by: Erika Barker
Last fall, after Miley Cyrus’s Video Music Awards (VMA) performance, social media erupted into a flurry of critiques and defenses of the pop star. For me, one of the most compelling aspects of this debate (which was originally downplayed by much of the white feminist media until black feminists called attention to it) was the discussion happening in some feminist circles about the racist and culturally appropriative nature of the performance. I know a lot of us, myself included, pretty much exhausted our ability to think and talk critically about Miley Cyrus last fall after seemingly endless social media coverage of her antics. However, I was irresistibly reminded of this debate about white women taking on aspects of traditionally African American, and specifically low-income African American, forms of self-expression for their own benefit two weekends ago at this spring’s Repertory Dance Group (RDG) performance.
Last fall, critics like blogger Cate Young and Jezebel writer Dodai Stewart pointed out Miley’s repeated appropriation of the dance, language and dress styles associated with “ratchet culture,” a culture produced by and commonly associated with a subset of low income women of color, particularly black women. Stewart explains that in Miley’s “We Can’t Stop” video, when she attempts to twerk in a circle of admiring black women, “… she, as a rich white woman, is ‘playing’ at being a minority … Along with the gold grill and some hand gestures, Miley straight-up appropriates the accoutrements associated with certain black people on the fringes of society.” The key here is that the people who originally used those dance, language and dress styles that Miley’s adopted are actually poor and face real marginalization because of their low-income status. Their forms of artistic expression, like dancing, are rooted in that lived experience. Miley, however, is and has always been a rich, white woman who, at the end of the day, can take off her fake nails and continue to access the privilege associated with being a rich, white woman. In short, Miley can “put on” and “take off” the cultural symbols that signify low-income status at will, which essentially acts as just one more way that rich white people can benefit from the work of poor people of color. As Stewart sums it up, “She can play at blackness,” and indeed, profit from that play, “without being burdened by the reality of it.”
Moreover, as Stewart points out, because those cultural elements Miley is adopting for her performances originate with people of color, Miley is participating in a long tradition of white people pretending to be black people for the enjoyment of other white people. While much more cleverly disguised, one could certainly argue that Miley’s twerking and grill-wearing are just as much a form of mockery and caricature of African Americans as the minstrel shows of the twentieth century, when performers like Al Jolson painted their faces with shoe polish to sing and dance in imitation of poor black Americans for the sake of white entertainment.
But Miley is certainly not the first to appropriate the forms of expression of marginalized groups. And unfortunately, I’ve been reminded of it every time I’ve gone to an RDG performance. Every year, at least a few of the dances essentially boil down to a group of mostly white, mostly middle-upper class women (and some men) doing a whole lot of booty drops and twerk-attempts to fierce hip-hop tracks. While there’s obviously a difference between Miley Cyrus taking on black cultural elements in the hugely public space of the VMAs to earn a personal profit, and a group of college students dancing to hip-hop songs on stage for a small audience without earning a personal profit, I think it’s worth pointing out the similarities.
For one, though as average folks RDG performers don’t have access to the same kind of extreme privilege someone like Miley does, all of us who attend this school are able to tap into a deep well of privilege simply because we attend this school. And while I’m sure there are people who participate in RDG who legitimately can lay claim to the dance styles and performances taking place, I think it’s fair to say that most of the people on stage are not members of the marginalized groups that created these dance styles — whether they’re “tribal” foot-stomps or hip-hop-style booty drops. Rather, these performances act as part of a larger cultural phenomenon of white, well-off people entertaining other people who are similar to them by adopting personas that imitate people with significantly less privilege.
Beyond the fact that participating in any act that upholds white and class privilege is wrong, it’s worth considering what message these RDG performances send to students of color on our campus, especially to those who identify with the forms of cultural expression these dances utilize. As a white, upper-middle class woman who benefits from almost every conceivable form of privilege, and who is herself very much a part of the larger racist power structures that have allowed me to come to this institution and write this article, I can’t speak for anyone but myself. But if I’m uncomfortable sitting in the audience at RDG while hip-hop blasts around me and my classmates gyrate on stage, I can’t imagine how uncomfortable and alienated I might feel if I had grown up as a person of color or poor.