Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”: Racist or Revolutionary?


I’m always on the hunt for pop and hip-hop songs that celebrate our different cultures, genders, abilities and races. That’s why one of my all time favorite songs is Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star”. How could you not smile with lyrics like these?:

You’re a shining star, no matter who you are
Shining bright to see what you can truly be

So, while I missed Lady Gaga’s Grammy performance of “Born This Way”, I did get chills the first time I heard the song. I was moved by her call for the empowerment of underrepresented groups. “Am I hearing this song right?” I thought. Could the current It Girl be boldly singing the praises of self-acceptance? Is she calling for all of us, in our varied races, shapes, abilities and gender identities, to love our selves?  It seemed so.  Any other artist making this statement might not profit from such a bold stance. But hey Ms. Gaga has built her reputation and bank account on being different.

It was announced last week that “Born This Way”, the first single off of Lady Gaga’s upcoming album of the same name, is the fastest selling single ever on the iTunes Store worldwide. In five days iTunes sold over one million tracks. It has also hit #1 in 23 countries around the world, breaking an iTunes record. Clearly people like “Born This Way”. The songs words sets a standard for music lyrics that promote acceptance, instead of degradation. And for that I could, well, pee in my pants.

Right after I heard the song for the first time, I looked up the lyrics. “Saweet!” I said as I read, “Don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself and you’re set, I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way”.  For once mainstream America and countless around the globe were going to actually consume uplifting lyrics aimed to normalize our natural human differences.

*record needle scratch*

It was then that I read the following:

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

And that’s when my hackles went up. Was Gaga trying to find something to rhyme with descent and came up empty handed except for orient. First of all “orient” is used to describe objects and last I checked people aren’t inanimate. Secondly, what’s up with using the label “Chola”? Chola is the feminine version of Cholo with a not so pretty past.

According to Wikipedia:

Xolotl (pronounced “cholotl”) is Nahuatl (Aztec) word for dog. “Cholo” is derived from this word. And developed its negative connotation, taking on a similar meaning to “mutt” as applied to humans.

Which makes sense because it’s used today as a racial slur across Latin America meaning someone who is a gangster, thug, is “classless” or of the lowest class,  uneducated, has brown skin or is mixed with Indigenous or Black blood.

Arturo R. García writes in Racialicious

[Chola] derived from Cholo, originated in the 16th century as a slur, similar to “mutt,” in both Perú and Mexico. But in the U.S., some would argue that they’re tied in with the Chicano identity and culture, following the lineage of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.

Like the N-word many Latinos and Chicanos have taken ownership of the word Cholo, transforming it’s oppressive meaning into an empowering and positive one.

While the examples she uses in the stanza are questionable at best – “Orient”? Really? And is “beige” supposed to stand in for mixed-race people? – the use of Chola, besides serving as an awkward short-hand for Latinas, might be an attempt to play on the image of the Chola as a street-smart, empowered woman.

Well this attempt falls flat on its face. And I bet that Gaga will plead ignorance to the commonly held definitions of the word that are based on stereotypes of class, race and culture promulgated by colonization and oppression. But ignorance is not bliss. At least in the heart of many Latinos like Chicanos Unidos Arizona and MecHa who call the song racist. And they’re not the only one’s displeased with Lady Gaga. Some gay groups have accused Lady Gaga of exploiting the gay community and portraying them in a less than positive light.

Clearly from her popularity and recent iTunes record smashing numbers Gaga isn’t going anywhere. But do we look the other way because it’s clear the song has good intentions despite some major lyrical missteps? Not me. In addition to playing Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” throughout my childhood my mom taught me an important lesson: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but as a bi-racial Mexican American I’m not comfortable buying what she’s selling.

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