Is it racist to call “no homo” homophobic?

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:

youtube_response_to_obama2 youtube_response_to_obama1

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.

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Posted in Ideology and social change, Language and race, Linguistic diversity, Prescriptivism and language prejudice
7 comments on “Is it racist to call “no homo” homophobic?
  1. It seems to me that this post could be used as an illustration of your point made in the previous post on this topic, viz, that it is common rhetorical trick of dismissing other people’s taking offense at somebody else’s discursive practices as overly sensitive or irrelevant. While there is indeed a difference between the two cases you mention, that is not to say that this the scale of this particular furore is not a case of race-laden moral panic. The “racedness” of the controversy doesn’t rest in ignoring the need of black men to reassert their masculinity but rather in treating it as in some way more serious than the various ways white men use in achieving the same communicative ends (be they as part of word play, as I would interpret this one, or serious gender conversations). There are many characters in popular white TV shows (Friends comes to mind but there are countless others) who perform the ‘no homo’ equivalent in various linguistic and non-linguistic ways pretty much constantly. How about “I like you dude, but not in a gay way”. Does avoiding the word “homo” absolve us from examining the reason why a white man wants to dissociate himself from the suspicion of gayness?

    All our ways of saying things have complex histories, presents and futures. Just etymologizing them is not enough. While the origins of “no homo” seem to be in homophobic culture with a clearly homophobic intent, you could argue that using the phrase as a parallel to “that’s what she said” can be good because it removes the threat and stigma. Just because it is presuppositionally negative on the surface does not mean that the impact is not removed.

    Since I’d never heard of the ‘no homo’ phrase until this incident, it took me a while to understand it and I had to research the history (very perfunctorily) to get the full impact of it. I think the player’s apology was well placed and probably well-intentioned. And I have no quarrel with people who bring attention to the dangers of such language and profess offence. But I am doubtful about the feasibility of bringing the full force of discourse analyst’s toolkit to its single use or its discontextualized existence in our imaginary lexicon.

  2. nsubtirelu says:

    Hi Dominik! Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Let me see if I can try to address your concerns.

    The first thing I would say is that you have brought forth a claim previously not addressed by me or (from what I can tell) the original writer who I am talking about. Specifically you say “the ‘racedness’ of the controversy doesn’t rest in ignoring the need of black men to reassert their masculinity but rather in treating it as in some way more serious than the various ways white men use in achieving the same communicative ends”. This is I think a more compelling argument but not really one that I see explicitly made by the original writer (Hakeem Muhammed). What he does explicitly say is that the issue is not really about homophobia (which he scare quotes) and instead that white people “have attempted to make this incident about” it (which I take to mean that they have done so under false pretenses). Muhammed is quite explicitly not denouncing the phrase as homophobic (or is not denouncing homophobia) as he goes on to use the phrase “no homo” himself as a sort of defiant act.

    To address the issue you raise though, I would say that what you’re saying is plausible, but I would not accept the Friends episode as good evidence of this phenomenon since it is quite dated and societal discourse on homosexuality has rapidly shifted in the past 20 years. Indeed it would be difficult to provide solid evidence for this claim, which is not to say it’s not a perfectly good claim. However, in the interest of a counter-argument I would point you to reaction to Jason Alexander’s more recent comedic bit in which he used “gay” to mean socially undesirable and was called upon to apologize for it (http://bit.ly/18JIinI). Of course he was not fined thousands of dollars, but he’s also not an NBA player (whether the NBA’s policies make sense or are consistently applied are other questions).

    Indeed my own understanding of this phenomenon of trying to absolve oneself of the accusation of gayness is actually informed by practices undertaken by white males and spelled out in the Deborah Cameron article I cited in the previous post on the topic. As I’ve tried to make clear in both posts, one of the clearest issues here is that the phrase propagates an ideology that essentially boils down to gay man ≠ man (hence, to answer your question, avoiding “homo” is not enough), and this is an incredibly common practice among white men. Whether society as a whole treats the two homophobic practices equally is another worthy question (and I would say it’s also worth questioning to what extent there are separate racialized anti-homosexual practices at play here). However, my opinion is that what you’ve said is plausible but difficult to support.

