Some follow-up thoughts and questions inspired by NinjaCate’s wonderful post. It started out as a comment, but ended up WAY, WAY too long. There are so many layers to these conversations that it takes an eternity to process, or, if you’re like me, you just end up constantly processing. So rather than continue processing, I’ll just toss out thoughts that I’ve been having since Mileygate. There are a lot of questions. Consider yourself warned. Sorry for the length.
Are white people allowed to twerk in the privacy of their own rooms but not in front of a crowd? Do they have to be conscious of who they twerk around?
Are Asians or Latinas subject to the same rules?
Suppose you are white and grew up in a black neighborhood with mostly black friends and learned to twerk at the same time the rest of your friends learned to twerk. Are you not allowed to righteously twerk with your head held high because you don’t reach a certain melanin threshold? If so, what is that threshold?
Does your relationship with/to your twerking partners define the appropriateness of your participation?
Is a non-Latin white, Asian or black person salsa dancing on stage improper appropriation? Does it depend on the venue, how famous s/he is, or the size of the audience? Does it depend on power dynamics? A history of salsa theft?
At what point, if any, do you have to show a heightened sense of responsibility for your movement? And to whom are you responsible?
Appropriation conversations without context and nuance are frustrating. Mileygate was never just about twerking, as many like NinjaCate have eloquently pointed out; it was always about society’s feelings about Miley Cyrus and what she represents.
What Miley represents, in context, isn’t just a monolithic depiction of WHITEPEOPLE appropriating things (NEW TUMBLR!!!); what she represents, more specifically, is just as much about people who are perceived to be from privilege, of silver spoon stock, distanced from nuances of cultural phenomena in “other” communities, and, ultimately, unappreciative of, or indifferent to, historical context—which are traits that do not necessarily equal WHITEPEOPLE.
It turns out, Miley Cyrus isn’t just a white person; she’s an artist perceived by many as being nothing but a privileged, clichéd tourist visiting "blackness" and "black sexuality." And it appears as if she doesn’t even have a Lonely Planet, which may explain why she seems a little lost. Whether right or wrong, the perception of Miley as a naïve, cultural tourist exists, regardless of whether she actually does or doesn’t understand the context of her actions.
When cultural tourists are perceived to be lifting ideas, communities from which they’ve hoisted content understandably may characterize them as deplorable opportunists or frauds. But that isn’t the only option for cultural tourists; they can also go off the beaten path, where they're more likely to find acceptance.
Tourists who take affirmative steps to learn and embrace cultural differences and realities (and it never hurts when the tourist has an unmistakable gift to share) are often welcomed and embraced by “locals”. Check out the response to a white or Asian contestant killing it at the Apollo. They're usually appropriating something from "black culture." It turns out that black people, even the ones in OMG, IT'S HARLEM!, don’t hate all people who draw on influences from their communities. Many times cultural tourists are revered. But the packaging matters.
And therein lies the difference.
To many, it appears that Miley Cyrus has not put in the work; she hasn’t developed the street cred to be given a pass for appropriation, and seems to lack the humility to go through the application process by learning to treat cultural differences as more than a prop. And, yes, appropriation passes have been given out for generations. Eminem has a pass. Hell, Michael McDonald has to have a wallet full of appropriation passes by now. Ditto for Teena Marie. Sure, they aren’t absolute passes, allowing them to drop n-bombs at will to strangers, but they do provide a healthy amount of cover for material that might otherwise receive heightened Cyrus-level scrutiny.
Appropriation is ultimately about symbolism, and the post-Mileygate storm is no exception. While Eminem, Michael McDonald, and Teena Marie are case studies in cultural immersion, goodwill, and unquestionable talent recognized by the communities that gave birth to their styles, Miley Cyrus stands at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Miley Cyrus, the symbol, in years as a public figure, has shown little meaningful connection to what is perceived as “black culture” beyond commoditizing what she seems to see as blackness: twerking, gyrating, general crassness, the ability to touch other black people without being yelled at, etc. Which is how, in light of her commercial success, Miley Cyrus, the symbol, becomes a lightening rod symbolizing years of physical, financial, and artistic exploitation of a community that has been worked over to the point that even the aroma of appropriation triggers an uproar. Miley Cyrus, the symbol, conjures up memories of successful artists not getting credit or compensation, both monetary and in gesture, despite being superior talents. Miley Cyrus, the symbol, also symbolizes privileged hands all over the bodies of marginalized women. All of this conspires to make an explosive cocktail which, when served in historical context, makes people understandably drunk with rage.
After generations of frivolous, thoughtless appropriation (or, for the more cynical, strategically planned, thoughtful theft), people simply grow tired of seeing institutionalized “borrowing,” fetishization, and bastardization of phenomena developed in their communities without the requisite credit. (Elvis. Dancing boy bands. Harlem Shake. Paula Deen.) Add the general anger toward anything young people with fuck-tons of money do and the optics make “Miley Cyrus twerking” the poster child for appropriation-related rage.
The backlash is more than understandable, and people will continue to lash out due to historical and systemic disenfranchisement and exploitation. But it is important to understand that, underneath the hood, the push-back is about who she is perceived to be, not just generic WHITEPEOPLE. It’s against a history of casual, cultural tourism and the hustle to translate that casual tourism into instant credit/money/fame/infamy, all the while patting voluptuous, brown-skinned women on the butt and sexualizing them. In context, it isn’t hard to see how that can be infuriating to some. Under a historical lens, even if it doesn’t strike you as particularly egregious, it shouldn’t be hard to see why many disenfranchised people may feel differently.
These issues of perceived theft and the awkward, manipulative treatment of the black body and “experience,” however, raise a pressing concern beyond generated offenses: Quite simply, the language that we use to discuss appropriation is problematic; particularly the packaging of culture and the stereotyping that coincides with discussions of “black culture” and “white culture.”
