Artichokes & Asparagus: Musings on the word “bourgie”

DIPset

I stumbled across this article from Racialicious a little while ago. If you’ve ever read my “about me” section here, you’d know that all the bourgie-talk that’s tossed around here is pretty tongue-in-cheek. Still, I thought it would be interesting to view parts of this article and comment on its take on the word “bougie” (I favor keeping the “r” in the word) among Black folk.

Bougie* by Design

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

“No one ever means bougie as a compliment. It’s never ‘Oh, you’re so bougie!’ It’s ALWAYS a negative trait.”

I had asked one of my close friends about being bougie and how the word is perceived in black circles. Depending on how it is used, bougie can almost be a curse word. Bougie is a stand in word for being racially removed, for pretending to be superior, for being out of touch with “true blackness.”

For many, being hit with a bougie label comes at random. Maybe it’s because you speak English with tight diction and clear pronunciation. Maybe it’s because you prefer off-broadway to the “chitlin circuit”. Or maybe it’s because someone doesn’t like how you dress, how you wear your hair, or your attitude.

When I lived in Prince George’s County, MD I got called a “bougie bitch” so often I started to think it was my name. What prompted those outbursts? I refused to get into a car with a man I did not know personally. I’ll stay my bougie ass right here and wait for the bus, thankyouverymuch.

Bougie is most often a label applied to us by someone other than ourselves, as a way of demonstrating their superiority. It implies that they are authentic and you are counterfeit.

Pretty accurate thus far. Some people really feel the need to define what is Black and what is not. Not because they’re trying to protect some kind of cultural authenticity or autonomy. Moreso because it’s easier to cling to the simple picture of “Blackness” they’re trying to carve out than to branch out. I say simple because that’s usually all one will come up with when they try to box in a varied and heterogeneous group of people.

I am not sure if the term bougie as I have encountered it exists outside of the black community. Still, I am always more amused than offended when I encounter the term. After all, the counter to being bougie is to prove one’s own street cred by discussing their own hardscrabble beginnings or the rough areas where they are affiliated.

I used to play this game, particularly when I was younger. Any assertions of the word “bougie” would magically vanish by reciting my father’s address. As I grew older, I stopped playing the game. It was foolish to me, particularly because the types of people held up as the paragon of blackness, the regular folks, the street preachers and hustlers, the young hoods and door-knocker earring wearing divas that populate my family tree are the people who pushed me to become as bougie as possible.

Yeah. After visiting home a little while back, my uncle called me bourgie. Why? Because I had on Coach sneakers and I refused to let him litter outside of my car. When I thought about it later, it hurt just a tiny bit. The knowledge that I had, in more ways than what I wear on my feet, become kind of a different person from the rest of my family. Not completely different, just different in the way a person becomes when they’re exposed to a wider range of experiences and people. The kind of different resulting from a lot of studying and from keeping company with others who have studied a lot as well. I felt a little bad about it because I didn’t want to be different from them. Still, it was they who set me on this path in the first place. It wasn’t if you go to school, but when. My grandfather always tried to make sure I was exposed to as many new things as possible if he could make it happen. Plus, I know they’re all very proud of my accomplishments thus far.

For my father’s 43rd birthday, he decided he wanted to do something a little different and step outside of his culinary comfort zone. Over the protests of my younger brother – who desperately wanted to make a mess of a plate of fried shrimp at Red Lobster – he asked me to name some more interesting restaurants near where I live.

I mentioned the local Burmese place. Dad was game.

After selecting entrees, our appetizers were delivered. They were a Burmese twist on an Indian samosa – wrapped in rice paper and lightly fried into small triangles. Dad ate one and enjoyed it. He asked what they were. I told him it was a samosa.

“A Samoan?” he asked.

“No, Dad, a samosa,” I explained, emphasizing the final syllable. “You know, like what you normally eat at an Indian restaurant.”

My dad regarded me with a bemused smile.

“Toya,” he gently chastised, “there weren’t any Indian restaurants in South East in the 70s.”

Fuck me. There was nothing left for me to say. Like a good daughter, I shut up and ate my Samoan.

This reminds me of the time I visited home and was riding around with my mother and uncle. We decided we were hungry and were trying to decide on a place to eat. Close by was a Ruby Tuesdays and they were game. Neither had been there before. It was weird because my uncle, who is usually able to eat a cow and its children and deplete the field they grazed on acted like he wasn’t all that hungry. He and my mother spent a large part of the time talking about the prices and how they could get the same stuff at so and so place for cheaper. I was like, “just be quiet and get whatever SHEESH! It’s not even that serious. You need to get out more, yo.” I mean it was fuckin’ Ruby Tuesdays! They have kitsch on the walls! I mean, they DID switch to those high quality napkins, new plates and a fancier-looking menu but damn!

