"Can I Say Twerk?" A Miley Cyrus Glossary for Whites

On Sunday, the Lord’s day, Miley Cyrus crawled out of a big teddy bear (that had eaten her, I guess?) and pitched around the stage of a multi-purpose indoor Brooklyn arena in what another century might have labeled “the latter stages of female hysteria.” She licked her mouth a lot. She knocked her butt, clad in rubber underpants, into the crotch of a married man 16 years her senior. It was her dad’s birthday.

Another thing Miley Cyrus did was dance with, and sometimes just at, a merry band of black people. (She also slapped one on the ass—hard—three times, like she was patting a horse's rump; just Miley Cyrus, slapping a black woman on television.) She “twerked,” which is a style of dancing hip hop (and strippers) made famous. Many white people were left feeling confused by the new Miley Cyrus, who described herself as not "this ratchet white girl." Was saying "ratchet" racist? Was twerking racist? Was asking these questions racist?

To clear things up, here is a glossary of all the colloquialisms that appear in Cyrus’ song “We Can’t Stop," and formal guidelines regarding white people's use of them. (Note: Cyrus’ black songwriters said in an interview that she instructed them “I want urban, I just want something that feels black,” when outlining the sound of her new record.)

We also included two terms that do not actually appear in the song (“ratchet”; ”twerk”) but which have become heavily associated with Cyrus in recent days.


'Bout, prep.

Pronunciation: /baʊt/

Colloquial shortening of “about." In the sense, ‘bout [noun]: “to be fully committed to [noun]."

I’m white. Can I say this?

This one is ripped straight from African American Vernacular English, so tread carefully. Imagine yourself saying this to a black person you know. Now imagine yourself saying this to a black person you don’t know. Now imagine yourself saying this as you introduce a speaker at a Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholarship Awards dinner. Do you feel embarrassed? Do any of the black people you’re talking to seem like they feel embarrassed for you? If anyone feels or seems to feel embarrassed: Don’t say it. If unsure: Err on the side of not saying it.


Can I get a ____, int.

Pronunciation: /kæn aɪ ˈɡɛdə/

An invitation to a call-and-response, originating from African/African-American work songs and religious spirituals; words or phrases following “Can I get a” are repeated back to the speaker at a high volume.

I’m white. Can I say this?

While the origins of the "Can I get a ___?" construction are strongly tied to black culture, today the phrase is generally associated with lively churches (particularly Southern ones). You are just as likely to hear a white youth minister yell "Can I get an amen?!" into a headset microphone as you are to hear an old black pastor shout it from the pulpit. Use with impunity.


Can’t, v.

Pronunciation: /kɑːnt/

Colloquial contraction of the word “cannot."

I’m white. Can I say this?

You can't. Just kidding — that was an impression of a white person. You can.


'Cause, conj.

Pronunciation: /kʌz/

An elliptic use of cause (n.) for because.

Variant forms: cuz, cuzz, coz, cos

I’m white. Can I say this?

Yes, you can say this.


Get some, v.

Pronunciation: /ɡɛt sʌm/

To engage in sexual intercourse; to “score"; to "up all night to get lucky."

I’m white

Yes, I remember that you're white. The verb “to get some” doesn’t have strong associations with any race, so it’s unlikely people will accuse you of racism if you use it, unless you follow it up with a phrase like “…from a black chick, which is rare for me because historically I have not been a fan of the blacks.” It is kind of a douchey phrase though, so people might think you are in college if you use it.


Gonna, v.

Pronunciation: /ˈɡɒnə/

Colloquial pronunciation of “going to."

I’m white. Can I say this?

Just so we’re both clear, we have definitively established at this point that you are white. It's great that you have a passion, but maybe you should try to expand it beyond "a passion for being white."


Hater, n.

Pronunciation /ˈheɪdər/

Orig. one who hates; now: any person who expresses disapproval; a nay-sayer; an enemy.

I’m white. Can I say this?

Like, it seems like you feel being white is your most defining characteristic.


Homegirl, n.

Pronunciation: /hoʊm ɡərl/

Female friend, comrade, or fellow; feminine form of “homeboy."

I’m white. Can I say this?

Whereas I think you probably have a lot to offer the world besides being white inside of it. White is fine, but try to be other things too, like "curious" or "a diva."

In answer to your question, "homegirl" is a puzzler: on the one hand, these days is just about the whitest thing you can say; Miley Cyrus sounds pretty damn white saying it. On the other hand, it's notorious as a word people use when doing derogatory impressions of minorities. Imagine yourself saying it to another white person. Do you feel a little self conscious saying it? Do you make a funny face or use a funny voice as you say it? Would you feel odd asking your mother if your "homegirl Meredith" could have Thanksgiving with your family since Meredith's parents live in Michigan? Are you secretly relieved a black person isn't around to hear you say it? If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes," don't say it. If the answer to all of these questions is "No," still don't say it, because no one cool says "homegirl" anymore.


It, n.

Synonym for “buttocks” in the sense “shaking it.”

I’m white. Can I say this?

White people can say this and do, every time the Real Housewives of Wherever get FUCKED UP off cocktails while on vacation. Shake it, Sonja.


