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.

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

Sexism and Racism in Film: Straight Outta Compton

A new film is in development which documents the rise of American rappers N.W.A. The Straight Outta Compton bioepic casting call came under heavy criticism for being racist, as the casting agent was asking for four different “classes” of “girls,” which were organised around skin tone. I argue that the casting call is not simply racist; it is also sexist, and reflecting colonial relations. The focus on lighter skin tone of Black women as an ideal of beauty has a long and profoundly damaging history. This racist ideology continues to the present day and problematically positions darker skin tones as less beautiful, and attaches additional stigma to Black women. As we’ll see in this casting call, even in a film about successful Black men, being a “dark” Black woman is analogous to being “out of shape,” unattractive and poor. There is an interplay between racism and class in this “colour code” which is further implied in the casting call, through the focus on hair. By stipulating that the “beautiful class” of women should have straight hair, and that the less desirable “classes” have weaves, there is a racist, sexist and class exclusion at play that penalises Black women’s femininity.

The most noticeable aspect of the objectification of Black female bodies in rap videos.. is the colour caste system gets reintroduced and affirmed. -bell hooks
The most noticeable aspect of the objectification of Black female bodies in rap videos.. is the colour caste system gets reintroduced and affirmed. -bell hooks

Continue reading Sexism and Racism in Film: Straight Outta Compton

Discourse Analysis of Two-Year Old Rapper

How do you like your rappers? Aged two and super deliciously cute? Here you go. 

Cuteness aside, Valerie Chepp provides a very useful postmodernist sociological analysis of this clip. This discourse analysis shows how the social dynamics of learning language, such as emulating patterns of speech, gestures and inflections of emotion, can occur prior to learning the meaning of words. 

This home video of 2-year-old Khaliyl Iloyi rapping with his father can be used to illustrate Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) concepts of langue and parole which, for Saussure, comprise a larger system of signs he calls language. Langue entails the total system of possibilities; it is the abstract set of structured rules that a given speech community internalizes. Parole, on the other hand, consists of individual speech acts and the message contained within them. Saussure argues that individuals don’t pick and choose what belongs to langue or parole; rather, langue is social (in that it operates according to a set of rules that are in place before and after our existence) and parole is individual. Another way Saussure understood this distinction was that langue is a static, synchronic system while parole is diachronic and contingent. This video clip illustrates how, even at age two, Khaliyl understands the basic underlying structure of language (langue), even if he has yet to master the meaning of individual speech acts (parole). He is engaging in the social enterprise of langue in that he has internalized the abstract rules of language for his speech community, even though a meaningful message has yet to be put into practice (parole). 

Essentially, Chepp points out that learning how to act our speech patterns is just as critical as knowing how to speak. The way humans exchange verbal and non-verbal signs is central to the transmission of culture and belonging. The child in the video, Khaliyl Iloyi, comes from a musical family. He has learned how to mimic the behaviourisms of his rapper father even though he cannot speak. These non-verbal cues – what Bourdieu calls habitus, are part of the embodiment of culture and history. We learn how to act out our culture before we really understand verbal meaning. This is why the way we behave as adults seems natural and normal – because we’ve internalised how we are supposed to behave as infants, and we learn to take this for granted.