It’s human nature to want to be included, whether it’s in an invitation to a party or just being in on the hot new meme. One of the most delightful parts of social media — which is mostly not delightful — is recognizing a pop culture or historical moment and thinking, “Hey! This is just for me! I’m in the club!” I feel that way every time I see one of those memes about how Gen Xers ran the streets like wild jackals and existed on water from rusty hoses and Jolly Ranchers.
It’s less fun when everyone else seems to be in on the joke, but you’re afraid it might be on you. And when you are of a culture in which most things are about and for you, those references and phrases outside your wheelhouse can seem like a personal insult. I’m a middle-aged Black woman who has never assumed most things in the mainstream were aimed at me, but the reaction to a recent viral post on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) about Vice President Kamala Harris reminded me that others fully expect it. And that’s no joke.
“I AM TOTALLY GAGGING AT KAMALA dancing to *Vivrant Thing* at her 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop party,” read the message, that accompanied a video of the vice president getting down. The tweet’s author, Renee W. (who asked to be identified without her full last name, because doxxing and harassment are real and some of y’all don’t know how to act) said she expected her post, about Harris’ ecstatic enjoyment of Q-Tip’s song to upset some people — but not for the reasons it did.
Surprisingly, the issue seemed to be less Harris’ joy than Renee’s jargon, specifically her use of the word “gagging” — meant not in the insulting ’80s “gag me with a spoon” way, but rather in the positive manner it’s used in LGBTQ and Black communities. As drag queen Nicky Doll once said, it’s “when something is so fierce you are losing your mind on it, you’re choking on it.”
Neither Renee nor I are members of the LGBTQ community, but we are Black, and she didn’t think about explaining “gagging” because she assumed that most people reading knew the context. “Between ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ that word is everywhere. If you’ve recently been online a lot, because of Beyoncé’s concerts, it’s been all over the place,” she said.
Harris “was getting her life, like a VIP at the club. It was so great to see her be free and not care. I was expecting a response to her dancing, like, ‘You can’t do that!’” said Renee, a Harris fan and Broadway aficionado whose handle is the deliciously droll PettyLupone. She has more than 36,000 followers and posts often about politics. “Our joy is offensive to people.”
She had forgotten, she said, that the followers who mostly tune in for her cultural takes are different than those who respond to her political posts and “they intersected.” For the most part, commenters seemed to understand, or wrote that they were initially confused but assumed it was positive because Renee’s such an established Harris fan and just scrolled down a few posts until they figured it out.
There were a few though, who, if I may use a common Black phrase, were all loud and wrong. Some fellow Harris fans, apparently mostly middle-aged white women, jumped in to defend the vice president against what they assumed was a slight. “She’s having a good time. Probably doesn’t care what you think,” wrote a user named Jody Johnson. “Well, bless your pathetic heart! Yes, you are petty,” chimed in someone with the handle MoonStarsUnite, which isn’t a very moony, starry sentiment.
There was even a woman who Renee believes was stone-cold serious when she asked for the post to be deleted because some people gag for medical reasons. “I have to have a healthy sense of humor,” she said. On one hand, Renee was happy to see so many people have Harris’ back online, a place where she’s often mistreated. But she was less thrilled that once the context was explained, some of the offended didn’t apologize and instead doubled down, insisting that no one would have known what she meant.
What they meant is that they didn’t know, and because they expect to be centered in everything, they shouldn’t have to work to understand. One user insisted that Renee edit her post, which she refused to do. “I’m supposed to be able to read your mind, and know how you’re going to take exactly everything I’m saying? It’s so maddening that you have to laugh,” Renee said.
Black and LGBTQ culture is often discovered and adopted by the mainstream, even when its use is awkward because it’s been divorced from the original context the adopters neither get nor care about.
I still get secondhand embarrassment when I see the episode of “The West Wing,” my all-time favorite show, when First Lady Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing) says “Game on, boyfriend!” to her husband. It’s not that there aren’t middle-aged white women who could say that authentically, but coming from the mouth of this stately figure from New Hampshire, it hit the ear weird, like someone in the writers’ room was trying way too hard to make her sound hip. It did not work.
GaggingGate reminded me of an incident this summer, when actor Jamie Foxx, who had a serious health crisis, made an Instagram post that read, “They killed this dude named Jesus, what do you think they will do to you? #FakeFriends.” As a Black woman raised in the church, I instantly recognized a reference to the story of Judas and a parable about betrayal. But I also immediately thought of how Jewish people have, for generations, been accused of killing Jesus and feared that Foxx’s post, especially in this time of rising anti-Jewish violence and speech, would be taken as antisemitic.
And that’s exactly what happened. Actress Jennifer Aniston, who had liked the initial post, quickly penned a long apology for having liked it and loudly denounced any antisemitism, even though it was clear to people who understand Black culture that Foxx was never referencing Jewish people in the first place. “It was a misunderstanding,” Renee said.
Should Foxx, who quickly deleted the post and wrote an apologetic clarification that he was indeed talking about fake friends, have known some people might take it that way? Maybe. But should those outside the Black community acknowledge that a phrase could be used in a context they’ve never heard of? Yes.
“To me it looked like a basic kind of culture clash that was taken in all kinds of directions by people adding their two cents about it and not really listening to the substance,” Black Jewish artist Shawn Harris told The Times of Jerusalem.
Renee, who is in her 40s, admits that nobody gets every reference. “Some of this is generational,” she said. “I have a niece and nephew who use words that stun me. We all get embarrassed sometimes when we don’t understand something, and then it becomes a culture war.”
Even with the fuss, Renee thinks her tweet (and yes, we are still calling them tweets) sparked a good lesson about cultural differences and assumptions.
“I had professors in my comments, members of the LGBTQ community and someone from the U.K. explaining that they say, ‘I’m gagging for this,’” she said. “Let’s have a conversation about where words come from, how slang is relevant. That’s one of the reasons I’m still on Twitter. We are a community. There are times when we’re separate, and moments that we find each other.”