We’ve heard many times over that there is no monolithic black culture, just as there isn’t a monolithic white culture. But even reasoned people, who begin with this very premise, so often end up in the stereotype zone, knee-deep in contradiction. On one hand, half-cooked, monolithic definitions of blackness lend to moronic results like, as NinjaCate mentions, twerking = blackness, and Oprah having to be an expert on twerking as a result of her blackness. But, on the other hand, we berate people for stealing “it,” without ever really defining what “it” is.
“It,” more often than not, is a reference to “black culture”; the very thing that we’re often told is not monolithic or easy to define, often in the same breath. This may seem like a silly distinction, but it’s a nuance that matters, especially if you have an interest in finding solutions, because if “black culture” is something that is abused and needs protection, the subsequent question has to be, “Well, what is black culture?” followed closely by, “Who is qualified to participate?" or “Who’s the bouncer?” Knowing who and what you’re protecting has always been a key to protection.
This all brings me back to the questions raised at the outset. The language that we’ve been using for generations has proved insufficient to address the entrenched, historical tensions that share the stage with appropriation. We have a language that seeks to protect something (black culture) that we rarely take the time to define beyond the sentiment that black people doing things is black culture, even though we simultaneously rail against that very point. We jump into a discourse where “black culture” is already supposed to be a hardened concept, probably because defining it is as challenging a task as defining American, female, or white culture. So we forge ahead, maybe because there isn't enough time in the day, and try to deal with the sloppy ramifications of our imprecise language on the back end.
The result is often a truncated, incomplete conversation. If, as NinjaCate suggests, “black culture” should be a “hands off” zone until there comes a time when black people aren’t “ridiculed and debased” for cultural contributions, then who exactly gets to be hands on? Is black culture anything created by a black person, regardless of how that person identifies? Then is skin color is the primary driver? Who is the arbiter of blackness? Is blackness a function of skin tone, genetics, or frame of mind? How does blackness intersect with gender and sexuality? Does it intersect? Can you be mixed and still get coverage under blackness? How about if you’re a quarter black? An eighth? A sixteenth? Miley Cyrus? (Stay tuned for the Miley Cyrus-Ancestry.com short film where she finds out she has a black ancestor and asks for an apology, which makes everyone laugh.) Sorry, I'll continue. If you are black and grow up in a non-black community, are you still creating in a black cultural context (presumably your skin) and, therefore, covered under the black umbrella? Suppose you’re black but from Africa, the Caribbean or elsewhere in the Americas, does that count? Does a white person who has spent decades living in a black neighborhood, immersing herself in the culture, and studying race and cultural appropriation in America get any cred over a person who is a quarter black by blood but passes for white with ease and is indifferent to whatever it is that we’ve decided to make the “black culture du jour"? How do Latino/as fit into the equation? What about white Latino/as?
Although visceral reactions to appropriation often stem from a righteous and justifiable place, I rarely see subsequent conversations end up productively addressing what a new paradigm would look like after the initial rage subsides. The conversation often just ends with: "Yeah, stop doing that. It's rude. Here's why." Which, don't get me wrong, is a point that often needs to be made.
But after we agree that we can call Miley Cyrus a cultural appropriator and a callous handler of blackness and womanhood, then what? What is the remedy/corrective measure? An apology? Being more respectful? Was her misstep simply her whiteness? Was it her seeming lack of deference to traditions that influenced her performance? Do other races have to show equal deference? How about mixed races? Would the situation have been less problematic if a third of her performers weren’t black women? Half? What about if she was rubbing on another white woman? Is she still offensive? How about a really light-skinned woman who is ethnically ambiguous but both of her parents are technically black? (whatever "technically black" means) Can no one famous other than people deemed sufficiently black by the "House of Black Representatives" twerk or do anything else deemed black on a stage due to appropriation? Suppose Miley had a black best friend? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that last one.)
These are questions that cut to the core of so many discussions about –isms. We point out inequity and injustice (as we should), but rarely do we constructively think through how to solve the injustice and inequity outside of putting up rage borders (DO NOT STEP OVER THIS LINE! — important) and educating people to understand why certain behavior crosses the line (also vitally important).
But what then?
Maybe conversations that extend beyond moments of outrage and test the edges of appropriation, although challenging, are also necessary, because exploring the parameters of our frustration may, for example in this instance, ultimately reveal that the villain may not be Miley Cyrus, or even white people, per se, but specific strains of behavior that are potentially more complex than simplistic white-black, us-them paradigms. It may be that Miley’s whiteness is the least problematic part of this saga.
Now that doesn't mean that race is irrelevant, by any means. Racial privilege certainly is a thing still needs to be understood and checked. But race may not even be the most important trigger related to appropriation rage. Sure, race will continue to be instructive, especially when there are patterns of certain groups taking disproportionate action, but history suggests that noted past behavior, associations, public persona, perceived privilege, talent level, level of deference and empathy, etc., may be equally as instructive in determining what behavior will and will not be tolerated.
The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that the old language and the old paradigm of discussing offensiveness may be a dead end road. After logging hours of infuriating debate, I know I often inevitably reach the point where I say to myself: “Culture-defining is unreasonably hard … wait … why don’t white people have to define their culture?”
And that’s the thing. They don’t, and ultimately, neither should anyone else, especially if the goal is to produce a list of behaviors and tendencies that will always end up in a stagnant pool of stereotypes as parameters to frame our rage. It’s potentially a silly, silly exercise with very little reward at the end.
But then again, being on the marginalized side of things has never been an easy road lined with efficiency and predictable battles. I mean look at me, I just wrote a long-ass post inspired by a 20-year-old twerking poorly.