    This brings me to the issue you raise that my rejection of the idea that calling “no homo” homophobic is racially motivated is a type of gaslighting. My response is that your claim is based upon an assumption that I am denying the plausibility of racialized responses, which I’m not (though I do question the available evidence of it). Instead, I simply don’t view that as (a) the main thrust of Muhammed’s argument or others’ rejections of claims that “no homo” is homophobic or (b) a question that can really be addressed in a sophisticated manner that progresses beyond bald assertions and weak comparisons. Even if there is a racialized response that ultimately means black men are punished for their homophobic practices more than white men are, that does not affect the conclusion that “no homo” is homophobic. It simply brings forth a new injustice that I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge should legitimate evidence in favor of it be brought forth. However, evidence of this racialized response would not justify “no homo” or change the fact that it propagates a homophobic ideology.

    One more point that you’ve brought up is whether we could use “no homo” to remove threat or stigma. That is of course a plausible idea, and the act of reclaiming words is quite common, but I don’t see any evidence to suggest that words are being reclaimed in Roy Hibbert’s context. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to interpret the speaker as using the words in a manner that is consistent with their more common use in the cultural-historical context when no evidence that they are not doing otherwise (or that they are not being broadly interpreted as doing otherwise – interpretation being at least as important intention) is brought forth (indeed this is a basic aspect of discourse analysis and I assume of communication in general). In the previous post I gave an example of a type of reclaiming in which a friend of mine said “my fiance (another man) and I are going to get married this summer, no homo”. The irony that in fact the previous sentence describes a pretty explicitly homosexual act causes me to interpret this sentence as a critique on the “no homo” practice itself and on the homophobia that it perpetuates. If Roy Hibbert had been doing this (or anything like it), or if many people had interpreted it as this, then I think we could point to elements of the discourse or context that would have signaled this meaning. Such evidence would lead me to reach a totally different conclusion.

    Finally, you mentioned the methodological limitations of discourse analysis. While I acknowledge that there are potentially relevant aspects of the situation that are not directly observable through discourse analysis (and can only at best be inferred) such as true momentary intentions or imaginary lexicon (although no method exists to observe these things directly), I think principled discourse analysis is quite capable of providing a well-supported interpretation of the way texts are crafted and received in their contexts. Triangulation with other methods would be great of course.

    I appreciate the response and the fact that you brought up a number of issues that are also worth exploring.

  3. Thanks for the response. Just to clarify. I was not trying to paraphrase Hakeem Muhammed but rather to offer an alternative explanation for the claims of race bias which struck me as being present here. I hate psychologizing people but I have a feeling that many of the people claiming race bias have an intuition about the assymmetry of scorn and are casting about for explanations that have a deeper historical basis. And since the discourse of threatened masculinity is so readily available, that’s what comes up. But of course this masculinity under threat panic is just as damaging to a complex view of gender as homophobia but is in some ways more dangerous (even though not as directly harmful to individuals) because it seeks to reclaim identities that undermine the status of others.

    Also, I wasn’t suggesting that every use of ‘no homo’ has to be an example of contestation in order for its ubiquity to diminish the impact of its homophobic roots. I would argue that even though it is negative with respect to ‘that’s what she said’, it actually opens up the possibility of homosexual encounters to a broader audience because of the mental space it opens up for the phrase to work. I’m not proposing that every single use will do that for every single person or even that any will do it but I can see this as a cumulative effect. And the particular context in which Hibbert used the phrase seems to me presents that opportunity. But that doesn’t mean that for gay people who have experienced the word ‘homo’ only as a threatening slur this would be a hard thing to accept. As always, with language developments we can see a number of plausible outcomes but there is no way to predict the actual result.

    But I should also lay my cards on the table. I am a lapsed critical discourse analyst. I still share the politics but am very skeptical of the methodology. I’d say that discourse analysis should only be done as part of a larger ethnography. The issue I take with your statement about the discourse analysis providing “a well-supported interpretation of the way texts are crafted and received in their contexts” is the singular of interpretation. It implies a sort of lexicon of uses that have their forms linked with definitions. But the actual usage and interpretations are too heterogeneous for that to be a viable enterprise. I give some quotes and examples in my old slides on the topic here: http://www.slideshare.net/bohemicus/skeptical-discourse-analysis-for-nonlinguists. In short, there is no such thing as a terminal interpretation.

