Summer class on Cardi B explores re-okurrr-ing issues of respectability politics
Guest lecturer Christian Green’s summer class “Cardi B and Respectability Politics: Intersectionality of Race, Gender, and Sexuality” analyzes U.S. history and the role of black women in American society.
(Courtesy of Charles Jones)
By Kennedy Hill
August 18, 2019 9:59 pm
Only a student in guest lecturer Christian Green’s class could get away with writing “Okurrr” in one of their papers.
Green, an alumnus of the African American Studies department, is using Cardi B as his muse for his course, “Cardi B and Respectability Politics: Intersectionality of Race, Gender, and Sexuality.” The class, he said, analyzes U.S. history, ranging from the post-Reconstruction era to the country’s current political administration, and the struggle for black women to gain respect in American society. The discussion-style course aims to teach students to think critically about respectability politics and its historical relationship with black women, Green said.
“Respectability politics is basically saying ‘think this way and act this way,'” Green said. “It started in the ’50s and ’60s in order to move with the whites and dominant culture. But to me, one is supposed to be able to own their own life.”
As a self-professed Cardi B fan, Green said the rapper was the obvious choice to use as a case study for the development of respectability politics. He said Cardi B’s rise to worldwide success without sacrificing her authenticity, such as the way she speaks, demonstrates her ability to garner respect without assimilating her image, body or behavior into Eurocentric-American ideals.
On top of that, the rapper’s recent involvement in Bernie Sanders’ campaign also adds to her political and societal relevance, Green said. Even though many celebrities have used their popularity to influence political elections, Green said Cardi B hasn’t changed her demeanor or public persona to do so. Lucas Avidan, an ethnomusicology lecturer, said Cardi B’s dedication to showing pride in where she came from is expected since rappers are often seen as respectable when they represent their background.
“The spectrum for women is much smaller in terms of what is respected. There’s a mainstream idea of what a rapper can be, and then there’s a mainstream idea of what a female rapper can be,” Avidan said.
Although the course will only be six weeks, Green said he will cover topics emphasizing how the black woman’s plight toward garnering respect is shaped by the time’s political and social climates. In an effort to engage students in analyzing modern society as well as historical ones, Green said he has included an eclectic mix of music videos, films and academic readings as supplemental material. Both City Girls’ “Twerk” music video and Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” made the syllabus as pop culture-derived sources that showcase women owning their bodies and lives in a way that isn’t always generally respected.
“What I’m trying to do is be creative in my curriculum and changing the mindset about academia by incorporating this idea of popular culture (and) using very real instances that are happening in today’s time,” Green said.
Rising fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student Miguel Gallardo said the mixed media approach of the course helps him better relate to the sometimes convoluted concepts covered in the course. Gallardo is a veteran Cardi B fan and said studying her life allows him to relate to her from both an academic and personal perspective. While he learns more about the historical oppression of black women, Gallardo said he also hopes to gain a deeper appreciation for Cardi B’s musical journey. Avidan said this course wouldn’t have been possible decades ago since rap has only recently been accepted as an academic genre.
“Rap as an art form has had to carve itself out into the space of being mainstream and kind of being accepted as both an art form but also something with the potential for academic study,” Avidan said. “Ten, 20 years ago, rap wouldn’t really be legitimately looked at for study.”
Even though rap has primarily been a medium of art and entertainment, Avidan said it has always been inherently political. In its early days, rap music often reflected the racial and economic inequities experienced by black artists, and Avidan said it has since continued to be an art form that expresses political distress. Rappers also tackle respectability politics, as their appearance and cultural backgrounds are often coupled with their perceived authenticity, Avidan said. Female rappers face especially strict limitations in terms of respectability, and Avidan said many women feel they have to outperform men in their industry in order to get their feet in the door.
Similar to female rappers, black women are also faced with the societal limitations of being from two historically oppressed populations. Although the term “intersectionality” wasn’t coined by UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw until 1989, Green said it has always played a role in respectability politics. The 1960s are highlighted by the Civil Rights Movement and the 1970s are remembered as a turning point for women’s rights, but black women have always lived with both identities. Cardi B and other black women who choose to remain themselves and demand respect in the face of these pressures move society in a direction primed for positive change, Green said.
“It’s the idea of YOLO, you only live once,” Green said. “Within this context, I really want the younger generations (and) the current generations to include (the ideology) into the conversation – especially with black politics.”