Wednesday, September 04, 2013

When Rich White People Imitate Poor People of Color

I want to chime in real quick about the reaction to Miley Cyrus's twerking on the VMAs. I've read a few articles written by black women about their reaction to Miley, and the general tone is: Fuck Miley and her cultural appropriation bullshit. People are pissed that she is using blackness to be cool, using black people as props, and

As Jacqui Germain wrote on Racialicious, "expressing your sexuality at my expense isn’t okay. You don’t get to claim sexual freedom while simultaneously perpetuating the oppression of another body. When you feel the need to express your sexuality by turning my body into an accessory, the black feminist in me—two identities which I refuse to separate—can’t have your back anymore."

On Jezebel, Dodai Stewart wrote "Miley and her ilk need to be reminded that the stuff they think is cool, the accoutrements they're borrowing, have been birthed in an environment where people are underprivileged, undereducated, oppressed, underrepresented, disenfranchised, systemically discriminated against and struggling in a system set up to insure that they fail."

(Rush Limbaugh said that the media wouldn't have cared had she twerked on a woman, since evidently the media hates heterosexual sex but loves teh gays. "Obama might have called Miley to praise her for her heroism had she twerked with another woman" he opined, ignoring the fact that she was being sexual with women in the act as well as Robin Thicke. Also, fuck Rush Limbaugh).

First off, let me say that the opinions of actual women of color about Miley's co-opting of black culture and how it makes them feel should be weighed much more heavily than my opinion. But there was something about those responses that rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe they sounded too much like the pearl-clutching outrage of an old white person: "Well, I NEVER!" Maybe it's that they were defending twerking as if it were some sort of high art that Miley was sullying, when it's more like the cultural equivalent of two sorority girls making out to turn on their frat brothers. 

There's also the fact that I think Miley was the one who looked the fool on stage, not her backup dancers. She's also been co-signed with a number of African-American rappers and producers, who are all too happy to work with this crazy white girl in order to have a chance at some of her money and exposure. I think the Juicy J's, Mike Will's, and backup dancers Miley works with are smart enough to know what they are doing. I don't think they are being played. Yes, Miley is slumming it in order to get cred, rebel against her goody-two-shoes past, and prove that she is a sophisticated young lady. But I'm guessing if you go to most clubs in the U.S., they will be full of white girls shaking their asses to hip-hop.

The debate around Miley twerking is part of a larger story that has been going on for years with African-American culture: blacks get shit on, they make art as a release and/or reflection of the pain of being shit on, and then the people indirectly or directly responsible for shitting on them consume that art as being authentic, unlike their privileged lives. Because shitting on people offers much less opportunity to make great art than being shit on. 

In my review of Chief Keef's Finally Rich, I wrote, "there is something inherently sad about the fact that Keef has gotten huge by celebrating the traumatic, disfunctional world he comes from. Half his fans love his music because it reflects the world they know, and the other half love it because it shows them the edgy, "real" world that exists outside the safety of their parents' suburban homes. I don't know which is more depressing. Equally depressing is the fact that there is a high possibility that Keef will fall victim to the violence he came up in, and an almost certainty that he'll end up in jail for parole violations."

Benjamin Nugents book American Nerd noted that one thing that separates most white nerds from the popular crowd is the fact that they don't use hip-hop slang or embrace hip-hop culture. Their hyperwhiteness separated them from the rest of society. Young privileged white people are all about calling their friends "homie," bumping hip-hop, and safely embracing elements of a culture that they would never want to interact with face to face. The same kids dancing to Juicy J at a club in San Francisco's wealthy Marina district stay far, far away from Hunters Point or the Bayview, where the actual poor blacks live. 

In other words, the racial problems that plague society are reflected in our pop culture, and years of black coolness hasn't done a lot to make African-Americans more equal in society. Black music may dominate the pop charts, but black men are still disproportionally represented in the prison systems. I think it is a step in the right direction that music is no longer as segregated as it was in the 1980s, but it is worth reminding ourselves that liking hip-hop or R&B doesn't cure racism.

(image from Getty, stolen from the Huffington Post)

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