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.
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.
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.
5 September 2015: Swift did it again in a follow-up single (“Wildest Dreams”), where she appears in a colonial whitewash fantasy of “Africa”:
“…Nostalgia can be inherently political. Swift is white, and she was raised in a society where certain symbols of white dominance and a more-segregated past have been glorified. Popular culture exists in large part to comfort, and the omission of black people from a story set in Africa certainly helps distract from the uncomfortable history of colonialism. But in 2015, there’s a growing popular awareness that things often considered “classic” were directly enabled by oppression, and that looking away from the uglier parts of the past will only perpetuate old problems.” (via The Atlantic)
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- Why Race Matters
- Racism is Not an Attitude
- Racism is More Than “Getting Caught”
- White Privilege
- Why “Colour Blindness” Does Not Apply to Race
- Other Sociologist Resources on Racism in Pop Culture
Why Race Matters
Racism is Not an Attitude
Racism is More Than “Getting Caught”
Why “Colour Blindness” Does Not Apply to Race
Resources on Racism in Pop Culture
- Sexism and Racism in Film: Straight Outta Compton: Discussion of “colour coding” of Black women’s bodies in rap music
- Hollywood Racism
- Noble Savages and Magical Pixie Conquests: Colonial Fantasies in Film
- Images of Otherness and ‘Unintentional Racism’ in New Florence + The Machine Video