Though the scene I describe happened months ago, I still reflect on it often. To me, what happened perfectly describes the balances that are walked with people who are in the process of changing classes. Not a single word in the exchange above was exchanged with any kind of negative intent – we were just having a moment when our two worlds collided.

My father – like many parents – wanted to make sure his children enjoyed a life and standard of living that he was not able to benefit from as a child. His desires were manifested in two of his children and we have gone on to surpass his hopes. (To be fair, my parents both raised their stations in life as well – from being impoverished teen parents to successful business owners.)

My sister and I are exactly what my parents wanted.

However, we are the ones who internally deal with the class fallout. Changing classes isn’t exactly an easy process. There are markers that go along with status that bear evidence to the change. Those changes serve to force a wedge between you and the “others.”

****

Once upon a time (read: four years ago) when I was waiting tables at a spot in Dupont I happened to serve an older African-American man who worked for the DC school system. I asked him for his order, told him the specials, and was perplexed by his ever widening smile.

“You speak so well,” he beamed, and I inwardly cringed. “What school did you go to?”

I explained that I went to school in Montgomery County, but he continued to smile.

“You,” he proudly pronounced, ” are a credit to the race!”

I smiled weakly, hoping that the other tables around him did not hear.

OMG Please tell me he didn’t just say that around white people!

My mind whipped around for a few frantic moments trying to purge some of the memories this man had involuntarily called forth.

Stop it. Stop it! I don’t want to be a credit to the race. I don’t want to be part of the Talented Tenth! I don’t want to be different! I don’t want to stand out! Because if I stand out, and I am the credit to the race, what does that make my cousins? What does that make my friends? Are they blight? Why do we have to be marked as better or worse? What do you want from me?

My mind swirled, but the rational part of me realized that I was on the clock. I smiled and moved on. He left me a 40% tip.

*****

The fact that I am now different has never been a factor to my family. It is just seen as being part of Latoya’s overall eccentricities, just like me listening to alternative music and dying my hair funny colors. When my mother comes over, she makes a point to look into my refrigerator to ask about the random things I eat.

“What’s that?”

“Dried papaya.”

“What kind of wine is that?”

“Muscato wine – I forget the name, but it’s really sweet. You’d like it. Do you want some?”

“No – what’s that?”

“Edamame.”

“See, that’s why you’re always broke – buying crap like this at the bougie stores.”

She shuts the door to my fridge and sits on my bed. She, like my father, often finds herself amused at the person I have become. My parents consider me worldly, though I have never been off the continent. Mom looks around the room and sees art house movie posters and large canvases created by my friends. I operate in a different, interesting kind of world.

My mother asked me if I ever ate sushi. I told her I did. She scrunched up her face and said “ew,” then told me I was crazy. When I showed up one day wearing a yellow cardigan and ballet flats with a pashmina scarf around my neck she told me I looked weird. She thinks everything I do is weird lately and I find that hilarious because she’s been weird to me my entire life.

When I began to reflect on this piece, I came to an interesting realization. I have never been called bougie by anyone in my family. I have never been called bougie by anyone who was lower or lower middle class. Most of the accusations of bougie came from others in a similar situation – either born to the black middle and upper middle class, or people insecure about their transition. This is why I think the word bougie tends to be a grab for power more than anything else – to shame someone into being “properly black.”

But how am I supposed to take that notion? People who come from a privileged background are telling me to “be more authentic” and people who did not come from privilege encourage me to be smarter, to speak up more, to work harder, to learn more cool things about the world – and then bring these things back for them to enjoy.

Maybe the word bougie is intended to invoke shame at a perceived separation, a way to yoke people back into your fold. If you are bougie, the implication is that you have forgotten where you came from. Maybe, by invoking the word bougie, the speakers hope they can bring someone back into their idea of “blackness.” Or maybe by using the word bougie, they are drawing a line in the sand. If you are “bougie,” it means that I am authentic.

But again, what does it mean to be authentically black?

If black is what I am, how could anything I do be inauthentic?

