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

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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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Comments

  1. Amazing how many people are rushing to jump to the defence of Lady Gaga even as they explain that they aren’t that crazy about her music. I agree with Maribel that Gaga has no lived experience of being a woman of colour and she should probably pipe down about subjects she knows nothing about. People say that you can find racism anywhere you look for it, but I think that’s because it is readily available in a variety of forms in a wide range of places. It’s not like if I go looking for twenties in my underwear drawer I’ll find them.

  2. I found this on StumbleUpon.

    Wow… Seriously?

    I love how every time a white person uses a racial epithet, they’re automatically racist, but when a “minority” person uses racial epithets against white people, it’s okay (Fun fact: WASPy people, aka the “majority” and the ones “in power” discriminate against anyone who doesn’t belong to their group, including other white people. Learn some history and look around you.). She’s trying to tell everyone of every color and sexual “minority” that it’s okay to be yourself, and she’s trying to be positive.

    I’m an atheist. How many atheists do you hear complaining about the “‘Cause God makes no mistakes” and “Believe capital H-I-M” parts of the song? Oh right, NONE, because it’s a POP SONG.

    Get over yourselves and grow up. Maybe if people stopped making such a big deal out of race, it would cease to be an issue.

  3. I am a Chola and am in no way shape or form harmed by Lady Gaga’s lyrics. I can’t even begin to believe that anyone would be. I think that she is trying to show that no matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like or sound like, you are you and that is BEAUTIFUL! Lady Gaga has not only helped me be proud of myself as part of the LGBTQ community, but also as an outspoken fierce, and for ONCE represented CHOLA! Wahhoooo! I love it! Gaga is my religion and I sincerely don’t believe what you write about her intolerance and/or ignorance. You are putting yourself down by ascribing this meaning to her song of empowerment. If you work hard enough you can find something “wrong” with almost anything. I say stop reading into quite so much and using old “wikipedia’d” notions of the words, and rather look at the meaning of the song. It couldn’t be more about love and tolerance and I hope that one day you will be able to see and share in the love the Lady Gaga brings into the world through her music, lyrics, and all her little monsters. :)
    Peace and Love Always,

    Alana

  4. I think people are far too sensitive to words, and people are looking for reasons to hate Gaga. While I’m not a fangirl for her by any right, I am a fan of this song. I get highly irritated when people act so sensitive over words. I also find the double-standard that happens when people “take a word back.” If you don’t fit the demographic, you’re automatically being derogatory. Could you not be showing support for the group by using the word they took back in a positive manner? And Gaga is admittedly and openly bisexual and fights strongly for non-hetero rights – there’s no discrimination there.

    It’s been a tactic of activists for years to use the derogatory term to fight the attitude. Being oversensitive to words is what makes it such a problem. Just like I was always told about bullies: if you ignore them, they’ll quit. It might get worse for a while, because they’re desperate, but they’ll quit.

  5. i think your reading into her lyrics a bit too much. lady gaga just wants all her little monsters to be accepted;) she is in no way racist

  6. To “take a word back” you have to actually be part of the community that the word has harmed. So a white person can’t take back the N-word. Gaga is not Latina and that is why it offends, because she is using Chola out of context. She, like Madonna appropriate the culture of people of color to seem unique and edgy. This is not progress or inspiration. It’s commercialism wrapped in a pretty package.

  7. Are you serious, or just low on article ideas?
    There is a phenomenon called taking a word back. It loses its power, supposedly. The recent “Slut Walk” in Toronto, Canada, is one instance of this. I’m sure there’s a “wikipedia” article on that as well.

    Honestly, you are tearing down someone when you do not know what you are talking about.
    I’m sorry, but you are just looking to make an issue out of this as opposed to really studying the meaning. Is that easier? Sure. Right? No.

  8. Thank you! I’m glad to see I was not the only one offended by her lyrics. I’m surprised at how many people are getting angry whenever I or other people try to have a discussion about this in online forums. They get really angry and vehemently defend Lady Gaga and tell me to get over it, especially a lot of white LGBT people. It really infuriates me when white LGBT folks are insensitive about race issues, more so than seeing hetero white folks being insensitve. As an oppressed class, LGBT people should be more sensitive about ALL forms of oppression. The fact that some of them are so willfully ignorant or apathetic about racism is HYPOCRITICAL.

  9. I feel the true heart of Lady Gaga’s song is in the right place. She is looking to say peace and freedom to all people and be happy in the body you were born with! She is young and writing her lyrics might not have fully understood the implications of some of the words she was using as people pointed out. However as one poster put it it is her artistic creation and is meant with the best of intention. Buddha teaches us to have right intention. As for right speech her youth has not fully grasped the intricacies of all the phrases she has heard around the place and has been wrongly influenced by. “Born this way” the title is enough for me to call this song revolutionary!!!!

  10. Jlie, Thank you for your insightful contributions. It’s interesting to see how privilege plays out through these online conversations. This piece especially touched a nerve. Many are more committed to their favorite celebrities than to other people in the world, their feelings, their experiences. I wonder how many people actually know about the history of cultural appropriation of their favorite white artists. (i.e. Elvis, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and now Gaga). Is it “inspiration” or a “compliment” to co-op the culture of POC exactly in the name of your own innovation? I don’t think so.

