After I wrote in my last post that “no homo” propagates a homophobic ideology, I encountered a number of people claiming that resistance to “no homo” stemmed from racism masquerading as a concern for gay rights. In particular Hakeem Muhammed writes, “While White people have attempted to make this incident about ‘homophobia’ and ‘gay rights’ what it really reveals is their continued hatred for Black vernacular and their continuous attempt to police and modify Black language”.
Black language is undeniably stigmatized by white people (and by many black people as well who have internalized the negative judgments of their own or other black people’s language). In their recent book Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the US, H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman argue that we have come to a point (in our allegedly ‘postracial’ society) where it is socially unacceptable to make overtly racist statements, so people (especially white people) use language instead as a way of continuing to uphold privilege based in race and class.
Among many other ways in which Black English is marginalized, Alim and Smitherman point out that white people (and others) often complain about the “ignorant” or “incorrect” way in which black people speak (what Muhammed refers to as “Black vernacular”). For example, speakers of Black English may choose not to use the verb “to be” in places where speakers of so-called “standard English” (we might also call it White, middle class English) would. President Obama (who was at the time President-elect), for example, famously told a cashier to keep the change by saying “Nah, we straight” (translated into white, middle class English this sentence might be rendered as, “no, we’re OK” or “no, we’re good”). People, especially white conservatives, were predictably enraged and interpreted this utterance as a sign that Obama was unfit to be president, as in these responses to the above YouTube video:
Just like any form of language elitism, these complaints stem from arbitrary judgments of the phrase “Nah we straight”. They ultimately have the effect of punishing Obama and other black people for not speaking like white people. The seriousness of this issue cannot be overstated since it is not isolated only to politicians and affects not only Barack Obama’s public image but all African Americans’ access to employment, education, and housing.
Further in his discussion of “no homo” Muhammed argues that black men’s use of “no homo” is really motivated by a response to their historical and contemporary emasculation (evidenced for example by the castration of black men prior to their lynching by white people). He writes “[d]ue to the White media’s attempt to emasculate Black men– Black youth looking to reassert their manhood used this phrase [“no homo”] after a statement that could be misinterpreted as homosexual”.
In my previous post on the topic, I discussed how the idea that there is any potential for legitimate miscommunication (or that his comments “could be misinterpreted as homosexual”) in the Roy Hibbert example or indeed most examples of the use of “no homo” is far fetched to say the least. In the Roy Hibbert example, Hibbert is talking about defending another player, and this is quite clear from the context (both the discourse context and the situational context, a press conference following a basketball game). The only way miscommunication would arise is if we actively attempt to create it.
However, Muhammed’s discussion is interesting in that it pulls the homophobic ideologies underlying the use of “no homo” to the surface. In stating that black youth use “no homo” to “reassert their manhood”, Muhammed makes it clear that he equates manhood with heterosexuality. Presumably the idea that a man might say something that could be (purposefully) misconstrued as implying homosexuality would place that man outside of manhood. Hence, in the worldview propagated by the use of “no homo”, homosexuality is not compatible with being a man. This assumption, gay man ≠ man, is precisely the reason why the use of “no homo” is homophobic, and this is precisely the aspect of the phrase (along with the fact that it contains a common slur for gay men, “homo”) that is reprehensible.
To place criticisms of “no homo” in the same camp as prejudicial reactions to Black English is a false equivalency because it assumes that objections to “no homo” stem from the same type of arbitrary judgments that underlie other aspects of Black English. In the case of “no homo”, there is a compelling reason for being opposed to the phrase, and that reason is based in an attempt to promote social equality and human dignity. Whatever its users’ motivations (even if they are motivations of liberation), “no homo” propagates a worldview in which gay men are not viewed as men. Negative responses to it should not be confused with the ignorant, knee-jerk language prejudices that bar black people (and other groups that do not speak so-called “standard” English) from access to education, employment, housing, and other forms of comfort and social advancement.