When I was in college at UNC Chapel Hill I was lucky enough to make friends with some of the most intelligent and fabulous people that walk this earth. We called ourselves Team Big Things, among other monikers that were bestowed upon us (Fruity Rebels, Benetton Club, etc). These names derived from a few simple facts; that we are all highly ambitious, flamboyant individuals of varying races and backgrounds. Many of us identify as queer, and all of us make up an educated, socially-minded group looking to better the world through art and/or service, and to look & feel good while doing it.
Even though we’ve experienced a diaspora since graduating–we’ve got members in NYC, LA, NC, DC, and one member is even in China right now–I still keep in close contact with these guys through a private facebook group called TBT. We share funny gifs, stories about almost pooping in our pants at Trader Joe’s, and links to articles. Sometimes it’s “Best Golden Girls Quotes” on Buzzfeed. Other times they surround more socially charged topics which we then debate and discuss with each other. This week we talked about Britney, Miley, and the relationship between fashion, music, gender, queerness and race. I felt the conversations that followed were beyond relevant.
It began with this image, Mykki Blanco’s Twitter response to the new Britney single, “Work Bitch,” which aside from being another god awful piece of EDM garbage, borrows from the lexicon of ballroom culture (and thus from queer people of color) in a way that has upset some people.
Moe: Thank you
Kat: I’m curious though, haven’t female pop singers always had a large gay fan base? Cher, Whitney, Madonna, Katy Perry, Gaga, Britney. I can separate an artist’s sincere relationship with their queer fan base from the more contrived relationships just by the way it feels. “Work Bitch” is clearly a tactic. But what is the dividing line? What actually separates something like Gaga’s songs, often hailed as gay anthems, from being under this same scrutiny? Is it the artist’s actual involvement with the LGBTQ community? Personally I was irritated with Katy Perry when she came out with “I Kissed a Girl” because I thought it fetishized bisexuality but I’ve since changed my perspective on it and thought of it as like, pro bi-curious. Basically I’m just on the train and rambling and would love to hear more of what y’all think of straight females as queer icons in the media.
Hannah: I agree with you. But I do also think that since the LGBTQ community has become more openly accepted into mainstream culture, pop stars take it as an opportunity to “reach out to/support” them and therefore get a wider spread fan base. Clearly there are some icons (such as Cher) who I think more properly helps represent the gay community because she supported them before it was fetishized like it is today.
Kat: Not to mention the whole “playing bi” tactic that young straight pop stars (Christina, Britney, Miley, Katy) use to break out of their pristine Disney/Christian image. And don’t even get me started on Macklemore.
Hannah: IDK if Macklemore can fall under the female pop star category… but he might as well considering what a little bitch he is.
Kat: I think about this a lot as a white woman who wants to have a strong voice in the media as a writer. Although I identify as queer and a feminist I still heavily scrutinize the validity of my voice in relationship to many of my characters who are queer people of color (aka: y’all). This is sort of off the subject of pop music but not really at all. The reason Orange is the New Black was given so much praise for it’s portrayal of QPOC is because it gave agency to those characters outside of the white narrative. It is unethical to use the experiences and cultures of another to further your career. It does nothing but reinforce the status quo to try sum up the lived experience of an other in your own voice, to tell someone else’s story in order to spice up your own. Ultimately we need more queer voices telling their own stories, taking center stage for their own lived experience and being their own icons. Not treated by the industry as a market for culture consumption. And as a white, straight artist, if you can’t get down with that, then you are not an “ally”. Thus Mykki’s outrage.
Austin: Everything Kat said p much.
Jamila: Kat, yes. All of it. That being said, I’m also thankful for these white women who advocate for “the others” because when others do it, nobody gives a goddamn
Austin: Yeah ^ there is a way to use one’s privilege in a good way and that is it.
The next topic was one that has been beaten to death over the past few weeks, Miley’s appropriation of black “ratchet” fashion to enhance her fun new image. If you’ve been on the Internet (and not been completely clueless) any time in the last two months you’ve heard more Miley arguments than you can mentally process; those condemning her and those in her defense. This time we wanted to talk about the stylist behind Miley’s fashion choices at the VMAs and in her controversial video for “We Can’t Stop.”
