Shake it Off is not appropriation

Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off caused a lot of controversy when it came out a few weeks ago.

Admittedly, I know almost nothing about Swift. I know that despite her job title, she’s not a great singer (and is basically just a less nasal Rihanna), and that Kanye West ruined her acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards five years ago.

There has been plenty of criticism directed toward Swift for having (mostly black) women twerk behind her in this video. I think this criticism is completely unfounded. If pictures or gifs women twerking behind her were taken out of context, then I can see how that (along with her in her “hip-hop” outfit) would seem offensive in the Iggy AzaleaLily AllenMiley Cyrus style of cultural appropriation. Out of context, it looks like Swift has reduced women of color to body types and props.

If you watch the entire video, it becomes clear that that’s not what she’s doing. The video features several types of dance: ballet, rhythmic gymnastics, breaking, finger tutting, locking, contemporary, and twerking. Unlike these other women who are displaying racist entitlement, Swift is treating twerking as a legitimate dance style. She also has diverse dancers in each of the different styles (not all the twerking girls are black, not all the hip-hop dancers are black, not all the contemporary dancers are white, etc.)

In this video, Swift is saying “I can’t pretend to be anything I’m not.” She’s just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, if you will.

Even though I’m not at all a Swift fan, the song is catchy, and the video is cute. (My favorite part is at the end where all the professional dancers are goofing off.)

I do have an issue with the way we never see any of the twerkers’ faces, except for a split second where we see one of the white girls’ faces; and the moment where she crawls through their legs is cringe-inducing. But this isn’t a criticism of her appropriating a dance style; it’s a criticism of reducing the dancers of this style to disembodied posteriors. And it’s relatively non-egregious in light of what other singers have been doing, and how much thought Swift or the directors apparently put into making the video (I’m inclined to believe that they had a diversity expert on hand).

Cultural appropriation is not good, to put it extremely simply. Cyrus and Allen’s tone deaf responses to the criticism of their videos shows that they have no interest in taking responsibility for having done something offensive. Cyrus seems to be saying “Hahahaha look at black people hahaha look I’m putting on my black costume!!” Allen decided to pull out the color-blind defense for what she  claims is satire:

If anyone thinks for a second that I requested specific ethnicities for the video, they’re wrong.

If anyone thinks that after asking the girls to audition, I was going to send any of them away because of the color of their skin, they’re wrong…

It has nothing to do with race, at all…

If I could dance like the ladies can, it would have been my arse on your screens…

I’m not going to apologize…

This is a pretty disappointing response for someone who claims to be a socially conscious artist. She also seems unable to comprehend that you’re not satirizing something if you do the thing that you say you’re criticizing. You’re just… doing it.

I agree with criticizing cultural appropriation when it happens. I agree with criticizing sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all forms of bigotry, provided that they’ve happened. In fact, it’s crucial to any kind of progressive social change. However, I think it makes the aims of social justice seem less credible when we sound the racism klaxon without paying attention to what’s actually going on. It’s like people just saw girls twerking behind Swift and decided it was racist after what Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, and Iggy Azealea, among others, have put us through. Swift doesn’t deserve the criticism that was thrown her way. Shake It Off is just a fun misfit anthem.


The Michael Brown Problem

Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Siberia for the past few weeks, you know that unarmed, black, 18-year old Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th. The police officer’s name was not released until a week after the incident, during which time it seems that the Ferguson police had been trying to concoct a ridiculous story that they still weren’t even able to get straight, including a version of events in which Brown physically attacked the officer, something that every single eye witness has refuted.

The police officer, Darren Wilson, has still not been charged with anything. The murder, and the subsequent lack of legal action, has led to unrest in Ferguson, with the National Guard being sent in and pointing guns at unarmed, peaceful civilians. (The National Guard left after being completely incompetent in doing their jobs.)

The shooting of Michael Brown, and the ensuing media circus, show the painful reality that black people in the United States are not human beings. (John Stewart has done a wonderful job of explaining this.)

The New York Times called Michael Brown “no angel.” Sean McElwee at Demos compared this to the way the humanizing, generous way that the same paper described convicted, white serial killers.

