Being Ratchet: Undoing the Politics of Respectability in Black Queer Space

  • Nikki Lane


“Birthday Cake” (2012) is a 78-second song performed by the Barbadian pop artist Rihanna that appeared on the “Deluxe” edition of her multiplatinum album Talk that Talk (2012). The song nearly broke Spotify, and at the time of my writing this, it has been listened to over 20 million times on YouTube and was certified Gold. People want Black women’s bodies. They want Black women’s assess. They want Black women’s lips. They want Black women’s hair. But they don’t want Black women. But, I want to suggest that something interesting happens when we consider the ways that Black women want Black women. It is important to understand the context under which middle-class Black women’s articulations of non-normative sexualities take place. As Lisa B. Thompson explains, performing Black middle-class womanhood means conforming to a set of predetermined mandates about how a Black woman can be in public (Thompson 2009, 2). Thompson argues that a performance of middle-class Black womanhood “relies heavily upon aggressive shielding of their body; concealing sexuality; and foregrounding morality, intelligence, and civility as a way to counter negative stereotypes” (Thompson 2009, 2). And perhaps most important to this discussion, Thompson argues “conservative sexual behavior is the foundation of the performance of middle-class Black womanhood” (Thompson 2009, 3). Conservative sexual behavior cannot, by its nature, include non-normative sexualities such as those which involve same-sex desire. Being a lesbian, for example, and being a middle-class Black woman is an ontological impossibility under these constraints. Conservative stands in for conceptions of “moral” and “decent,” and as Mattie Richardson has argued “the tradition of representing Black people as decent and moral historical agents” leads to the erasure of the variety of Black sexualities and gender performances “in favor of a static heterosexual narrative. Far from being totally invisible, the “queer” is present in Black history as a threat to Black respectability” (Richardson 2003, 64). Thus, any “queer” chink in the armor of a middle-class Black woman’s performance, might jeopardize her respectability. It is not a surprise then that so many of the middle-class and upwardly mobile BQW I spoke to had such strong reactions to performances of Black lesbian sexuality that were not “sanitized.” The fear of being seen as other than “ladylike” was something shared by many women, including those who were working-class. However, it is important to understand that being conservative or downplaying the non-normativity of one’s sexual behaviors and desires is not the only strategy that BQW use to move throughout the world. In fact, being ratchet offers a compelling means of acting outside of the confines of those mandates on middle-class behavior.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nikki Lane
    • 1
  1. 1.Washington, DCUSA

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