Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Miley Cyrus and Accidental Racism

Right then. I couldn't resist any longer. A post about Miley Cyrus' performance at the VMAs this week...

I feel I should preface this post with a couple of points:

  • Before yesterday I didn't know what "twerking" is
  • Before yesterday I only had a vague grasp of what a Miley Cyrus is
Ninety per-cent of the discussion I've read about this performance has focused on its overtly sexual nature, speculation on Cyrus' drug usage, eyebrow-raising at that really weird tongue thing she does and the inappropriateness of broadcasting this routine to an audience of impressionable children and young teenagers. Until that is, Caitlin Moran retweeted a link to a blog exploring its racial implications.

I read the blog a couple of times, trying to take in the message. In all honesty, at first I felt it was overanalysing somewhat, looking for issues that weren't there. But then I'm not a black woman; I have never had to consider that traditional feminism doesn't account for specific issues faced by women of different ethnicities. That's when I started to deconstruct my own feelings about this blog post, the VMA performance and other forms of normalised "accidental" everyday racism. 

I still don't think Miley Cyrus' dance routine (I'm being generous in calling in that!) was overtly racist in the same way it was overtly sexual. But it DOES perpetuate accepted stereotypes about black women and representations of their sexuality.

To me, being racist means a deliberate and conscious act which harms or denigrates one or more people based on the colour of their skin and/or aspects of their culture. 

I don't think that applies to Miley Cyrus in this instance. What I do see in her performance is what I've called "accidental racism"; that is, an unconscious attitude towards (in this case) black culture which stereotypes and misrepresents a key intimate aspect of black women's lives. 

The fact that the racial implications of the performance need to be highlighted is entirely the point. We don't see this as 'racist' because such representations of black women and black culture have become normalised to us. A few decades ago, it wasn't seen as sexist to market a kitchen product to women in this manner because demeaning women was normal and accepted. It has taken many years to challenge that and begin to eradicate sexism, and yet we still see adverts for cleaning products, supermarket chains, etc. that focus their preference by mothers as their unique selling point. And yes, when people complain that such adverts are sexist, we're told that we're overanalysing and looking for issues that aren't there - because attitudes that cleaning and grocery shopping is the preserve of the little wifey at home are still normalised.

It is possible to perpetuate damaging racial stereotypes without realising you're doing it. This insidious form of oppression is much more difficult to challenge because it first requires an awful lot of work to demonstrate that it even exists and that you're not grasping at straws to find it. 

A few days ago, a friend published a link to a series of "automatic preference" tests, one of which looks at whether you lean towards or away from black or white people's faces. I have NO idea how it works, but when my results were given, it also gave a breakdown of the total number of respondents and the average result. Staggeringly, the majority - over a quarter - of respondents were found to have an automatic preference for white people over black people. This means that without any conscious decision making, they found a white face more tolerable than a black face. THIS is entirely what is meant by accidental racism. 

Here are the tests if you'd like to explore for yourself:

One final thing I would like to say on this matter is that I don't hold Miley Cyrus 100% culpable for the content of her performance. There is a team of stylists, choreographers, managers and broadcasters who need to ask themselves what the hell they were thinking when they decided this was a really great routine for a young, female artist.

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