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.