Let’s talk about race
Last week a friend posted a link to the Jezebel piece about Miley Cyrus on Facebook, I did not watch the VMA’s or am interested in Miley Cyrus but I read the article because my friend mentioned the hashtag solidarity is for white women.
The author, who identifies herself as a black women in the first sentence, was troubled by the ‘racist nature of the performance’. She references how historically women of color haven’t had agency over their bodies, how the black women on stage were merely sexually provocative props, the inauthentic persona which Miley Cyrus adopted to recreate herself as someone who is part of black culture, and how the performance presents a very singular view of what black culture is.
When I read her article I thought it was insightful and those arguments made sense to me (there are articles on the internet in defense of that performance as well) but what interested me was a few (what seems to be mainly white) people’s objections in the comments on Facebook. Four that stuck out were:
- Culture doesn't belong to anyone, why can’t she do that? – There is definitely a difference between cultural appropriation and the diffusion of hip-hop culture into mainstream American. The VMA performance glorifies ratchet culture to present Miley Cyrus as a provocative performer to be interesting to white people, but black people who embody that culture are not celebrated the same way. This is related to when white people wear Native American headdresses as way of looking unusual without recognizing what that means to Native Americans and how they have been perceived by whites through history. As a reminder, please don’t do that.
- But the dancers are going a long with it? Doesn’t that mean it’s OK? Or that they are complicit in it? – I cannot speak to what each individual dancer thought but it’s important to note that dancing is their job. Working for someone doesn't mean you necessarily approve of them, or have any thoughts about them, it means you are willing to trade your time and skills for the money that they offer. The fact that they participated isn’t as important as what the performance meant. With so many strip clubs in Portland you could argue that because there are women in Portland take off their clothes for a living this means that all women in Portland are totally fine with the idea of men objectifying female bodies.
- We need to stop thinking in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’, we’re all the same underneath, just treat everyone equally. – This idea that if everyone just tries to treat everyone the same then racism will be over is a naïve platitude. It’s what people say when they don’t really know how to talk about race. The fact is we are not the same on the outside (race, gender, ability, etc…) and how you look on the outside dictates your human experience, from what you are able to do to how you are treated in society, and you can’t tell people to ignore how their race has shaped their lives. Racism doesn't just happen on a personal level either, racism is institutionalized in our society. It’s discriminatory lending practices, voter ID laws, unfair sentencing in trials, it’s that performance, the list goes on and on. The worst part is that attitude of ‘we’re all the same underneath’ doesn't actually do anything to stop racism, which actually kills people.
- She’s just a kid/It’s not that bad – Now you are just measuring how racist something is and setting an acceptable tolerance for it.
And these objections come from white people (the ones I knew anyway*) who would agree that racism exists and is bad. What’s infuriating about these comments is that they attempt to shift blame, blur the issues, minimize the seriousness of the argument, and avoid talking about racism all together. Why is it so hard to talk about racism? A Gawker article by Tom Scocca (also worth reading) offers up an idea:
What white people fear, at bottom, is retribution. This is why discussion of actual injustice is supposed to be off-limits. Despite the glorious principles spelled out 50 years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, they lack a functioning concept of justice. To admit the harms of the past is to invite payback.
Until recently I was hesitant to talk about race and racism seriously too, it is uncomfortable because I recognize that I also have privilege. But in the last year I have started paying more attention to how people of color talk about race and racism and how white people talk about it (or do not). Watching all that happen on Facebook last week I was struck by how frustrating it is to see people shut down conversations about race and how people weren’t really listening. I felt this vague anger staring at this thread of comments and finally I threw my two cents in after spending an hour composing a comment because it felt like most people weren’t addressing the fact that the article made some good points.
So what happens when you find yourself in a conversation about race?
Listen. If a person of color calls out something as racist then listen to and try hard to really understand what they are telling you and remember that people have different life experiences than you and they might have views you’ve never considered. Do not minimize what people say. Ask questions if that might help you understand. Sometimes people won’t answer your questions, because they don’t have time or sometimes it’s exhausting to have to explain yourself over and over again, so take some time and look for the answers yourself (there are people of color writing about this stuff already). We live in the age of the internet so there are resources out there for people with computers (I just learned what intersectionality was this last year).** If racism were easy to fix then someone would have done it by now, but it’s not easy, and there isn’t some guide you can download to learn how to solve all your problems (please tell me if you find one). People need to learn to be able to talk about race in real ways because the alternative to these uncomfortable conversations is doing nothing; we’re going to have to figure it out as we go. I’m hoping to figure this out as I go too, I know I will stumble and fail but I’m starting right now.
Also, maybe commenting on people’s Facebook is not the most ideal way to talk about race either.
*I just realized that almost all my friends are white and maybe that’s why I don’t talk about race very often. Also, see my previous post where sometimes I forget that I am not white.
**This advice also works well if a gay person says something is homophobic, or a woman says something is sexist, or a trans person says something is transphobic, etc…