8.30.2013

Solidarity Is For ALL Women-- It's just that white folks can't talk about it

So despite my reservations (women oversexualizing themselves for fame or money in public tends to make me so angry that I can’t sleep-- really), I watched Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs.

And no, she’s not a role model. No, she hasn’t yet figured out how to be sexual without behaving like a sex worker (sex workers are fine, they’re just not the only iteration of female sexuality-- believe it or not, voraciously sexual women are not always strippers or porn stars). And yes, I was a little grossed out, and a little bored, and I wondered what the hell those teddy bears were doing there.

There were, however, two moments when I got really uncomfortable. One was when I realized that all-- not just a few, but every last one-- of her backup dancers were black women, and black women of a very specific body type; the other was when Cyrus gave one dancer with a particularly rotund posterior a rim job and slapped her ass like Cyrus was in a Ying Yang Twins video.

Jezebel.com and I are not exactly besties anymore, and it was their article about this performance that made Women of Color (WoC) very angry: white feminist authors avoided the topic of Cyrus’ appropriation of what is considered by some to be black culture (twerking, ratchet whatnot) in favor of arguing that if Cyrus wanted to grind on Thicke in a flesh-colored bathing suit while sticking her tongue out she could, and she shouldn’t be “slut-shamed” for that. Cyrus can be as overtly sexual as she likes, said the white feminists, and if that’s what she feels she wants to do then the rest of us should just shut up and let her do it. Here here. Right there with ya, sisters. It may appear tasteless and over-the-top to some of us, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

What is wrong, say many black women (also this one from Slate), is using African-American female bodies as props, cashing in on harmful stereotypes like the uncontrollably sexual, “fat” black woman, in order to further your image. Regardless of whether or not you’re OK with whatever the hell Cyrus was trying to do when she tried to act like white America’s perception of a black rapper, the fact is that she used black women as set pieces. That’s a problem.

I agree-- but I couldn’t have been the one to say it.

It makes me sad that so many WoC feel that white feminism is hostile to their point of view because white feminists almost never comment on racial issues. But it seems to me that black women are forgetting something.

That something is: White people have been told over and over again that we don’t know what it’s like not to be part of the privileged class, and so we should shut up about it. We don’t get to judge anything related to racial inequality, because we ourselves are the beneficiaries of The System. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never really “get it,” and our culture is not short on people who don’t know what they’re talking about but feel the need to talk anyway, so many of us feel like the most respectful thing we can do is let WoC lead the discussion on race. Honestly: If I had written an article on how Cyrus uses black women as props in that performance, how much hate mail would I have gotten about how I don’t know what it’s like to be a WoC, and so I have no right to comment on it?

My point is: black women, it’s not that we don’t care, or are unaware, of the ways in which white women contribute to the subjugation of black women. It’s not that we don’t see it, or we don’t want to talk about it-- we do.

It’s just that many of us have gotten the message over the last several, hyper-politically-correct years that we should stay away from the topic of race unless a brown person brings it up, and even then we need to tread very, very lightly. Perhaps it’s just a function of living in a society where, as George Takei puts it, we must bow to the “lowest common denominator of butthurt” (be really, really PC all the time to everyone), and if that’s the case then our well-intentioned attempts at being open to others’ views have evolved into the kind of silence that prevents anyone from understanding each other because we just can’t talk about it anymore.

Well, I wanna talk about it. Because that performance was just creepy on so many levels, but I can’t imagine how much it must have sucked to see every harmful stereotype about your gender and skin color used to make a white woman look “edgy.” Again. And in discussing it I will probably offend you-- not because I don’t care, but because our collective oversensitivity has made all of us more ignorant, myself included.

But maybe we can take such a blatantly racist moment in American culture and use it as a starting point for discussion-- because clearly, white folks avoiding discussions about race has made things worse, not better.

At the very least, I really don’t want to see that kind of thing happen ever again, because… ew. Just… ew. On all the levels.