I’ve written before about how men of color are victims of gendered, racialized violence because of how they are perceived. The perception affects every aspect of the lives of people of color. It’s why when I complain about people touching and making comments about my hair, I’m not talking just about having “unfair” beauty standards placed on me, I’m talking about people seeing my existence as being less than human. It’s why when Richard Sherman talked loudly after a football game, white people started screaming about what a thug he was, as though no white athlete has ever screamed trash talk. It’s because he’s not seen as human. It’s why unarmed black people can be killed by the people who are charged with protecting them, over and over and over again in the “greatest country in the world”, and will most likely never see justice. In the past month, Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Eric Garner, were all murdered by law enforcement.

What kind of justice is there really for Michael Brown and his family? Even if Wilson is charged, prosecuted, and convicted, this boy still lost his life for having the audacity to exist in a black body. What justice is there for anyone who is murdered senselessly because of what s/he looks like?

Black people are not seen as human beings in America.

“You take it too far”

It’s not uncommon for people who have never experienced systemic, institutionalized oppression of a certain type to accuse those who have, and identify it, as being “too sensitive” or “taking it too far.”

For people who have never been on the receiving end of systematic discrimination, or for people who are, but for some reason, prefer it that way, it may not be that obvious. If it’s not something overt, like hanging a human being from a tree, or bombing their home or place of worship, or physically assaulting someone while yelling racial slurs, then clearly it’s not systemic racism, it’s because of something else.

Studies have shown that those who are on the receiving end of racism are the best able to identify it. And why wouldn’t they? While I understand that there are all kinds of discrimination that take place against people based on religion, race, size, ability, gender identity, I certainly can’t pick out anti-Semitism as easily as a Jewish person can, or transphobia as easily as a trans person can. I’m going to defer to the people who are on the receiving end of it to tell me.

Microaggressions, which are all too familiar to people with subaltern identities, are difficult to prove. It is possible for people to behave in a way that’s racist, even if it’s not a conscious decision for them to behave that way, thanks to several hundred years of white supremacy conditioning some people to be seen as smarter, more capable, or more attractive or more “refined” than others based on nothing but an arbitrarily defined set of physical characteristics.

It’s when a white Canadian says that of course white men in China go after local women in a way they don’t in Ghana because “That’s different, because they’re Asian, and they’re hot!”

It’s a “friend” telling saying that it’s not good not to cook because you’re “a girl.” (Two in one-infantilizing and gender policing simultaneously!)

It’s describing East Africans (any people of color with physical characteristics usually associated with whiteness) has having “more refined” features than the rest of Africa.

It’s your cousins and their friends laughing at you and saying “I hope I’m not being sexism” when you point out real, problematic, misogynistic behavior.

It’s me saying something in Japanese (to a table of people who don’t understand Japanese), explaining what it means, and then having them argue with absolute certainty about it- because by definition, as a black woman, it’s impossible that I could possibly know what I’m talking about, right?

It’s having all these types of incidences dismissed with a “You’re taking it too far” by someone who does not understand what it is to live life on the receiving end of this.

The thing is, it’s impossible to prove that (some of) these incidents came from a place of maliciousness, or even prejudice. I can’t prove when a white person sticks their hands into my hair without my permission that they have done it because of my race, because it’s not like I have a recording of them admitting to it. But I know that that’s what they are doing, because I have grown up on the receiving end of racism and sexism my entire life.

So no, it’s not me that’s taking it too far. It’s not the countless other people who are far more educated than I am on issues of discrimination and power dynamics who are taking it too far.


Further reading:

How to Tell if a White Person is Racist

“People are Nicer to Daddy Because He’s White”

I can’t be racist: My best friend is black

Or, the black kid who sits next to you in English class does not consider you her friend, and you are racist

There is this phenomenon of people thinking and articulating that their associations absolve them from having to examine any of their behavior.

A few months ago, one of my classmates deleted a comment I made on her Facebook page because she said she didn’t want to discourage her friend from commenting after I responded to a dense comment that she made. It’s not my Facebook page, and clearly my friend is free to delete my comments as she pleases. What really surprised me was that she told me that her friend wasn’t racist at all- and was even married to a Liberian man!

The idea that a white woman’s fucking a black man means that it is impossible for her to be racist is flawed. I mean, it’s certainly not like white people-including women– have a history of sexualizing and dehumanizing black men, after all.

(Or, you know, white men doing the same to black women. Or Asian women.)

