Document Type



N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change




Carnivalization, a concept developed by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and later employed in broad social and cultural contexts, is the tearing down of social norms, the elimination of boundaries, and the inversion of established hierarchies. It is the world turned upside down. Ersatz carnival is a pernicious, inverted form of carnival, one wherein counter-discourses propounded by outsiders are appropriated by elites and frequently redeployed to silence and exclude those same outsiders. The use of the slur "'ho" by gangsta' rappers in the performance of songs that articulate a vision of urban culture is an example of carnivalization. Thus, when words like "'ho" are appropriated by mainstream elites and wielded as "jokes," as was the case in the Don Imus debacle, it is a form of ersatz carnival. Tolerating raced and gendered insults such as "nappy-headed 'ho" in public discourse, whether as authentic carnival from the mouths of gangsta' rappers themselves or as ersatz carnival from Imus and his ilk, is troubling because in either case, racial groups and women remain the victims of an entrenched hierarchy. However, in this essay I argue that citing freedom of expression norms in support of the use of ersatz carnival is especially pernicious. The use of raced and gendered epithets in such contexts demeans and undermines the contestative, counter-hegemonic aspects of gangsta' rap discourses. Using the First Amendment and its values as both a sword and a shield, ersatz carnival appropriates a means of revolt, albeit a flawed and imperfect one, and redeploys it as a tool of retrenchment, thereby silencing subalternate voices.