I’ve called America home for almost a decade. And to this day there are some cultural things about Black America that I, as an African, will never get.
Like the first time I was called “bougie.” It was on a bus.
I was still in undergrad at the time. My good friend “Aba” and I were on the local line in our college town. We hadn’t seen each other all week, so we were unabashedly sharing campus gossip notes. Lots of “oohs” and “aahs” and “mon dieus” were exclaimed as we were speaking in French at the time.
At one of the stops, we picked up a group of local black high-school girls who sat at the back of the bus. I was so engrossed by Aba’s story that I barely noticed them board.
Aba was hitting the climax of a great story when a voice from the back of the bus shouted,
The girls had been hooting and laughing among themselves, but so were we, so I did not notice anything particular about them. I assumed they were talking about someone else. Except Aba paused at the best part of the story.
“What?” I asked her. “Don’t stop now.”
“Did you hear them? They just called us bougie?”
I looked. They were aiming obvious taunting looks our direction.
“Ok, I don’t even know what that is.”
“They’re calling us bourgeois.”
I initially chuckled at how bourgeois had been cutely shortened to bougie, and how absurd it all was until I saw by Aba’s reaction. Wait, I was supposed to be… offended?
“I’m not bougie,” she said pointedly to me. I briefly noted she was not as upset by the other word we were called, but she was now huffing and puffing and the mood was ruined.
I was highly confused by this exchange. Obviously some form of non-verbal communication had been passed between both groups for them to have reacted so negatively to us. But was I supposed to be insulted? Was there some cultural cue I missed? Was I bougie? And was that a bad thing?
I turned to my sister with my list of questions since having lived in the U.S. longer; she would be better abled to explain what happened. Apparently, by calling me bourgeois, it was an insult to signify Aba and I were trying to act better or higher up than the other girls.
Word? I gave off that vibe? It must have been the French, which ironically forced them to call me this French term.
I didn’t know what my perceived social economic status had to do with anything so even more confused than before, I put the whole affair in my “things I don’t understand about America” file to be viewed later in life.
Over time, I learned more cultural lingo from my new home country. Like when Kandi Burruss of the ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’ introduced me to “boughetto” in the Phaedra Park’s baby shower episode. (fyi: “It’s when a person who got a little hood in them and they trying to be all extra,” Burruss explained in an interview in Essence).
I also found out there were more things that black folk worldwide had in common than I realized. We all have our own ways of calling each other bougie, boughetto or even ghetto.
In Zimbabwe, it is “Ma Salads” because the wealthy can afford a salad with their meal.
In Uganda, to say someone is “local” means they’re unsophisticated and not cosmopolitan.
In Tanzania, it is “I was I was,” a parody of those who says things like “when I was back in New York…”
Haitians unsurprisingly use the term bourgeois, but also call them mulatto. Boughetto folk are called “parvenu.”
In Ethiopia, it is “ye bole lij” which means “a kid from Bole.” Bole is one of, if not the most, affluent neighborhoods in the capital Addis Ababa.
You get the point. Black folks, we all have labels. And I bet the reaction of a person being called “ye bole lij” or “ma salad” is similar to anyone being called bougie.
Like my own reaction.
Recently, I was at a New York event with other fellow Kenyans. I met a nice looking guy. He was polite, funny…and all that good stuff. The usual background questions were eventually asked.
“Oh wow, you must be a ma Barbie,” he said after a while. “Why not buy out the whole bar for us?”
He said it jokingly, and I was highly offended. Ma Barbie means exactly what it looks like: a label to describe Kenyans of a certain class and lifestyle. It usually given to those who went to specific schools.
My reaction was very similar to Aba’s huffing and puffing on the bus. I didn’t understand her reaction and the time, but suddenly, I was replicating it. Ma Barbie had hit a nerve.
I now understood how it can be used to insult. I now understood how it can be use differentiate. I now understood why people react defensively to it. And I now understood how this one word was a way for me to somehow feel embarrassed about who I was.
So yes, bougie has its own international language.
Have you ever been called bougie? What are the equivalents in your country or community?