I recently wrote for Acculturated that these are tough times for white female pop stars, whose every video and stage performance is now scrutinized for racism and cultural appropriation by those who seem predisposed to find racism everywhere (except, too often, where it actually exists). Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry have been highly visible targets of such charges, and now Taylor Swift joins their ranks.
The music video for Swift’s new single “Shake it Off” debuted Monday and as of this writing has 20 million YouTube views. It’s a playful, exuberant song about shrugging off your critics and haters, and living with joyful abandon. In the video, Swift self-deprecatingly but unself-consciously tries to keep up with talented, ethnically diverse performers in a variety of dance styles, from ballet to modern dance to twerking to breakdancing to ribbon gymnastics to cheerleading.
The video immediately drew fire for supposedly racist images. Rapper Earl Sweatshirt, for example, pronounced it “inherently offensive and ultimately harmful” on Twitter and declared that it perpetuates black stereotypes, despite admitting that he hadn’t seen the video (which instantly renders his opinion invalid). “I don’t need to,” he says, defiant in his ignorance.
Unlike Sweatshirt and probably many others among the chorus of race-baiters, I have seen the video. It’s not racist. I’m not a Swift fan, but smearing someone as racist is a very serious accusation, and those who hurl false charges need to be called out for their hatefulness.
In a pointlessly bitchy takedown of Swift and the video at the Jezebel website, for example, Hillary Crosley accuses “milquetoast” Swift of “cultural appropriation” because she is “wearing cut off jean shorts, an animal print jacket, big gold hoops and jewelry that harken [sic] people of color,” and because she is backed up by twerkers (who are not all black, by the way). “Dressing up in the cultural cues of another ethnic group isn’t cool,” finger-wags Crosley, who is black but who probably doesn’t object to Leontyne Price dressing up in the white cultural cues of opera or Misty Copeland dressing up in the white cultural cues of ballet.
The Consequence of Sound website also questioned whether the video is racist, posting a litany of tweeted disapproval from random commenters, like these:
“Hi, Taylor Swift. Welcome to the racist pop singer club.”
“wtf did taylor swift just do omg is she pulling a katy perry? where are all these racist white girls comign from”
“#ShakeItOff is racist and offensive. Why does your self expression and rebellion have to come off the backs of black people?”
At least CoS finishes the piece with a defense of Swift from the Tumblr page Ohrgasm, in which “a proud ass black man” declares it “not problematic or even close to racist”:
Taylor was not “cultural appropriating” anything and she wasn’t “being racist”... She was celebrating people’s dancing and how they celebrate music throughout the video and a large variety of black woman twerk. Would it honestly make sense if Taylor had 100 or so white girls try to twerk?
Let me be blunt: the theory of cultural appropriation is a divisive, narrow-minded, inherently racist ideological weapon that locks us all into racial identities with hard and fast borders rather than acknowledging us as individuals with our own tastes and interests and abilities. It denies us, on the basis of skin color, the ability to pay homage to or engage in cultural expressions that are not our own. It enforces segregation and stunts cultural evolution.
As for negative black stereotypes: if, like Earl Sweatshirt, you want to shame performers who are perpetuating them, the most obvious and influential place to begin is with black recording artists who glorify those stereotypes. For blacks who don’t want to be stereotyped as uneducated thugs and hypersexualized twerkers, then the solution is very simple: stop doing it yourselves. Stop making videos depicting yourselves as pimps and hos. Stop referring to each other as nigga. Stop glorifying the materialistic immorality and criminality of the gangsta life. Stop twerking. Stop spewing obscenities and porn dressed up as lyrics. Mostly, stop embracing this degrading behavior as your proud cultural tradition.
Taylor Swift isn’t perpetuating those stereotypes – you are.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/21/14)