Ratchet is Dead: Inside the Mind of a Miley Cyrus Stylist
The article introduces Lisa Katnic, Miley’s stylist and a host of the Vfiles webshow LisaTV, which is basically a docu-series about different fashion communities. In the article Katnic is quoted as follows:
“Somebody said that it was racist for a white girl to have three black girls as props onstage to benefit herself. It’s misinformed because [those dancers, the] L.A. Bakers are in the [“We Can’t Stop”] video. At this point, Miley and the L.A. Bakers are friends, and Amazon Ashley? They’re friends in real life. They go out to lunch. That’s so demeaning to [the dancers] for somebody to say that. Here they are doing something that’s awesome and fun, and [people] shit on it.”
Since we’re all major Vfiles fans, and many of us have adorned ourselves with the gold chains, mesh and Air Forces of the “ratchet” look for long before Miley jumped on the bandwagon, I thought this woman’s work was worth discussing.
Kat: Some people are saying that this person is responsible for the whole Miley Debacle and I can see why they are offended by her quotes dismissing the issue….is it wrong that i think she’s fucking fab, style wise? Her Vfiles show is funnnnn.
Brad: IDK IDK IDK IDK how to feel. I do like her style tho lol
Bill: I think it’s great she has a voice in all of this. To each her own.
Brad: I meannnnn IDK if “to each her own” is the right approach to this. I still think this chick is blinded by her privilege.
Kat: I don’t think she’s as blinded as Miley is tho, and I think her relationship to the trends and lifestyles she uses to express herself is more authentic and more informed. I’m kinda here for her.
Bill: It’s interesting because she comes form the world of style which has ALWAYS appropriated looks from culture and society.
Kat: Yeah, not that that’s necessarily okay, but if we call that into question I think we have to maybe put ourselves on the cross a lil bit too lol
Brad: I agree that she’s def not as blind as Miley but in the end she’s still perpetuating this appropriation for a paycheck.
Kat: I feel like if Miley came up to me on a night when I was wearing my weave and my jersey and a ton of gold chains and said “I want you to style my video” I’d be like “sweet.” The term “weave” used loosely, as always. God I can’t help it I’m just culturally appropriatin’ all the time. But I still think Miley’s weak, prolly cause it’s obvious to everyone that she’s full o shit.
Brad: lmao. No I mean I feel u cuz same prolly. Ugh this is why /we/ should be famous cuz we’d do this shit da right way.
Bill: It seems hard for me to believe that anything in our culture isn’t appropriated. We live in the country that has appropriated pretty much everything but American Apparel from other places and peoples around the world.
Brad: IS THERE EVEN A RIGHT WAY THO IDK *SIGH.*
Austin: Not here for her and I think a lot of her explanations whitesplain away the problematic nature of wearing blackness as a costume. Also I think conversations about appropriation (and race in general) center white people’s feelings and ideas too much. I honestly don’t care if Miley shares a few laughs with these poor black women on set. WOOHOO RACISM SOLVED. How do black women feel about it? What happens to actual “ratchet” people when the term/trend are done? It’s all so absurd and we can localize this to Miley if we want, but there’s a looooong history of white folks putting on black “cool”/folk culture to advance their own careers, while white culture at large systemically shits on black folks/culture. IDK y’all. I think Bill is missing the distinction between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. It’s a thin line but there is one.
Bill: Austin, does that apply to fashion and style- is that exchange or appropriation? Is there a way to share these things at all? The nose ring was originally a Sikh tradition… it has now been removed from that cultural identity to be a part of style. Help me flesh this out.
