Taylor Swift Having Fun With White Privilege: Racism and Sexism in Pop Culture

While people rush to defend Taylor Swift’s racist appropriation of Black female bodies in her latest video, Shake it Off, because it’s presented as “fun,” it’s worth remembering that “satire” is no excuse for whitewashing of racism. First, satire requires cultural context to be clever; it matters who is delivering the joke to whom, when, and for what purpose. Second, racism is not simply about interpersonal insults. Racism describes a system of domination where White people benefit directly and indirectly from the status quo.

Taylor Swift has positioned herself publicly as a feminist, though her enactment of these ideals was already not without problems. This video shows she has little understanding of the history of feminism and the cultural struggles faced by women of colour. Not coincidentally, White feminism is still largely resistant to racial issues. As sociologist Jessie Daniels notes, it matters that White women are at the centre of both pop culture and the feminist movement:

White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with White supremacy.

From Miley Cyrus to Iggy Azalea who profit from brandishing certain aspects of Black culture, to Lily Allen who similarly used Black women in a video to critique White women pop stars, Swift has added her name to an ever-growing list of rich White women in pop music who use the exploitation of women of colour to make “feminist” statements. This stands in contrast, but along a similar continuum, of White pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne who commodify the culture and sexuality of “Asian” women. Asian femininity is sexy in a “cute,” clean and submissive way; while Black and Brown women’s sexuality is dangerous, dirty and untamed. Either way, White women’s cultural appropriation of minority cultures conforms to familiar tropes where White champions dominate the uncivilised Other.

The fact that White celebrities do not set out to be “intentionally racist” is beside the point. Racism does not require your intent, as racial bias often goes unexamined. In fact, the way Whiteness works is to place White people at the centre of culture so that they are protected from the everyday consequences of race relations. (And no, there is no such thing as reverse racism.) Not recognising how racism works, such as failing to understand how and why cultural appropriation and stereotypes are damaging, is an outcome of White privilege.

Taylor Swift Racism and Sexism
That racialised fear of black female hyper-sexuality also transfers onto the sexualised white female body and the criminalized black male body. – Prof. Janell Hobson.

Appropriation of Twerking

At best, one might see White women’s version of twerking as a patriarchal bargain. It involves White women being complicit in the sexualisation of femininity, in a way that conforms to the male gaze, for commercial success. At its worst, the cultural appropriation of twerking is an exercise of White privilege.

Appropriation reduces Black women into an essentialist, racist and sexist image of Blackness as defined by White culture. The reason why it’s a problem is that these White women are able to co-opt certain aspects of Black culture, without any of the consequences. They profit from the “coolness” and imagined “street cred” of being The Other, safe in the knowledge that their Whiteness protects them from the racism, hyper sexism, social stigma and additional violence that women of colour live with.

Research shows that women of colour experience a higher rate and more aggressive forms of sexual harassment because of their perceived sexual availability. By presenting women of colour as little more than backdrop sex dolls, White women starlets like Swift remain at the centre of culture, while the women they use as props and parody remain on the outside.

Professor Janell Hobson argues that Taylor Swift is using narrow stereotypes of Black women in order to distance herself from promiscuity:

When Taylor Swift deliberately positions her awkwardly dancing body in “Shake It Off” as a way to defend her innocence against the constant slut-shaming she has experienced, she reifies her whiteness, her purity. Her rhythm-less dance moves distance her from the hyper-sexualized racial body in a way that positions her as somehow morally “safe” when compared to her white female counterparts Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus. She also trafficks in white female stereotypes when she positions herself as a failed cheerleader and ballerina, which would be cutesy if the recent commercial for Under Armour, featuring black ballerina Misty Copeland, didn’t remind me of Copeland’s embodied struggles for acceptance in the white elite world of ballet.

Twerking has a rich history. Its influences draw from West African cultures. It’s been shaped by colonialism, and later surfaces in places like New Orleans as both celebration and resistance. Notably, it is only one aspect of Black cultures that does not fully represent the diversity of all Black people in any given place. Yet with people of colour largely absent from mainstream pop culture, the conspicuous use of Black and Brown bodies to convey dangerous sexuality (via a satire of twerking) is both a compliance and reproduction of the status quo. This connection is driven home by the current police violence in Ferguson, USA.

Racist Violence

Beyond the travesty of justice that Michael Brown’s murder symbolises, the subsequent community protests in Ferguson show how the bodies of Black people are subjected to surveillance and violence in a way that White people do not experience. Violence in the media, even through the dehumanising of Black dancers in a seemingly silly pop video, is part of the same system of racism.

That is racism – the production of stereotypes, values and behaviours that feed into system of institutional discrimination. So, no, a pop video is not innocuous. It is both informed by, and sustains, racial hierarchies that position White people as morally, physically and socially superior to Others. And it matters that a wealthy White, young heterosexual woman who does not have to fear White authority, would hide behind satire and artistic license to re-enact racist fantasies.

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Learn More

Why Race Matters

Racism is Not an Attitude

Racism is More Than “Getting Caught”

White Privilege

Why “Colour Blindness” Does Not Apply to Race

Resources on Racism in Pop Culture

30 thoughts on “Taylor Swift Having Fun With White Privilege: Racism and Sexism in Pop Culture

  1. This is just what the anti-racism movement needs, tumblr-level analysis of stupid pop culture bullshit. That’s going to go a long way towards reversing institutionalized racism.