An acquaintance once told me that there was no possible way that she could be a bigot because her brother was gay. Clippers owner Donald caused a media firestorm week for saying things like “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people” and “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.” His defenders are arguing that he’s not racist because his girlfriend is black.


He (rather explicitly) demonstrated his racism. The simple fact of having a relationship, sexual or otherwise, with someone of a different race does not someone preclude the possibility of you harboring bigoted beliefs. A colleague said “I am definitely tired of the ‘I have a _____ who is ____’ thing. That doesn’t make you above bigotry. It’s pretty fucked up. It just washes away all responsibility and basically says ‘I don’t have to think. I did my one charitable thing by knowing someone who is lesser than me.’”

Lindsay Yoo at The Filthy Freedom Project says:

The truth? Your unrivaled collection of Tribe Called Quest and Fugees albums does not make you an ally. Your Asian girlfriends and proudly hoisted set of “authentic” Japanese samurai swords above your fireplace does not make you an “honorary Asian.” Your “deep” friendship with the Dominican man who makes your toasted-bagel-and-cream-cheese breakfast every morning does not suddenly make you color blind and should not excuse you from deeper conversations about our respective roles in perpetuating race and gender hierarchies in American society.

And the fact that you married a Liberian guy does not make you down. The simple fact that you have a neighbor/family member/acquaintance that possesses one trait or another doesn’t mean that you can’t exhibit problematic behavior. By this logic, a man who is married to a woman can’t be a misogynist because he married a woman. Several thousand years of human history would beg to differ.

Just because you’ve said something offensive, and someone calls you out on it, that doesn’t mean that we’ve condemned you as a human being and that your entire being is tainted with bigotry. Jay Smooth talked about this– years ago- if you say something and you get called out on it, that doesn’t mean that the entirety of your being is racist any more than someone who tells you have spinach between your teeth is telling you that you’re an unclean. If you’re really not racist (or sexist or homophobic or transphobic), then your behavior should reflect that. If you’re really not racist, you shouldn’t have to hold up your association with other human beings as examples of your exemplary, tolerant character.

A crazy way to live

I don’t really have anything new or constructive to say on the subject of violence against men of color, except that I am getting weary of hearing about young boys being violently assaulted because of their race. February 5th would have been Trayvon Martin’s 19th birthday, and it’s almost exactly two years of the anniversary of his death. Boys and men of color are so often victims of both extrajudicial violence for existing the way they were born.

Following Martin’s murder, a chain e-mail claiming that the media was not accurately representing his appearance, and that he was in fact a tall, muscular, tattooed black man made the internet rounds. Not only was it a photograph of rapper The Game and not Martin, those perpetuating this rumor seemed unable to comprehend that the mere fact of being black, tattooed, tall, and muscular and male does not make you any less of a human, and certainly does not justify someone murdering you in cold blood. Continue reading

South Africa: 2014

2014 is the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s independence, and is also an election year. Although South African politicians often describe the country as a “rainbow nation,” is the term really more than rhetoric used in an attempt to pacify those who speak about persisting inequalities and rampant corruption?

Today’s African National Congress (ANC) is a far cry from the radical, revolutionary group that fought for independence. 20 years after the ANC rose to power, legislative changes have not necessarily translated into racial  or class equality for South Africa. Black South Africans suffer from increasing rates of unemployment, and maternal mortality rates have quadrupled under ANC leadership.

Incumbent President Jacob Zuma has at best, a questionable record as head of state; his most recent abuse of power blowing R208 million (USD18.5 million) of public funds to pimp out his private residence in Nkandla. While City Press calls Nkandla “the village at the centre of South Africa’s election,” the votes of President Zuma’s disenfranchised neighbors will most likely not sway the election, despite Julius Malema’s wishful thinking that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will win this year’s election; and the ANC’s declining support.

Despite the corruption and inequality that has continued to characterize South Africa under ANC leadership, it’s unrealistic to think that an opposition can group can win this year’s election, especially after the implosion of the coalition formed between the Democratic Alliance and Agang SA; under which Mamphela Ramphele would’ve run as the presidential candidate.

But who knows? Maybe all the political analysts are wrong, and an opposition group will win and wave a magic wand and erase all of South Africa’s systemic problems. One can dream, anyway.

Survival isn’t …

Survival isn’t about certain death. It’s about keeping your head down.

