Each time that I hear a Yale student use the word “ratchet,” I die a little on the inside.
They’re appropriating a word that has a specific and serious cultural context in Louisiana, where I’m from. The first time most Louisiana natives hear the word ratchet is not in a frat house, but in their homes. Our mothers use the word to discipline us—to say that what we are doing is wrong and will get us in trouble. They say it because they care.
In its most popular usage, the word “ratchet” is used to demean Black women by associating us with trashy behavior. But ratchetry was coined by women of color to correct and ultimately uplift their daughters. When my mother called me ratchet for the first time, I was not laughing. It was a slash to my ego, a check to my behavior.
Ratchet is a word that I constantly hear people at Yale use to make jokes about their troubling situations. It is very confusing for me to hear someone call themselves ratchet because my first instinct is to help them. As a native Louisianan, it is very weird to hear someone acknowledge their own ratchet behavior through giggles.
The second place we Louisianans heard the word ratchet was with the debut of Baton Rouge rapper Lil’ Boosie’s hit “Do the Ratchet,” a song and accompanying dance that allowed our generation to grapple with the term and the strict upbringing that accompanied it. On one hand, this song and dance allowed us to celebrate our “inner ratchet” in a different way. On the other hand, this song was the first instance where ratchet was sensationalized and ironically used to publicly shame Black women.
Ratchet is a word that has been a part of my vocabulary since I was very young. However, its meaning has changed since leaving Louisiana, and I no longer feel comfortable using it because it has become racialized – like it’s the new way to call something “ghetto.” Words like ghetto have a complicated usage history because everyone who uses ghetto knows that it’s really no fun being ghetto. Ratchet is used by Yalies in the same vein, and that offends me.
I would like to thrive in an environment where I can use the word ratchet the way I grew up using it, the way that it was meant to be used, and not feel like I am being misunderstood. White people misuse the word ratchet, but I am not talking to white people. I am talking to the people of color at Yale who throw the word around so carelessly. They have a moral stake in being respectful of my culture.
Either stop appropriating ratchet or try and use it correctly. Ratchet can do so much for Yalies if we understand how to use it. Calling each other ratchet is a practice that should be done out of love—an effort to solidify our relationships to others.
by Karléh Wilson