Miley fatigue is in full effect, but we feel it is important that we as white people speak up, and hold our folks accountable to their racist behavior. The burden far too often falls on people of color to respond, to explain, to teach, to protest.
This year’s Video Music Awards were yet another historical moment where whiteness reigned supreme. Black and Brown cultural creators and innovators were for the most part invisible, or worse, used as evidence of acceptance or racial progress. Jon Caramanica highlights how the VMAs were a window into a larger history within American popular culture: “Mr. Timberlake was on trend in way, though: this was a banner year for clumsy white appropriation of black culture who were recipients of three awards, including best hip-hop video.”
In this context, the question of appropriation matters – power, privilege, stereotypes, and centuries of racism play through both the appropriation and the resulting responses. To be clear, we are not against white folks embracing the art and culture that speaks truth to their hearts and souls, as hip-hop culture is still our first love, rather we are advocating for acknowledgement, accountability, and action. We are calling for examination of how stereotypes and blackness within the white imagination are often present within these moments of appropriation.
On the privilege spectrum, we find ourselves appreciating Macklemore at a certain level, who is beginning, by at least acknowledging, in his lyrics, that white privilege is one of the reasons he is successful. Honest and courageous. In a recent interview, he noted, “I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like ‘Thrift Shop‘ was safe enough for the kids…. the fact that I’m a white guy, parents feel safe.’”
His rhetorical and lyrical stance doesn’t mean he isn’t cashing in on his privileges. The awards, the celebration of him as “exceptional” and different, the erasure of artists like 9th Wonder, Azealia Banks, Murs, Angel Haze, dead prez or Jasiri X from discussions of independent and conscious artists, and his popularity among white youth all speak to the centrality of whiteness. For him, and for us, the next step is to take that and be accountable by being in action for racial justice. Using his platform to impact the movement toward racial justice.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have Thicke and Cyrus, along with their media collaborators, which not surprisingly have left Thicke (just as it left JT out of the post Super Bowl panics) out harm’s way. They are the embodiment of a history of not just appropriation and theft, but the ease to which artists are allowed and rewarded for pushing the boundaries. “White artists have the privilege to be ‘ratchet’ but still be accepted by mainstream media and seen as safe and marketable,” states Jasiri X. “It’s been going on as long as we’ve invented different genres of music, but I’m glad at least now we’re having a discussion about it. Let’s not forget that this current cultural appropriation began with the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of the Native Americans.”
Gender Privilege Takes A Bow
It’s telling that Robin Thicke seems to be getting a pass amid all the media discussions of Miley. We have seen this before in so many contexts but yet again the sexual performances of men are judged by different standards as those of women. Despite the sight of a 36 year old married white men grinding up against a 20-year old white women, the outrage and dismay has been directed at her. In the American landscape White + male means go directly to the bank and don’t pass go. Miley on the other hand is forced to stop for a media tongue lashing before heading to the bank.
None of this is to say that Miley Cyrus deserves a pass, especially in light of her co-staring role in Appropriation-polooza the VMAs. There is much to be said about how she, Macklemore, Robin Thicke, and Justin Timberlake all seem to be celebrated for their connection to and performance of cultural productions tied to blackness. Yet, unlike their black counterparts inside and outside the music industry, they are not castigated for dysfunctional culture, or scapegoated for white social ills. There is much to be critical of regarding Miley’s performance and the role of MTV here (putting her face in the booty of the African American female dancer; her history with twerking; and her recent interviews saying she loves “hood” music). This isn’t just about appropriation or even the performance of black culture that is rooted in the white imagination. Rather it is about double standards. It is the celebration of white artists amid a culture that denigrates African Americans who partake in these cultural productions. It is about a culture that profits and privileges Miley and Thicke, but cites sagging pants or sexual dancing as evident of dysfunction and pathology. To talk about “appropriation” and the centrality of privilege and anti-black racism requires also talking about whiteness
The panic, from Fox to MSNBC, is wrapped up in American history – it is where race and gender, where misogyny and white supremacy, intersect. It reflects the fear resulting from contact or connection with what is seen as blackness. Whereas Robin Thicke doesn’t need protection from blackness, from black male sexuality, and from the cultural pollutants found in hip-hop, Miley needs saving. Taking their cues from history, the patriarchal media is thus intervening to save Miley from blackness. “Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention,” writes Jody Rosen. “Her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of ‘the hood.’”
The calls for intervention, and the fears about messages to “the kids” (whose kids, anyway?) are connected to her imagined proximity to an imagined blackness. Once good little Hannah Montana has been corrupted by the influence of hip-hop and blackness. From girl-next-door to girl-grinding- a-poll. The idea that blackness is pollutant reveals the level of stereotypes and why Miley needs help. Her fall from role model is seen as a consequence of cultural integration. The fears are thus about protecting her assigned white feminine purity and those who want to be like Miley.
Not surprising we didn’t see a movement toward justice on the VMAs. But we can hope, we can speak out, we can be accountable and hold others accountable, and we can act. What we would love to see with white performers, whether it be Macklemore or JT, who are benefiting directly and indirectly from white privilege and racism, is action: Use your platform and your voice to honor and pay respect to the people and cultures who originated the art form. Let’s not allow what happened to jazz and rock n roll happen to hip-hop and R n’ B. Let’s not turn artistry rooted in the black community into spaces of stereotypes, appropriated by white artists who reap the benefits while African Americans suffer the consequences.
We are working toward a tipping point where the majority of white people can recognize we all still benefit unfairly from our skin color, and that we all have a stake in ending this injustice. We can only hope that the outrageous acts we witnessed at the VMA’s push more of us to demand change, to stand up for justice—from cultural appropriation to dehumanizing stereotypes, from mistreatment of immigrants to stop and frisk, from the criminalization of black and brown youth to the prison industrial complex. It is all connected. It is all on the spectrum of injustice.
Stand up for what’s right.
Thanks to Rosa Clemente, Jonathan Fields, and Kwame Holmes all of who inspired this piece in important ways.
About the Authors
David Leonard is a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race at Washington State University. http://drdavidjleonard.com/
JLove Calderon is a conscious media maker, social entrepreneur, and author of five books, including her latest: Occupying Privilege; Conversations on Love, Race, and Liberation. www.jlovecalderon.com
Copyright August 2013