8 comments:

  1. That was brilliant, Lauren. I didn't really think about the fact that the backup dancers were all curvy black women....probably because I watched in on my cell phone and couldn't see it that well. It is bad to use people as props....but isn't it the same as when Robert Plant used all those models in the "Addicted to Love" video. Women are so frequently used as props....like in the Robin Thicke video for "Blurred Lines" that nobody really notices that they are being used in that way anymore. Men are occasionally used that way too...but it has become expected for women to be objectified. People get angrier when the issue is race rather than gender...and I hate it, because we should talk about these things. As long as everyone is respectful and well intentioned, I don't think any topic should be off limits to anyone.

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  2. Beyond the veil

    My modest dress that you see

    As a sign of oppression

    Is for me the symbol of ultimate liberation



    It urges you to look beyond the veil

    To peel the skin

    To peep through the physical

    The limited… the confined

    Straight into the essence

    The infinite … the boundless



    It’s a glaring statement

    I am more than just a body

    I am a mind… a heart… and a soul



    Don’t just stop there

    At the door… come in

    Get to know me

    For what I really am



    It gives me contentment

    And great satisfaction

    With my femininity



    It gives me dignity

    As I refuse to be portrayed

    As a sex object



    It gives me freedom

    To choose my dress

    Not only wearing what men desire



    It gives me privacy and protection

    From all undesired attention

    For my intimacy I only share

    With the one I love



    Does that make any sense to you?

    http://nahidaexiledpalestinian.wordpress.com/2006/11/25/beyond-the-veil/

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  3. YES!! That's GORGEOUS! Thank you, Nahida!

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  4. Hi Lauren,

    While I agree that some ppl might take offense in you providing your own insight on the treatment of a group that you are not technically a part of (eg. as a white woman commenting on sthg black women have to face), believe me, there are those who would actually applaud you for thinking beyond how you would NORMALLY perceive things from your own worldview.

    For example, I'm a Muslim and I wear the hijab. I used to date an Atheist, and sometimes when ppl around him (who didn't know that he'd dated a Muslim before) made fun of hijabis, he would casually tell them off. When I asked him why he'd done that (instead of just letting it slide, not kick up a fuss abt it), he said because if he didn't he wld feel bad because he knew how wrong they were and how hurt I or my hijabi friends/family members would be if we were there at the time. Knowing him, he did that not as a boyfriend, but as a friend who doesn't care that they'd be judged; he did so because he understood and empathised how we were treated/thought of by a different group. On my part, it's nice to know that I have support from someone who didn't have to go through what I have to go through. It's not like I want him to walk in my shoes, but knowing he felt responsible to make ppl re-think their words/actions/ideas abt others -- despite him not being a part of the group himself -- I was very touched. I think if more ppl were like that - willing to get to the crux of the issue (rather than sugarcoating everything or avoid conflict), I think more meaningful discussions can be made and more issues might even be solved.

    Btw, I'm from southeast asia, but having lived in NZ for a number of years has made me aware of some differences (and also similarities) that women in different places have to face. What I realise now is that I think it's important to try to be empathetic/supportive of each feminist communities' experiences, especially if they're silent/silenced. Not because they're weak, but because they need to know that we're all in this together even if our experiences vary a little or a lot. Women of whatever group should speak out for each other if they know sthg is wrong - if not at length, then at least point out the issue and/or keep the ball rolling. That's what solidarity is for me; a supportive sisterhood.

    p/s - loved reading your experience during your experiment, hope all is well! :)

    p/p/s - sorry for the super long response!

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  6. This may get a little meta, so bear with me.

    I think that from the talk of "you don't know what it's like to be a WoC" we have possibly internalized the wrong messages. Instead of "Listen to us; don't speak for us" we hear "Don't talk about race." Instead of "Don't talk about race in a reductive way, as if it weren't a complex subject that's intertwined with many other issues" we here "Don't talk about race."

    But we need to talk about race, we need to stop being afraid to do it because we might get called out for it. If we do, it's a learning experience, not something to be defensive about. If it's true that the only way we can see our privilege is to have it pointed out to us, then why should we be afraid of having it pointed out?

    There are plenty of white people working in solidarity with people of color to make things more just, less racist for the generations that come. Say what you need to say, and learn from the criticism of people who have a different angle on it than you.

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