Austin: Bill, I think conversations about cultural appropriation are hard because they center a PoC narrative instead of a white one. Sometimes it’s not /about/ individual white persons relating to something but how WHITENESS relates to something, ie: how are Desi women treated/seen for wearing bindi? How are black folks seen/treated for speaking vernacular English? How are artists of color viewed in the canon of art history? How many people of color get to use their cultural output in the mainstream? It’s a hard conversation because it doesn’t necessarily center whiteness or white feelings, and I think a lot of people don’t realize how often we do center whiteness in our convos about race. How many people of color get to control the use of their culture in the mainstream? Like, we can’t blame Justin Timberlake for being inspired by black music, for instance. But we can talk about how society/media values his work over the myriad black artists who have done the same thing.
Bill: The White Systemic Oppression of All That Isn’t White. It makes sense- but you and I aren’t Desi women so does that mean we cannot talk about it at all? Yes these issues are ‘hard’ to discuss but CAN we discuss them outside of that paradigm of whiteness?
Austin: We can’t speak directly from a position that isn’t ours, but we can speak about oppression/privilege sure. We’re all oppressed and privileged to varying degrees. INTERSECTIONALITY. Try to think how your oppressed parts feel in relation to the mainstream and be EMPATHETIC to the experiences of others. Bill, as a white man, you certainly have something to add to race conversations, but you have to decentralize whiteness before you can get to the empathy/understanding part.
Kat: It would also be a different thing if Miley was using her status as a wealthy white girl to give more of a voice to the the women of color she’s borrowing from. I don’t see that. I always draw up a comparison between Brooke Candy and Miley in my head when I think about this. If you’re a white woman entrenched in and promoting the culture you are inspired by I don’t think it’s criminal to borrow from it….but maybe I’m just defending myself here.
Austin: I think that’s interesting Kat. Like I think about Terry [our good friend from home, a white man], and he’s IN poor communities of color. Like, I don’t think he’s appropriating simply because it’s not a costume for him. He’s not approaching it ironically or thinking that he has a “proper” culture to return to.
Kat: What about using it as a way to reject the so-called “proper” culture you are from? I would argue that’s what Miley’s doing, and while it’s fucked that she’s able to do that in a way that people of color will never be able to (and then returning at the end of the day to the california king sized bed in her mansion), it makes sense that she’d use it to reject a lot of the bullshit ways the patriarchy says she SHOULD exist as a young white woman (pure/responsible/desexualized). I actually kind of identify with that. The problem arises when we define the antithesis of “pure” with black female bodies…….ruh roh.
Bill: I mean we’ve had this conversation fueled by a seemingly never-ending cocaine high several times over. I just like coming from an anthropological standpoint- I am just thinking that we need to get out of the whole oppressor-oppressed dualism in order to do anything about it… like stop giving it power somehow. I have been learning how to decentralize whiteness without dismissing my own inheritance of the concept. Where do I reconcile the attitudes of white men who shaped the conversations that we are having right now?
Kat: I don’t know that anyone can take an objective standpoint on any issue. No one can shed their privilege or the perspective that it gives them. The important thing is to call attention to it and accept responsibility for it. The opposite of whitesplaining is not objectivity but awareness.
Austin: Yes, Kit! I hope no one feels attacked. One can’t convey tone via Facebook. But I also hate the fact that I feel the need to say that (centering white feelings).
Kat: I don’t think anyone feels attacked. I think we’re all here to learn and understand how the work we produce as artists affects the world, and what responsibility we have as people of our respective privileges.
Austin: Back to the original question, you shouldn’t feel bad for liking her style. She’s fly. Anyone who consumes media consume problematic media. The key is recognizing that, and hopefully making something better.
Kat: Exactly! If any of these artists had a response other than “no, no way I disagree” to any of the accusations and maybe listened and contributed to a productive dialogue… think of how things would be different. At that point I think it becomes messy because of how much money is involved.
Austin: I should find that article about like 90+% of media being produced by white folks. I think we all “know” what systemic means, but don’t really /know/ what systemic means.
Bill: That’s why I love folklore- the stories coming from the people the stories are actually about. I really want to say “FUBU” right now.
Austin: Lmaooooooo ^^^ I mean sometimes that’s necessary. That brand was actually a response to designers who made a shit ton of money off of black folks saying that their clothes weren’t really “for” black people so…..