12 Years a Slave

I just watched 12 Years a Slave over the weekend. This quote, and the whole film, really, reminded me of a conversation I had last year with one of my professors. We spoke at length about groups being complicit in their oppression. Women, racial minorities, indigenous people, and religious minorities, are all “guilty” of complying with their oppressors.

We talked at length about female genital mutilation (FGM), which the WHO estimates that between 100 and 140 million worldwide have undergone. While feminist discourse describes such a practice as being patriarchal, it is carried out and controlled by women.

A 2013 study published by BMC Public Health found that in The Gambia, both women and men defend FGM by arguing that “it is critical to preserve ethnic and gender identity, protect femininity, ensure purity and virginity, guarantee the ‘family’s honour,’ assure marriageability…” That such attitudes are held by women about a practice that is physically harmful shows just how important “keeping your head down” is to survival.

While the pressure to comply with oppressive norms is understandable- after all, it’s the instinct of every species to do what it takes to survive- it is not without rocking the boat that any social change is achieved.

The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century took place as a result of the proletariat’s discontentment with “keeping their heads down,” especially after Enlightenment thinkers ideas about personal freedom gained exposure.

Although there are countless example in human history of revolution and social movements, skipping ahead roughly two centuries, the United States’ 1960’s civil rights movement is another example of human beings no longer content to silently comply with legislation and social norms designed to keep minorities, in this case racial minorities, as second-class citizens.

Even more recently, the Arab Spring, set off by Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolating in Tunisia started off a chain of revolution throughout the region by those no longer willing tolerate human rights abuses at the hands of their oppressive leaders .

While I’m not arguing that all of these social movements have been raging successes- the human rights situation throughout much of the Middle East is still precarious, and racial discrimination still exists in the United States- their occurrences indicate that a life of silently complying is not enough. Keeping your head down is merely a means to survive. Social change is about creating a way to thrive.

Why the racist, sexist backlash against Cecile Kyenge is a good thing

In April, Cecile Kyenge was appointed minister of integration by Italy’s prime minister, Enrico Letta. She is the first black person to serve in Italy’s cabinet, and has lived in the country for the past 30 years after moving to Italy to study medicine at the age of 18. An ophthalmologist by trade, she has been active in integration issues since 2002. She founded DAWA, an organization to promote awareness and cooperation between Africa and Italy, and was elected to the Modena City Council in 2004.

Many people have been extremely vocal about their displeasure at Italy’s first black minister. Kyenge has been compared by Senator Roberto Calderoli to an orangutan, who also said she should be a minister “in her own country” (she’s an Italian citizen and has been in Italy most of her life), has had bananas thrown at her, and has even had a politician, Dolores Valandro of the Northern League, advocate for her rape.  In response to the victimization of an Italian woman,  Valandro posted on her Facebook page “Why doesn’t someone rape her so she can understand what victims of atrocious crimes feel?”  Because every time someone is a victim of rape, apparently the correct response is to go out and rape an Italian minister.

While Valandro was expelled from the party, Calderoli still holds office, and the public attacks haven’t stopped. And you know what? I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing.

I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing because it prompted representatives from 17 European Union countries to meet in Rome September to condemn the attacks. Joëlle Milquet, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, called the meeting, not just because of the remarks against Kyenge, but in support of all those who are victimized by racism in Europe: “What has happened to the Italian minister is unacceptable,” she said, “but we’re talking about a widespread phenomenon. It was necessary to mobilise in order to affirm the value of diversity and integration.”

I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing, because in the same way that racist whites resisted America’s civil rights movement, and racist whites in South Africa resisted the anti-apartheid movement, the Italian resistance against immigrant-friendly policies mean that members of society have noticed that Italy is become more inclusive. It’s a good thing that in response to Calderoni’s “orangutan” remark, journalist Daniele Passanante started a petition asking him to resign, and that nearly 200,000 people signed.

Of course, misogyny, xenophobia, and racism are not good.  However, the backlash against Kyenge’s appointment means that immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities are no longer an invisible underclass. African immigrants to Italy now comprise about 1,000,000 people, and there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities, such as those who have immigrated from Asia and Latin America as well. These statistics cannot be ignored, and the vitriol hurled at Kyenge means that Italians are aware that their country is changing. Continue reading