Enough With The Open Letters: Let's Talk About Appropriation And Race

Now that a token amount of intersectional analysis has been performed, white women are free to move on to discussing whether or not Miley’s work is feminist.
Publish date:
October 9, 2013
race, open letter, cultural appropriation, understanding

Miley Cyrus’s ridiculous version of twerking and the appropriative, racist use of Black female bodies during her VMA performance has been the gift that has kept on giving.

It has been virtually impossible to ignore the constant stream of public commentary –- and believe me, I have tried. For the first few days, at least some of the conversation was about the fact that reducing Black women to roving behinds –- which are just fun to motorboat for kicks –- while a flailing Miley gave the world her interpretation of ratchet culture, was absolutely racist.

Now that a token amount of intersectional analysis has been performed, white women are free to move on to discussing whether or not Miley’s work is feminist. How the bodies of white women are perceived, is certainly more important than continuing a discussion on the problematic nature of accessorizing with black people, given that white female chasteness and the understanding of what an appropriate performance of white womanhood consists of is under threat. Rebellion can look like Gwen Stefani on a global appropriation tour but, filth, ratchet, ghetto and animalistic sexuality is something which apparently should be left for black women.

The shaming of Miley Cyrus makes it evident that appropriation only becomes a problem socially when it is tied to the dangerous sexualities of cultures of colour but when it is for the purposes of enlightenment or artistic expression, it’s just fine.

The conversation shifted when Miley decided to claim Sinéad O’Connor as a motivation for her “Wrecking Ball” video in her interview with Rolling Stone. To be honest, it is truly beyond me how the single tear that ran down Sinéad’s face in her video for the power ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U” translated to Miley’s “updated version,” which featured a naked Cyrus flailing on a wrecking ball and licking a sledgehammer.

Sinéad took this homage of sorts as an invitation to comment and thus wrote an open letter to Miley, the focus of which basically consisted of slut-shaming Cyrus and a conservative-minded de rigueur attack on prostitutes -– a vulnerable population of women and trans* folks who are all too often vilified by the media.

In response, Miley fired back on Twitter, latching onto Sinéad’s highly-publicized struggles with mental illness in order to suggest there was no merit to the idea Miley’s depiction of sexuality is bad for young women or that she is “an anti-female tool of the anti-female music industry."

This then spurred an open letter from Amanda Palmer, who actually seemed to be #TeamMiley, though neither O’Connor nor Cyrus had referenced Palmer in their conversation. I suppose if you have two cents, it must be spent somehow. An enraged Sinéad threatened a lawsuit, with yet another open letter.

Disability activist groups also heaped scorn upon Miley for her ableist mockery of mental illness. Shirley Manson of the band Garbage, contributed by rearing her head just enough to declare herself “confused” in an open letter. Just when I thought the letter wars had finally come to an end, the super talented and occasionally androgynous Annie Lennonx, clearly on #TeamSinéad, decided to weigh in (via -– you guessed it -– an open letter), claiming to be “disturbed and dismayed by the recent spate of overtly sexualised performances and videos.”

If it feels like one big ridiculous circle to you, that’s because it is. In some ways, it appears to be an issue of age, with the older O’Connor and Lennox against the youth and self-expression of Miley Cyrus, except that this is a conversation that has been going on forever. If we slip back in time to Madonna’s heyday, even Madge, with lyrics like, “You deserve the best in life, so if the time isn't right then move on,” in her 1989 single “Express Yourself,” could not avoid the hand-wringing and concern over her impact on young women.

Today, Madonna has been reinvented, with current performances by younger performers being juxtaposed to her catalogue as a marker of what is and is not empowerment. Pontificating on “what about the children” in feminist circles is no different than an old man screaming about kids on his lawn; the Miley Cyrus/Sinéad O’Connor dust-up is nothing but the latest incarnation of this phenomenon.

It allows the women involved to debate and police each other in a manner that smacks of navel-gazing, while ignoring the ways in which sex workers and women of colour (and, in fact, cultures of colour), are either colonized or obscured from the debate altogether.

Even Madonna, who today is widely hailed as a great feminist icon, has routinely employed black people in the background of her songs as music videos celebrated her whiteness. Whether it was the Baptist choir singing backup in “Like a Prayer” or the Spanish barrio staging in “La Isla Bonita,” Madonna’s message was wrapped in the idea that cultures of colour represent a playground for White women on their path to self-discovery.

And with “Vogue,” as she sang about how Rita Hayward gave good face, our beloved Madge actively stole a dance made popular in the Harlem Ballroom scene in the 1980s. At the time, it was presented as Madonna being avant-garde and giving the plebeians a new craze. It’s funny how Miley’s twerking on the VMA’s followed the very same narrative.

In critiquing these videos, the issue of course must be gender and never race, because no matter how many times women of colour talk about the importance of intersectionality, in white feminist circles, gender is always and forever the overriding concern.

At 20, Cyrus is still a very young woman and has yet to learn that if one is to appropriate from a culture of color and make a profit, it must be done in the name of enlightenment and most certainly not involve sex and sexuality.

Perhaps when Cyrus enters her 30s, she -– like Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love" -– will embark upon a trip of self-discovery, seeking wisdom and fulfillment through the mining of cultures of colour. By following Gilbert’s lead, Miley will achieve a mature form of shite womanhood, which “correctly” centers a supposed form of benign whiteness, even as it continues the tradition of colonization. Only when whiteness can claim a “positive agenda” are such acts of blatant appropriation presented as good.

Cultures of colour are also where white women have turned to form the basis of rebellion in each generation, allowing white artists the chance to bring previously ignored ethnic markers of culture to the mainstream and rebrand it as a form of white female empowerment. White womanhood has struggled to move away from the fainting couches, strings of pearls and gilded cages that have supposedly trapped them, even as women of colour police each other in wars of respectability in the hope of achieving the perceived acceptability of their White counterparts.

A trip to the exotic brings attention –- if not legitimacy -– for White women when it includes an aggressive sexuality, even as their actions firmly ensconce a race-based divide, which renders the very cultures upon which they stake their rebellion invisible or marked as “other.”

A white girl gone bad because of the influences of cultures of colour is still privy to white privilege, while the same act performed by a woman of colour casts her as an irredeemable slut. Cultures of colour have become identities that white women try on like little girls playing dress up, firm in the belief that even if the monster under their bed is real, it certainly poses no lasting threat to their privilege.

The little girls who are watching Miley Cyrus today will one day look back at a reinvented image of her and see her actions as a rite of passage –- a development on the path to the respectability that has become the norm for white women. Perhaps, like Madge, Miley will be hailed as a smart businesswoman who turned performing for the patriarchal gaze into a business empire.

At only 20, Miley is already worth $150 million and while the conversation about her respectability rages on, she is making bank in a world where the majority of white women are impoverished and women of colour even more so. This ongoing electronic pen pal conversation from hell isn’t so much about gender as it is about how recognizable the continued appropriation of cultures of colour should be in the mainstream.