I am a white gender-ambiguous person who was assigned to the female sex at birth, and who has experienced an utterly horrendous amount of violence (especially sexual violence) over my relatively short lifetime. That being said, I am not and will never be a Black woman, and as such, will always be missing part of the perspective of a Black woman when it comes to events like Miley Cyrus’ performance as a racist pig at the VMAs a few days ago. This is actually why I waited until I had an entire day’s emotional reserves available to invest primarily in reading, in Black women’s voices, exactly what was so grotesque about Cyrus’ performance—which I just did all day yesterday. Due to the nature of my own experiences, I frequently felt horrified, shocked, disgusted, utterly sick to my stomach, and even felt a very vague urge to vomit several times, but I continued to read and absorb as many different perspectives as I could, in the words of Black women writers. I definitively side with vocally dissenting Black women on this one, who were all very quick to point out several layers of misogynoir and blatant racism for the benefit of as many people as possible. I’d especially like to call attention to this article, and to express my gratitude to all these women for the time and energy they invested in sharing their perspectives, despite how horrifically triggering that event was for them.
For those who are willing to read this blog entry but unwilling to follow outside links (my, what a strange relationship to self-education you have!), Miley Cyrus released a video some time ago, in which she is dressing herself up with a gold grill on her teeth, intricate decked out nails, and some unusual clothing choices that are at times difficult to parse into words, even for this writer. At about this time, she declared that she wanted to pursue a “black” sound in her music — whatever the actual fuck that means — and the result has been this sort of raunchy white performance of stereotypical hyper-sexualized Blackness, which reached its peak up to this point at the recent Video Music Awards. In other words, Cyrus has already been in heated pursuit of becoming visibly racialized, despite the fact that she is so white, she makes me look like I come from the Mediterranean (and I’m full-on European). But then she decided to use Black women as sex props in her music video, and radically pushed the limits of public tolerance by doing it again during the VMAs—and spanking Black women’s asses, pretending to give one a rim job, and twerking her ass across the stage for the duration of her performance, all on national television. She reduced herself and the dancers in her employ to the contents of their pants, and given the existing stereotypes of Black women in particular, this already egregious offence is disproportionately worse for Black women.
For those who are reading this blog but somehow oblivious to stereotyping of Black women, I have to ask how in the actual fuck you found this blog to begin with. But I don’t require an answer. Instead, a little history lesson. Throughout the entire history of colonialism, Black women (and virtually all other visibly racialized women) have been branded sluts simply for existing, their sexuality (assumed or actual) widely condemned, their bodies treated like the trophies of exotic sexual conquests and curiosities, and their agency flagrantly disregarded as mass rape and sexual slavery has been exploited as a tactic of colonization. I’ve touched on this issue before in my writing about SlutWalk, which exclusively centres the experiences of white women by constructing the existence and foundations of rape culture around what a woman is wearing, thus completely ignoring how visibly racialized women experience slut-shaming entirely on the basis of their racial features, no matter what else they are doing or wearing. I’ve even acknowledged that these experiences aren’t merely reflected by mass media, but openly exploited as a major plot device almost any time a visibly racialized woman in film becomes the target of sexual harassment or sexual assault. It’s not like it’s a big secret. This is just how white privilege and settler privilege works. You won’t see it if you’re not looking.
But back to Cyrus and her journey to become visibly racialized despite the fact that this is logically impossible. It’s important that Black women’s voices aren’t the only voices heard speaking out against this offensive, racist co-opting of Black experiences and identities by a rich white chick. And since I can’t possibly speak to the experiences of Black women better than they can speak for themselves, I’m not going to go there. My focus is going to be on what Cyrus is doing to herself, rather than what she did to Black women’s bodies, and how white feminists can acknowledge it in meaningful ways that demonstrate that they understand what’s happening and why it’s wrong.
