Who Are You Calling a Bitch?


Some days, my husband and I have spirited debates about the b word, that ubiquitous word in American culture – from hip-hop music to sitcoms. Why, he said, in exasperation, “were so many folks angry about Common’s use of the word bitch in “Ghetto Dreams,” his track with Nas?

Rattling off the laundry list of positive elements, he began by mentioning that this was an ode to black women (how rare is that in popular culture), a dark-skinned woman, Bria Myles, was the love interest in the video (which is not seen often enough). Yes. Nas and Common are conscious brothers, but why must they remain in that box relegated to incense and kente cloth?

He thought the song would make me happy. Wasn’t I always propagating the message that women of color are not included enough in our own culture, let alone mainstream society? Here are two hip-hop artists, veterans of the game, uplifting black women, and all I could focus on was one’s use of the word bitch on the song? Why can’t I just let it go, he seemed to say silently as I continued talking about the impact of patriarchy on the psyches of women and girls, channeling the noted writer and intellectual bell hooks.

Somehow, I couldn’t release it. The sting remained with me long after the hypnotic beats ended. Granted, as a loyal fan of this music form, I am all to familiar with the word’s use on tracks, but as I evolve more, I’m beginning to ask myself about ignoring and/ or excusing it with the lame rationale that “I’m not that kind of woman.” or “Some women behave that way so…” Like many other writers and thinkers, when I am wrestling with an idea or reaction to something, I reach out to others, eager to hear their point of view.

A few of my girlfriends disagree with me, pointing to African-Americans (and other groups) frequent use of the word nigga, which has become a term of endearment for some. The word has been desensitized, they argue. Shannon Braxton, a warm and funny woman, says,” The word bitch doesn’t bother me if the intention behind it is not hateful. Missy Elliott reclaimed the word for black women as many male hip-hop artists reclaimed the word nigga. If I say that’s my bitch, other sistas know what I mean.” While Qiana Fountain, graduate school student and mother of three, admits the word used to offend her, but she has heard others she knows use it affectionately. ” I find it distributing,” she says” when a man uses it because its being used as a way of degrading that female.”

Their rationale is not uncommon. Millions have insisted, particularly in America’s post-civil rights era, that in part, we (people of color), can overcome oppression by appropriating language which has traditionally labeled us as inferior. While I understand the desire to rebel and create one’s own unique form of expression, I cannot embrace this word’s use. What do I teach the next generation about their own self worth if they bear witness to me, and other women, referring to ourselves not by our birth names, but an expletive?

Several years ago, Audre Lorde, the dynamic writer and thinker, called for white feminists to look beyond their privilege and acknowledge the struggles of poor women, women of color, and lesbians – along with their right to be heard in that movement. “The master’s tools, she said, “will never dismantle the master’s house.”  While our subject matters differ, her words echo my own thoughts on language and it’s power to either heal or diminish.

Why do some of us view the solution to empowerment as embracing what ultimately dehumanizes us? If worldwide, women are to ever move beyond mere objects, defined solely by such superficial attributes as physical appearance, doesn’t it first begin with loving ourselves enough to ask and examine this question: Who are you calling a bitch?

Emelda De Coteau
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