  4. nsubtirelu says:

    If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that it’s possible that the ubiquity of the phrase “no homo” could have the effect of detaching the phrase from its homophobic ideologies and instead essentially normalizing homosexuality amongst people (i.e., bringing it out of the shadows and making it the subject of frequent conversation). While I don’t think I can outright deny that that is a possibility, I’m of the opinion that it’s a rather remote one. The reason is that homosexuality as a topic is not a terribly rare one and “no homo” is not in and of itself is not helping to make homosexuality a topic of discussion. Furthermore, something being a topic of discussion is not necessarily going to lead to its acceptance or the challenging of homophobic ideologies. Counterdiscourses that challenge the ideologies that underly hegemonic discourses are in my opinion much more likely to lead to this social change.

    As far as critical discourse analysis goes, I’m not sure I fully comprehend your skepticism. I agree that further triangulation using ethnographic methods increases the nuance of claims and would increase our confidence in claims, but I don’t see any reason to suggest discourse analysis should not be undertaken without a larger ethnography. Indeed, such a restriction would make it so that we are never able to explore many topics (including the Roy Hibbert one). There are aspects of the Roy Hibbert incident that are not capable of being explored through a discourse analysis that only analyzes the observed and reproduced text (of course, you’ll never get away from discourse analysis even using other ethnographic methods). We could (if we had access) interview Hibbert to probe what he reports were his intentions. We could have (conincidentally) been observing discourse and practices among NBA players more broadly at the time of the incident (listening to their conversations between themselves, etc.). These things would be very enlightening. However, they would also be fraught with many of the same problems you point to and would bring along some of their own unique issues. First, how do we interpret Hibbert’s responses in an interview? Are these his “true” intentions (if such a thing exists)? How do we account for the role of the researcher in co-constructing the interview text? An interview could have the advantage of helping to explicate the ideas that you suggested people were struggling to articulate about how they felt this incident revealed unfair racialized responses through skilled interviewing practices. Of course, this would then call into question the extent to which the interviewer simply helped the interviewee express this already existing belief or whether the interviewer essentially created the conditions for the interviewee to arrive at this novel conclusion through questions that led to that idea (or something more subversive). Ultimately, once we were done with the interview, we would have to engage in discourse analysis of a transcript or a recording of it or just notes from it. None of this is to say that more extensive observation and interviewing are not valuable; they of course are. They add to our understanding, and if we’re reflexive about our role in interpreting them (like we are in any discourse analysis), then we can provide additional useful information. However, that shouldn’t lead us to the conclusion that there’s little to learn from analyzing texts that aren’t created for research purposes on their own. Indeed, there’s quite a bit we can say just from these, and they provide a particularly useful set of information not available from other sources.

    Finally, you seem to have interpreted my statement about how I feel discourse analysis is capable of “a well-supported interpretation of the way texts are crafted and received in their contexts” in a way that I did not intend. Yes, it is a singular noun phrase, but the use of “a” is meant to imply that other interpretations are possible (as opposed to a choice like “the interpretation”), and the use of “well-supported” suggests the construction of an evidence-based argument as opposed to arrival at the one Truth. Of course, I don’t believe that all interpretations are equally good. In this case, I feel quite confident that the interpretation that “no homo” (in the Roy Hibbert context and as a tendency of the phrase in general) propagates a homophobic ideology is superior to other analyses of it. The reason is that other analyses rest on claims that Hibbert’s use of the phrase is just an innocent clarification about his sexuality. However, these analyses are unable to account for the relevance of the phrase in the context (linguistic or situational). A well-supported opposing analysis should be able to account for this by pointing to something in the text or context that would make the topic of homosexuality relevant. The threat to black men’s heterosexuality that Muhammed posits is such an explanation, and it’s quite similar to the explanation I’ve already offered in the last post. I’m just making it clear that whatever other purposes are being served at the end of the day the phrase propagates an ideology that basically assumes gay man ≠ man (which I then demonstrate is present in Muhammed’s discourse on the topic). Hence, I’m not saying that this is the one singular interpretation. I’m saying this is the best one I’ve seen because it more fully accounts for the relevant linguistic choices observable in the text.

  5. Tim Hardaway says:

    Everyone is missing the subtle IRONY here.

    I previously posted on the previous topic and I think this adds a very interesting spin on the subject, specifically, the intention and mindset of some of the users of the phrase as well as who the real offender and victim is here.