Cultural Appropriation (Yes, Again)
Some voices are quick to jump on the Cultural Appropriation Brigade bandwagon, and refer to what Cyrus is doing as a form of cultural appropriation. The majority of those voices so far have been of Black women, and this is in large part due to the fact that white feminists generally refuse to touch the racial implications of Cyrus’ identity crisis with a satellite orbiting at a safe distance from outer space. Of those white feminists who do try to wade in on this issue, I think I will probably have a hard time finding any who don’t immediately call it cultural appropriation. It seems to me that one of the reasons for this is that the term “cultural appropriation” has come to mean a marginally less confrontational way of communicating to a white person that they are being a racist pig. But that is not what this term means. Once again, cultural appropriation refers to the outright theft of a cultural identity that one has no relationship to of any kind, and subsequently conveying oneself in a fraudulent manner that implies a meaningful relationship to that culture. For example, when some white hipster dickshit puts on a pair of leggings that have designs styled after traditional Navajo artwork printed all over them, whether they accept it as fact or not, they are communicating in written language on their body that their ancestry includes the Navajo people and their history, when in fact it does not. It is equally appropriative for someone who is indigenous but not Navajo to put on that same pair of leggings, because they do not have the relationship to the Navajo culture and history that they are fraudulently communicating. However, there’s a difference between a white person wearing those leggings, versus a non-Navajo indigenous person making the same appropriative gesture, and it’s white settler privilege—making that white hipster dickshit’s gesture not only culturally appropriative, but racist as well.
The immediate problem with calling what Cyrus is doing “cultural appropriation” is that one must immediately ask which culture she is appropriating for this claim to be logically consistent. Only, she’s not appropriating a culture, but a specific Black subculture that evolved from the circumstances forced upon Blacks by the mechanisms of systemic racial oppression, and which now serves as the honorary yardstick by which all Black people in American society are involuntarily measured and punished no matter how they compare. It is absolutely undeniably true that she does not share a relationship to that history with the Black women she used as props in her music video and performance in the VMAs. However, it is absolutely false that the heavily racialized, raunchy, oversexed, so-called “ratchet” subculture that has taken official stereotype status, is a sincere reflection of where any Black person within it comes from. This subculture is tied to place and history by the outright theft and trafficking of Black bodies across the Atlantic ocean, slavery, and present-day incarceration in racially segregated ghettos and prisons. It isn’t, however, tied to ancestral traditions and territories—it’s tied to colonialism, and that means we’re talking about a different problem.
A few voices have either directly referred to what Cyrus is doing as minstrelry, or compared what she is doing to other forms of racial minstrelry, such as Margaret Cho’s nail-on-the-head criticism of Gwen Stefani for using Harajuku girls as props. I normally hate to be the person who starts any sentence with the phrase “when you look up the definition…” but I happened to be doing so to make sure that I was using an actual word. The primary meaning of minstrelry actually refers to minstrel shows of the 19th and 20th centuries, featuring white actors wearing blackface. In my mind, this is exactly along the lines of what Cyrus is doing when she puts a gold grill on her own perfectly white, perfectly straight pearly whites. She’s performing as a hyper-sexualized Black stereotype to an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh at her or gasp in horror, and when she’s tired of performing, she can simply take it off and slip back into her day-to-day life as a rich white person. In fact, she’s expected to take it off. We all know it’s a performance. A parody of Black people that seems easier to enjoy because the performer is a white person and we can trust that she isn’t secretly making fun of us. A minstrel show.
Calling what Cyrus is doing (and what so many other whiteys before her, of both sexes, have already done countless times to boost their own singing careers) minstrelry is acknowledging an important distinction about the relationship between ratchet subculture and ‘Merika that is otherwise obscured at the expense of reinforcing the very stereotype we are seeking to challenge by criticizing her for trying to embody it. I am just one person, but I believe all white feminists owe greater respect to Blacks across the continent than to pretend that ratchet subculture accurately represents where a vast majority of Blacks are coming from (or ever have). I also believe white feminists and Blacks alike owe more respect to indigenous peoples across the continent than to reduce the appropriations of their ancestral traditions, identities, and histories going back tens of thousands of years — and expropriations of their ancestral territories — to a subculture rooted in the very system that forced and continuously reproduces the genocide of indigenous cultures.
I am a white person (at least it says so on my DNA), but fuck solidarity if it’s just for white people.