  11. ….I can’t believe how many people here are belittling your experience and discomfort with these lyrics. I shouldn’t be surprised, lol. You’re not alone. Those lyrics are racist, and to ignore the people they hurt is silencing/erasure. Good intentions only get people so far, and only leads to hell when they decide that their intentions are more important than an individual’s ACTUAL feelings. Actual consequences.

    I don’t CARE if Lady Gaga chose oppressive terms on purpose to make some ‘empowering’ point, the point here is that she’s a member of the oppressive class using terms that people who look like her have been using for years to oppress and erase. That stuff’s not ok. WE, the marginalized, decide how offensive the term is, not some privileged person who feels nothing when those words are thrown around.
    (I wandered over here from your comments on Womanist Musings)

  12. Lady Gaga doesn’t strike me as the most insightful person, so maybe she was more interested in creating rhymes and trying to be “significant” than in the implications of her words. Personally, I like the country version of Born this way better than the original.

  13. maybe if we all ignore Gaga, she’ll finally go away!

  14. I am Hispanic & I was not offended in any way by “chola descent”, because I remember my Art History from High School, she is referring to the Chola Dynasty-a Tamil dynasty, ruled primarily in southern India until the thirteenth century, most of what we know and associate with India comes from the Chola Dynasty. I studied the bronze Chola statues & Chola art, she is referring to Chola descendants, people from southern India. The term Chola which is associated today with men or women who are hispanic & dress or act a certain way, who are “gang members”, that term is extremely offensive. It was deigned by hispanic people & that is embarassing to me.

  15. The Lenster says:

    I think Lady Ga-ga’s song is fine based on the lyrics above (I have not heard it but will download it) and I hope the message of self-acceptance gets across. I have no problem with the choice of words, it makes for awkward poetry, but that’s what art is. Art is self-expression and reaching out to others. To be offended or pick a song apart means that freedom of expression is stifled. Either the song is good or it is not. I even believe there is a place in art for the “N-word”, for example in Rap songs. Either one can choose to be offended at anything as Sage says so sagely or else one can enjoy the song for what it is, a silly Pop song that will probably be forgotten in a few months. I choose to be thankful that she is singing a song with a positive message of kindness and love.

  16. People are offended by the most ridiculous things. You’re overreacting on ten different levels. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions?” That’s just silly, like many old sayings.

    Anyway, like someone else stated, I’m pretty sure Gaga PURPOSEFULLY chose less desirable labels to target the people who are often a victim of those terms. Chola and Orient are a bit more acceptable for radio play than the derogatory terms for gays and lesbians so I’m guessing that’s why we didn’t get any “Be you f*g, d*ke or Trans … ” lines. Tori Amos did an improv in 2007 where she sang about Jesus being love “For a woman, for a n*gger, for a homo . . . ” and the intention was not to BE racist but to sympathize with the socially oppressed.

    Words are not racist, people are racist. Context and intention mean everything and being offended without considering those things is just ignorance.

  17. Is there really a thought that she is revolutionary? Its a hackey gimmick that sells, and remember, this is the same ‘artist’ who’s song Fashion includes the lyrics “I live to be model thin, dress me I’m your mannequin”.

  18. Rohit John says:

    chola decent refers to the chola dynasty in southern india. that is what she confirmed on her site.

  19. cholita-linda says:

    In our context chola is not a scornful or offensive word but i agree the way she uses it is soo stupid , however we know gaga just works as a comercial icon , that sales sales and sales , i didnt listen it but as i can read the song is empty and has nosense , but what can we wait of the system ??? im sure not a honest song that can make you think you are more than a consumer.
    Good post , is the first time that i read it , continue with your work .

  20. I found it offensive. Chola? What does she know about being a woman of color? Through her born this way song she’s basically saying, “I know your struggle, let it out.” When in reality, she knows nothing about being a woman of color. Also, she’s putting all self-identified Latinas/Chicanas in a box as “cholas.” I wasn’t too fond of the song. I had to high of hopes I suppose.

  21. Black, white, beige, Chola descent, Lebanese and Orient (Asians as objects and not as people) are all hurtful labels that someone else has pinned on us. I think that was the point. The very next thing she says is no matter what other people say or how other people treat you (life’s disabilities), “rejoice and love yourself.” If you think she’s racist, you’ve failed to see the point she is making.

  22. Stumbleupon.com led me here, and all I can say is, you’re reading too far into this. It’s a pop/dance song. Not a piece of poetry or literature. I highly doubt Gaga was trying to be offensive, considering that would go against the message of the rest of the song, and against her entire image.

  23. I just thought she was referring to the Jewish cholla/ Chollah … Maybe its heart is in the right place … it’s certainly not Shakespeare …I really wouldn’t worry or take her words that seriously.

  24. Maybe she was just ignorant to the fact that this could be offensive.

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  1. [...] all her albums. And I’ll be the first one to stand up and say why “Born This Way” is a problematic song. I also find her whole schtick incredibly annoying and tiresome sometimes. There [...]

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