I went to visit family out in California last summer. My family out there is West Coast Country. If you don’t know, it’s hard to explain. But if you know WCC people, well they’re damn near worse than folks from Wallallabama, Mississippi. My WCC uncle out there took me along to go pick up my aunt from work. We drove through a nice part of town and I found myself thinking, “I could live here.” Right about that same time, WCC uncle says, “this is where the bourgie people live.” That was the beginning of him referring to me and things I liked as bourgie and it didn’t stop until I got on my plane back to the eastside (where the sane people live). He pissed me off, though. I felt like I was being made to feel badly for the positive strides I have made in my life. Yall don’t know me out there, but it’s been a HARD road for me and continues to be that way. I have not gotten this far on anyone’s shoulders and I have not been given jack shit. One way or another I am reminded everyday of who I am and where I came from. So, to be called bourgie in a pejorative sense, in a way that denotes elitism and a better-than-you attitude is offensive.

Thanksgiving is coming.

My younger cousin is on MySpace, playing around. She emails me to say hi. I email her back and ask why she isn’t in school. Deftly avoiding my question, she parries with one of her own.

Are you coming to Thanksgiving?

I split last Thanksgiving between my mother’s house and my father’s house. My mother, adept at Thanksgiving made a full feast. My father, attempting his first Thanksgiving ever, needed a bit more help. I found myself pitching in around the kitchen helping to erect the second feast of the day. The table was awash in gray, brown, and beige food, so I ran to the store to make something quick and green.

“What the hell is that?”

My grandfather looked into the pan I pulled out from the oven.

“Asparagus.”

Sitting on the table, the asparagus was met with questionable stares. The unspoken question hung in the air: Why the hell couldn’t she have just made a pot of greens? (Answer: Because I only like my momma’s!) A few brave family members added a single stalk to their plate. My younger sister, aware of my strange food predilections, split the rest with me. While we ate, the adults tried the asparagus. They decided they liked it. They applauded the “children” for helping with the feast. They asked my older cousins when they were going to stop eating and start cooking. And the evening rolled on.

Ha. This sort of reminds me of when my mom, her husband, my aunt, uncle and I went out to dinner and we ordered one of those appetizer platters that have 3 or 4 different items on it. One of the items was a spinach and artichoke dip. I was the only one who ate it really. Ma tried a little bit. So did my auntie. That’s about it though. They scoffed at the artichoke and thought it was crazy that we didn’t just ask for extra chicken tenders instead.

Back in the present, I smile at the memory. I realize that my younger cousin sent me another message.

Please come to Thanksgiving. I’ll eat the stuff you make.

*Bougie as in the short form of Bourgeoisie, taken to mean that someone has a bourgeois personality. By rights, bougie should be “bourgie” – but I can’t stand the r, and if we are going to bastardize the term I would rather bastardize it phonetically. A variation on bougie is siddity.

I like that the author recognizes that the “r” belongs in the word, even if she chooses to bastardize it anyway.

So, what’s your take on this whole bourgie being negative or bourgie being the antithesis of “authentic blackness” (whatever you say that is)? Do you think asparagus and artichokes are NOT Black? I, by the way, would still have made some greens, some cabbage… SOMETHING. I ain’t NEVER, NOT NEVER had no asparagus on Thanksgiving. I guess I should note that I have never had Thanksgiving dinner with white folks either.

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2 Comments

Filed under Good Reads, Routine Ramblings

2 responses to “Artichokes & Asparagus: Musings on the word “bourgie”

  1. Interesting.

    I guess I’m sorta bourgie, since I can relate to a little of what she was speaking on.
    Especially with the family bit.

    I feel the need to excel beyond what my family has achieved in life.
    I already have in many ways, but I do it to honor my mother and her parents.
    Moms grew up poor in West Philly so I could have a decent life and access to better things, and I’d be ungrateful to not appreciate that. (Or should I say WAS ungrateful?)

    It’s all about experiencing things and learning.
    I got cousins now that want nothing more out of their existance, yet I can’t disown them.
    I want then to want more.

    And if that’s bourgie, then so be it.
    I’m still not better than anyone else, though.
    Doper, but not better.

  2. bubblin' brown shuga

    i can def. relate.

    my ghetto side of the family thinks im stuck up and my boogzie side of the family thinks im too ghetto. its a false dichotomy that i dont even try to explain or make apologies for anymore. i dont fully understand either side and neither side understands me. we still love each other and have common ground despite the confusion.

    sometimes i do feel like im mixed.

    sometimes i tell people im mixed with light skin and dark skin because my father’s side and my mother’s side are so extremely different from each other. this is what happens when people procreate out of spite.

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