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    1. You have a poor grasp of the concepts you’re attempting to discredit here. The media is a social institution. Racist dynamics in the media is the very definition of institutional racism. Analysis of racism in the media is central to anti-racism. Sociologists study everything from the gendered stereotypes used in advertising images (e.g. Erving Goffman) to the power of racism in media coverage of sports (e.g. Stuart Hall). Analysis of popular culture is pivotal to addressing institutional racism. As for Tumblr, not only am I am avid user, I’ve been a strong advocate that this blogging platform is producing some of the most innovative analyses of race, given that Tumblr has a high proportion of minority youth bloggers. If you’d like to learn more about institutionalised racism, my blog and social media are dedicated to this topic, or you can see a list of references I recommend on my “What is Otherness?” page.

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  2. Stop exploiting Taylor Swift’s name to get some clicks on this site!
    As a minority, I say – lighten up and twerk! Dance ballet, do a cheerleading routine whatever. The point of the video you are talking about was to put Taylor into diverse dancing situations. She is making fun of her dancing skills!
    Get a life.

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    1. My blog provides sociological analysis and this includes examining race relations in the media. Writing about how popular culture perpetuates racist hierarchies is not exploitation. White people who use Black bodies as disposable props, and who benefit from racism, need to rethink how this imagery contributes to inequality. The music industry favours men, but within this patriarchal world, White, rich and middle class women fare better than women of colour who are either ignored or punished for their femininity and sexuality. White people benefit both directly and indirectly from sexual and racist double standards. This is not something to celebrate. Ms Swift is in a privileged position and could easily use her wealth and cultural power to uplift women of colour by portraying them in a more positive, complex and inclusive way.

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      1. Do you realize your degree was given by cultural marxists and has no basis when applied to evolutionary psychology?

        All those “Professors” that taught you have spent their entire lives working in academia and have never actually spent time in tbe real world to see how things really work. My degree may be in electrical engineering, but I grew up on the streets, and traveled the world in the military, so I can tell you that everything you hens are clucking about is wishful thinking.

        Your education fails to consider reproductive biology and resource access (i.e. sociosexual hierarchy and r/K selection), thus falls flat on its face as a nice utopian ideology with no basis in actual reality.

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      2. Hi Bookooball,
        Cultural Marxists are a school of sociology, but not a central part of our discipline. Evolutionary psychology is a theory within psychology. This sociology blog is not the place to read about evolutionary psychology. You seem upset by this fact, but the good news is that the internet has many other blogs to read things that make you feel good about your personal beliefs, and which will shelter you from reading research-based analysis. Thanks for vising my blog after all your time on the streets!

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      3. Hi again Bookoball,
        Strange that you keep returning here to make comments when you seem so upset. On this occasion you are understandably cranky with yourself to have missed Holocaust Memorial Day, which was observed globally on 24 May 2016, and nationally in Ireland on 24 January 2016, to commemorate antisemitism in Ireland. You are writing in November, so you are very late on both fronts, but you can learn more about the holocaust on many useful websites, such as this one.

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  3. I am a woman of color and I did not think what Taylor did was a form of racism. Honestly, when I first watched this video, when I saw her twerking, my initial reaction was awe, and I honestly did question whether it was slightly racist. My initial response felt that she was being insensitive. But after watching the video a couple more times and realizing her intent, my view changed pretty quickly. Honestly twerking is considered cool in this day and age and she was exploiting the fact that she is a white girl and unable to do this dance.I understand that racial bias does not require intent, and she has white privilege that allows her to make fun of a dance, and preform it and seem innocent. Honestly it doesn’t bother me even the slightest anymore.

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    1. Hi Jasmeen. The issue is not whether or not individuals think this is okay. This is about the cultural impact of using women of colour as props. And if you’re truly a woman of colour as you claim, then you would understand that White women have cultural power that is not available to Others. Culture is more than just one individual White woman appropriating aspects of Black culture to sell, and another woman, calling herself a woman of colour, giving that pop star a pass. Culture reproduces images and narratives that feed into institutional racism and sexism. When so few women of colour are allowed to succeed, all of this matters. Read the links I’ve provided and my page on Otherness. Start with bell hooks’ Black Looks: Race and Representation.

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  4. I wish you would have included some discussion of the portrayal of black women in pop culture produced by black artists and by this I mean artists who are on par with Taylor Swift in terms of the intellectual depth of their videos. It seems that many black pop artists also portray black women as sexual objects and you’d have to dig deep to find some profound reference to African cultural practices. I’m not saying it makes Taylor Swift’s video ok but it does put it into perspective.

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    1. So Black artists can only be “on par” with Taylor Swift when they embody the “intellectual depth” of racism and sexism of a famous White woman? You may be surprised to learn that Black artists and other people of colour are brilliant at their craft without reproducing White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Thank you for stopping by to defend oppression, but, unfortunately, accepting the status quo is hazardous to the wellbeing of people of colour and other marginalised groups. What works for Swift and you is damaging to the rest of us.

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  5. You’re pretty damn awesome Dr Zevallos. You have so eloquently schooled all the armchair sociologists who come in here and try to discredit your work.
    It’s like they didn’t even try to understand what you wrote about. “I’m X and I don’t agree” means nothing against years of education, observation and factual analysis.

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