the chorus.

When I read the lyrics Perez discusses in his article, I found more issues with some of her lyrics in the rest of the song, including the part discussed. Below are the lyrics in question, I didn’t add any emphasis nor do I know how or if she capitalized any of the terms (as I would have), so I wrote them as I saw them listed:

Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to survive
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or oriental made
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to be brave

Now, I have three issues with three terms she has used in this song: “Chola [descent],” “Orient/al,” and “transgendered.” Perez’s article only discusses the (mis)use of the first term “Chola”  which over the past two generations in the US has been associated primarily with Mexican, Mexican-American, Chican@ and Xican@ women. As with many Spanish language terms, they are gendered. The term “Chola” is referring to a woman as it ends with an “a;” if it were to end with an “o” it would be masculine.

As someone who is not of Mexican descent, I was not raised with a familiarity of this term, however, when I began to read Gloria Anzaldúa, specifically Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,  I was introduced to different languages. Among the various languages that have been derived from Spanish and English is Caló and Pachuco. From my understanding Pachuco was the language created by people of Mexican descent in the 30s and 40s (maybe even earlier as language is constantly evolving) and as Anzaldua writes in her fifth chapter “How To Tame A Wild Tongue:” “From kids and people my own age I picked up Pachuco. Pachuco (the language of the zoot suiters) is a language of rebellion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English. It is a secret language. Adults of the culture and outsiders cannot understand it. It is made up of slang words from both English and Spanish” (p. 78).

Caló, many folks agree, emerged from the Pachuco language and is still used among youth and communities in attempts to have their own language that keeps outsiders out. It is through these languages that we have come to understand and recognize the term “Chola” which was embraced by many in social justice movements in the US (if you are unfamiliar with the Brown Berets  I encourage you to read up on them and their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement). Today, it seems there is a different use and understanding of the term. As many folks may understand, the terms when used in-group as they were created by members of the community, they mean and represent something very different in comparison to what meaning outsiders using the term may associate.

As a result, we have some disagreement and even allegations of racism (which I think are more connected to White supremacy and Lady Gaga’s use of it in this song to her advantage than a hatred or dislike for a group of people), when outsiders, as Lady Gaga is, in using this term. I’m not surprised that Perez, who identifies as Mexican American, finds this use of the term inappropriate and oppressive. I’m also not surprised other commentators who identify as Latino do not share Perez’s perspective. After all not all Latinos are of Mexican descent. Nor are all Latinos speaking the same language.

Another aspect that was not addressed in Perez’s article that I believe to be important to this discussion is her misuse of the term “Orient” and “Oriental” as a proper noun. Now, call me old school, but I thought that these terms were only used when talking about rugs and noodles, never in talking about people. So why are so many folks choosing to focus just on the term “Chola” when this term is just as offensive and has a long history of vilifying people from various Asian backgrounds?

Finally, her use of the term “transgendered” and associated that with “life” is just wrong, grammatically and in general. We do not say “womened” or “maned” to describe someone’s gender identity, so why are we doing that for transgender? It’s wrong folks, please know this and spread the word! Now, when we attach a community to a word like “life” or “lifestyle” that’s a whole lot more ish to deconstruct. I’ll look to GLAAD’s (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Reference Guide suggestions to help clarify why using terms such as “life” and “lifestyle” are incorrect and what alternatives are offered:

Offensive: “gay lifestyle” or “homosexual lifestyle” Preferred: “gay lives,” “gay and lesbian lives” There is no single lesbian, gay or bisexual lifestyle. Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are diverse in the ways they lead their lives. The phrase “gay lifestyle” is used to denigrate lesbians and gay men, suggesting that their orientation is a choice and therefore can and should be “cured

Although this description speaks specifically to LGB communities, I think we can also apply it to trans people as well. Claiming that there is a “transgender lifestyle” is wrong. The lives of transgender people are often always already ignored and not valued. As a result, I can see how some folks may argue that Lady Gaga even mentioning trans people (even if grammatically incorrect) is a step in the right direction. However, these are not the types of steps we need! What does it mean to us that we appreciate less than exceptional forms of media simply because we see ourselves somewhat represented? Our standards and expectations must be higher. I think for many of us here at Amplify this is why we do the work we do.