It’s, pron. + v.

Pronunciation: /ɪts/

Colloquial contraction of “It is."

I’m white. Can I say this?

White people cannot say "it's."


Line, n.

Pronunciation: /laɪn/

Dose of a powdered narcotic, laid out in a thin strip for nasal inhalation.

I’m white. Can I say this?

Yes, Lindsay, but you shouldn't because you're better now.


Molly, n.

Pronunciation: /ˈmɑli/

Powder or crystal form of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, also known as MDMA, a chemical used in the drug ecstasy; popularly believed to be less dangerous than other drugs because it is not physically addictive and does not cause cognitive impairment by killing brain cells; promotes a sense of euphoria; generally described as “awesome”; it makes you grind your teeth, though.

I’m white. Can I say this?

Just be sure you don't say "Miley." Early on, the song's producer told some reporters that the line in her song wasn't "Dancing with molly," but "dancing with Miley." Everyone knew that was a lie because why would Miley Cyrus sing a party song about people dancing with her, specifically? Not something most people have experienced. Not something most people could relate to.


Ratchet, adj.

Pronunciation: /ˈrætʃət/

Artless, hood, tacky; trying hard but failing harder; of a person: acting like you got no goddamn sense.

I’m white. Can I say this?

The closest white equivalent to "ratchet" is probably "trailer trash," though the former is more often used to describe women. A race/gender/income-neutral equivalent might be "a mess" or even "a MUSS" if someone is being a real mess. When deciding whether or not to use "ratchet," consider the words of Sesali Bowen of Feministing who observed "being ratchet is only cool when you do it for fun." Not when you do it because you are ratchet (poor). At this point, ratchet seems to be going the way of "ghetto," which lots of non-"ghetto" people use to describe things that are broken, old, or just plain "black." If you're the kind of person who would use "trailer trash," you're probably also the kind of person who would use "ratchet." But you should try to be a different kind of person.


Red cups, n.

Pronunciation: /rɛd kʌps/

Disposable red plastic cups, such as those famously manufactured by the Solo Cup Company, often used to serve beverages (esp. alcoholic beverages) in casual entertaining environments; an easy clean-up, idiot-proof alternative to glassware.

I'm white. Can I say this?

Christ. Yes. If identifying colors of any kind in public makes you skittish, you can say "Solo cups."


That, adj.

Pronunciation: /ðæt/

The ideal, highly aspirational form of something, e.g. that life.

I'm white. Can I say this?

It sounds dumb when anyone says it. It barely means anything; it's like describing the weather as "purple." So don't say it. Nobody should say it. Opt for clarity over conciseness.


Turned up, adj.

Pronunciation: / tərnd ʌp/

  1. Extremely intoxicated and/or high thanks to the ingestion of vast quantities of alcohol and/or drugs
  2. Wild; crazy; loose; uninhibited (as at a party)

Variant form: turnt up (based on phonetic transcription of African American Vernacular English)

I'm white. Can I say this?

Okay, this is getting exhausting.


Twerk, v.

Pronunciation: /twɜrk/

To dance in a sexually provocative manner with an emphasis on bouncing, shaking, and "popping" the buttocks; can be performed while squatting, bending at the waist, straddling the ground, or performing a handstand. You heard it the word in this Beyoncé song back in 2005 but didn't hear it until Miley Cyrus started saying it eight years later.

I'm white. Can I say this?

I'm much more offended that you are forcing me to articulate and defend a position on an issue that doesn't particularly interest me—MILEY CYRUS TWERK-A-LERK, TAN RUBBER UNDERPANTS, OHMYGOD—simply because it has a racial component than I would be if I saw you twerking at a party. (Of course white people are allowed to twerk and say "twerk." It's a dance. Jostling your limbs in a pre-determined pattern of movements any time you hear music is kind of a weird behavior when you consider it abstractly, but it's not a behavior that's segregated by race.)


Won’t, v.

Pronunciation: /wəʊnt/

Colloquial contraction of woll not, the negation of an archaic form of will; will not.

I'm white. Can I say this?

Not all black people are required to prepare an airtight, fully-formed opinion on every issue relating to black people. Black people are not freehistoryessays.com. You can't walk up to any black person, say "Miley Cyrus?" and sit back while a 2,000 word personal statement prints out of their chest.


Ya, pron.

Pronunciaton: /jə/

Colloquial pronunciation of the second person singular or plural.

I'm white. Can I say this?

It's offensive to treat any random black person you encounter as a Black Ambassador; 1) because it says, "You are a black person I know first and a person I know second," and 2) because it implies black people are so foreign to you THEY REQUIRE AN AMBASSADOR.


Yeah, adv.

Pronunciation /jɛə/

Colloquial pronunciation of yes.

I'm white. Can I say this?

Don't say the n-word. Don't refer to black people using words you learned from a U.S. Census taken before 2000. Don't do impressions based on race. If you're an entertainer, don't surround yourself with back-up dancers exclusively of a single race different than your own because it's always going to come off as creepy and fetishizing. (Remember the Harajuku girls?) Pretty much anything else is fair game.

Twerk it.

[image by Jim Cooke]