So I’ve spent the past couple of days pondering about Lady Gaga’s self-proclaimed “gay anthem.” The words “chola” and “Orient” are among the harshest criticisms. Regardless of the quality of the song itself, I will say that “Born This Way” does reflect the LGBT community at large in that it shows disregard and ignorance for people of color in the spectrum.
You might be saying right now, “Orient and chola? What’s the big deal about those words?” Well, let’s have a history and etymology lesson, shall we? Ahem:
“Oriental” is a word referring to anything “Eastern.” Note that I said “anyTHING.” Calling someone oriental is dehumanizing because you are basically saying that they are akin to oriental rugs and other “Eastern” merchandise. Oriental should refer to objects, not people. Not only that, Orient is also an antiquated insult because of its connotations with white imperialism and oppressive European rule over many Asian countries.To call someone Oriental is to recall years of white colonialism and commodification of Asian culture.
“Chola” and “cholo” originated in describing people of Hispanic and Native American descent. After a couple hundred years, some white Americans used cholo interchangeably with people of Hispanic descent as a derogatory term. But more recently, “cholo” and “chola” is often used to refer to Latino people in gangs and drug culture, who wear certain types of gang attire and prescribe to certain types of gang behavior. So, when Gaga says “chola descent,” that is basically what she is unknowingly referring to. Not a very appropriate way to give a shout-out to Latino people, is it?
You’re probably saying now, “Shut up, Lady Gaga isn’t racist!” First of all, that’s very rude, and second of all, of course not. No one is saying that Lady Gaga is racist, but rather that her choice of lyrics reflects a level of indifference to the history of the oppression of people of color and ignorance of her own white privilege. Plus, if she didn’t know the historical and cultural significance of either word, it only shows how people, particularly white people, are not educated on racial oppression and history. And now millions of people will be singing those words left and right without realizing the history behind them.
Perhaps you’re saying now, “She’s trying to be empowering! She wants to reclaim those words!” But the fact of the matter is that Lady Gaga has no right to be reclaiming oriental or chola. Why, do you ask? Simply put: She is white. By that, I mean that as a white person, Gaga may not have been one of the persons who invented those terms or ever used them in a derogatory way and perhaps her family wasn’t even in this country when those racial epithets were being happily tosses around, but she still benefits from the white people who did create them and use them. She cannot say that she is reclaiming and redefining those words and say that they are not offensive because those words were not meant for her, they were meant to benefit white people like her. A white person can’t be spouting out racial slurs and say that she is being empowering because she feels like it. It’s basically saying to people of color “I am empowering you whether you like it or not,” and we all know what happens when white people do not take people of color’s feelings about their own oppression into consideration.
And now you’re probably saying, “Well, I have Asian/Latino friends who don’t find Oriental/chola offensive.” or maybe even “I am Asian/Latino and I don’t find Oriental/chola offensive.” Of course; I have friends like that too. But I also have friends and family members who only hear the history of oppression that has affected their families and themselves when they hear those words, and that cannot be ignored. For every “That’s not offensive,” there’s a response of “Of course it is offensive.”
Again, this is not to suggest that Lady Gaga is racist, or a call to ban Lady Gaga, but it is a call to understand the ways in which racism pervades normal American life so much, that even our most mainstream and popular of artists are susceptible to promulgating it. Lady Gaga has worked hard to present herself as an empowering figure. She has a lot of influence and power, and has shown it by gathering support and spreading knowledge, particularity for her young fans for the benefit of queer folks. However, if she wants to fight on the side of the oppressed and marginalized, then she should recognize her privilege as a white person and fight actively against racism along with heterosexism and homophobia. Just because someone is a staunch advocate for one marginalized group does not mean that they have proven themselves to be an advocate for other groups and get a free pass for ignorance. To be a strong voice for the queer community but show indifference to the marginalization of people of color, particularly within that community itself, defeats the purpose of being an advocate for anybody.
I wish the “born this way” narrative to end. It’s not accurate and it does a disservice to everyone, especially the LGBT community.