    I think that people on both sides of the debate are missing some subtleties here.
    First we need to recall the origin of the phrase “no homo”. I’m not sure if many people realize that the phrase has been around for probably around 25 years now; the specific meaning having subtly evolved.

    As a 31 year old male having grown up in NYC and Northern NJ I think I can add some perspective to this debate, due to my geographic location, but more importantly because generationally I fall right in the middle of the original users (now in their 40s and even 50s) and the current user (generally in their teens and 20s).

    It is important to note that the phrase was originally used in prison culture, which is notorious for forced homosexual encounters. The idea was- in a group of 20 males sitting around getting drunk together, half of whom had been to prison, the main meaning was “don’t anybody get any ideas”. It’s important to note that even back then, homosexuals would have been accepted in the group, just expected to stay quiet about any erotic desires toward other members. Moreover, the giving partner or “top” would not be seen in that context as inferior etc, but as the ultimate alpha male. (Recall the pervasive use of “suck my d***”).

    From that use in the early 90s it was adopted into NYC hip-hop of the late 90’s/early 2000s by rappers such as the Harlem Diplomats. In that context- the image was that hip-hop had gotten soft [i won’t even say it] due to celebratory raps by rappers such as the Notorious BIG- who was simply retelling his own rise, but was subsequently copied by others who were re-telling his life, not their own. So in the early 2000s the focus was on trying to gain street credibility by using uniquely street phrases not yet in the main stream. In other words they were attempting to shake the “studio gangster” image and striving to regain a thug image. (No more Versace). Since the current gay rights movement had not yet taken off like it has today- nobody thought anything of it, positive or negative.

    Here’s where the irony starts- pay attention. The phrase was later used in the early 2010s most notably by Lil’ Wayne and once by Kanye West, teaching the phrase to a whole new generation of white suburban teenagers (i’m stereotyping, I know). It this demographic that mainly uses it now. But, what is the message being conveyed now? Unlike in the early 90s and 2000s at this point the gay rights revolution is in full swing. With that said- the usage in hip-hop songs is aimed at shock value. At this point, unlike in 2003 it is shocking to hear “no homo” specifically because of how main stream homosexuality and marriage equality etc has become. So these rappers very artistically use the phrase to make a commentary on the state of homosexual rights– not to discriminate.

    But the kids who hear it use it differently. As previously mentioned, the main usage today is as a joke, cleverly (in theory) pointing out a double meaning, much like “that’s what she said”. You might say- that’s not funny. Ironically again, you’re missing the punchline. The humor at this point comes from it’s intentional overuse by white teenagers and (Roy Hibbert). If anything, this is an ironic nod at gay rights.

    In the 90s it was- half of us have been to jail so don’t get any ideas. In the 2000s it was- I’m a street thug that knows jail talk. Today it is- since homosexuality is so mainstream, I might have to cover myself (JOKE). And it is usually being delivered by somebody from a generation that is as close to homophobia-free as we will ever get, in a non-offensive manner. How’s that for irony??

    You might say- what about the kid that hears it and kills himself or hurts someone else? Perhaps a deeper look into our culture of violence and the underlying Mental Illnesses is more helpful to that kid than a witch hunt on the phrase “no homo” Pause. Just sayin’

  6. nsubtirelu says:

    “The idea was- in a group of 20 males sitting around getting drunk together, half of whom had been to prison, the main meaning was “don’t anybody get any ideas”. It’s important to note that even back then, homosexuals would have been accepted in the group, just expected to stay quiet about any erotic desires toward other members. ”

    So it’s about gay rights because it implies that homosexual men are ruthless sexual abusers who are incapable of controlling their sexual desires and need to be told by heterosexual men not to make any unwanted sexual advances (not to mention it assumes that they’re attracted to just anyone who happens to be a man)?

  7. gement says:

    That’s an interesting etymology that I haven’t heard before, but it doesn’t change the core meaning of “I don’t want same-gender sex and want to make very sure everyone knows I don’t want same-gender sex.” In that hypothetical group of 20 men, how do the two gay guys feel about the social message of that statement, and the resulting group laugh?

    The fact that it has a more complex history doesn’t remove the homophobia from that history.

    To the original point (or a related one), we should absolutely be going after white culture expressions of homophobia, such as “that’s so gay,” just as strongly if not more so. But that doesn’t give “no homo” a pass.

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