It seems fitting that I end with some of Anzaldúa’s thoughts about language:

“..for a language to remain alive it must be used….So if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex, and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me my tongue will be illegitimate.

I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: India, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue-my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence” (p. 81).

Commentary Politics

Milwaukee Officials: Black Youth, Single Mothers Are Not Responsible for Systemic Failings—You Are

Charmaine Lang

Milwaukee has multiple problems: poverty, a school system that throws out Black children at high rates, and lack of investment in all citizens' quality of life. But there's another challenge: politicians and law enforcement who act as if Black youth, single mothers, and families are the "real" reasons for the recent uprising and say so publicly.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

On the day 23-year-old Sylville Smith was killed by a Milwaukee police officer, the city’s mayor, Tom Barrett, pleaded publicly with parents to tell their children to come home and leave protests erupting in the city.

In a August 13 press conference, Barrett said: “If you love your son, if you love your daughter, text them, call them, pull them by the ears, and get them home. Get them home right now before more damage is done. Because we don’t want to see more loss of life, we don’t want to see any more injuries.”

Barrett’s statement suggests that parents are not on the side of their sons and daughters. That parents, too, are not tired of the inequality they experience and witness in Milwaukee, and that youth are not capable of having their own political ideologies or moving their values into action.

It also suggests how much work Milwaukee’s elected officials and law enforcement need to do before they open their mouths.

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Barrett’s comments came after Smith fled a traffic stop and was shot by authorities on Milwaukee’s northwest side. The young Black man’s death sparked an urban uprising in the Sherman Park neighborhood, an area known for its racial and religious diversity. Businesses were burnt down, and the National Guard was activated in a city plagued by racism and poverty.

But Milwaukee parents and families need more than a directive thinly disguised as a plea. And Mayor Barrett, who was re-elected to a fourth term in April, should know well that Milwaukee, the nation’s most racially stratified city, needs racial equity in order for there to be peace and prosperity.

I live in Milwaukee, so I know that its residents, especially its Black parents, do love their children. We want more for them than city-enforced curfews and a simplistic solution of returning to their homes as a way to restore calm. We will have calm when we have greater investment in the public school system and youth services; easy access to healthy food; and green spaces, parks, and neighborhoods that are free from police harassment.

In fact, according to staggering statistics about Milwaukee and Wisconsin as a whole, Black people have been consistently denied their basic human rights and health. Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarceration of Black men nationwide; the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found it is the worst state for racial disparities affecting Black childrenand infant mortality rates are highest among Black women in the state.

What we absolutely don’t need are public officials whitewashing the facts: that Milwaukee’s young people have much to protest, including Wisconsin’s suspending Black high-school students more than any other state in the country.

Nor do we need incendiary comments like those coming from Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who drew national attention for his “blue lives matter” speech at the Republican National Convention and who is a regular guest on CNN and Fox News. In an August 15 op-ed published by the Hill, Clarke has called the civil unrest “the rule of the jungle,” “tribalism,” and a byproduct of “bullies on the left.”

He went even further, citing “father-absent homes” as a source of what he calls “urban pathologies”—leaning on old tropes used to stigmatize Black women, families, and the poor.

Single mothers are not to be blamed for young people’s responses to a city that ignores or criminalizes them. They should not be shamed for having children, their family structure, or for public policy that has made the city unsafe for parenting.

Creating justice—including reproductive justice—in Milwaukee will take much more than parents texting their teens to come home. The National Guard must leave immediately. Our leaders must identify anti-Black racism as a root cause of the uprisings. And, lastly, creating justice must start with an end to harmful rhetoric from officials who lead the way in ignoring and dehumanizing Milwaukee residents.

Sheriff Clarke has continued his outrageous comments. In another interview, he added he wouldn’t “be satisfied until these creeps crawl back into their holes so that the good law-abiding people that live in the Milwaukee ghetto can return to at least a calm quality of life.”

Many of Milwaukee’s Black families have never experienced calm. They have not experienced a city that centers their needs and voices. Black youth fed up with their treatment are not creeps.

And what hole do you think they should crawl back into? The hole where they face unemployment, underemployment, police brutality, and racism—and face it without complaint? If that’s the case, you may never be satisfied again, Sheriff.

Our leaders shouldn’t be content with Milwaukee’s status quo. And asking the citizens you serve to be quiet in the ghetto is an insidious expectation.

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.


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