Danielle: I’ve had a similar conversation with my close friend Aila when we talk about what it’s like to be a PoC in the theatre community. Which of us is at an advantage when it comes to getting consistent work and which of us is at an advantage in life. As a multiracial actress (white dad, Indian/Desi mom) she’s able to shift between different “shades” of brown people with ease- at this point she’s played Iranian, Puerto Rican and now a French Joan of Arc. Yet she’s begun to envy my privilege as a black/Jamaican/”thick” woman since there seems to more work for actors who fit that description. She explained that regardless of how many roles she’s offered she is still not seen as Indian because of her hazel eyes, light skin and European features. I wanted to be upset with her since her dad’s an oil man and her mother’s parents are a bureaucrat and a choreographer… she’s had a trust fund since the day she was born… she’s lived all over the world… and society calls her exotic and beautiful and dudes buy her mad drinks when she goes out to bars. So why would she want to look like me? The answer was crazy: her lack of community. She always feels alone because she’s seen as too exotic to be considered white, and too white to be considered truly Indian. She’s just labeled as pretty. Another part to her argument was the people who are closest to her also happen to be black so why couldn’t she be a part of the group? As much as I want to punch her lights out for wearing oversized hoop earrings and answering my phone calls with “where you at, grr,” I can’t come up with a reason why she shouldn’t be able to. After all, she’ll shut down folks who try to randomly touch my hair. Do I want to be the one that denies the basic human need for belongingness? Doesn’t that make me into another kind of oppressor?
Kat: This also brings up the concept of appearance versus race and how each affects lived experience. I’m a white girl with white parents of European descent (people are often surprised when they find out my mom is blonde for some reason?) but I have dark hair and tan skin which sometimes leads people to label me “ethnically ambiguous.” I think I kind of get to experience the benefits of exoticism without any of the negative treatment of being racially othered. On the one hand, the unfairness of that makes me uncomfortable. On the other hand, I like to be as tan and curvaceous as possible and play up that ambiguity to benefit from some of the hypersexualized stigmas people have of brown women.
Bill: I’ve recently been brought to the light by dear Austin that I was possibly commenting in a way that was defending my own privilege, earlier. I haven’t caught up on the comments since I went to class earlier but I apologize if I offended anyone. I see this space as a comfortable place to discuss these kinds of things. Earlier I was playing more of a devil’s advocate role because I wanted to mirror the perspective that this white society that we live in has… And I know it is implicit in me because I am white- but if you were personally offended know that I don’t believe all the things I wrote. My intention was to provoke conversation and further the dialogue. Apologies… I am not trying to feign my responsibility and I was not annoyed by anyone in this group calling out white privilege. I love y’all. I was never trying to defend whiteness. I agree with the black feminists’ opinions about this subject. It probably wasn’t my place to do this at all, but I think that having a conversation where everyone agrees and is reinforcing their own opinions is just a rant (definitely has power to it though) and I was trying to provoke the conversation for my own desire to hear a great academic study/conversation about race.
Kat: I think sometimes it’s important to ask questions that you feel like you already know the answer to so that you can know /why/ you feel that way. I take a lot of stances on issues I feel strongly about, but I don’t always know exactly why that is. Sometimes asking a “devil’s advocate” question can help you better understand a topic.
Austin: I get that. I also, first of all Bill, I appreciate you being receptive to hearing that you might have approached a race conversation wrong. As a white person (or really any person in a privileged position) it’s SUPER important to listen to folks who don’t share your privilege. Kudos on that. Anyway, I get the idea of offering a different perspective. It’s like a mini checks and balances system I guess. But I also think that everyone who contributed /did/ offer a different perspective. We can build consciousness and raise awareness towards a similar end, while filling in blanks for each other and fleshing out ideas. I love that this group of friends can joke and party and ~look rly cute~ but also talk about and do Things That Matter.
Bill: I see how it is confusing for a white person to play devil’s advocate about whiteness in a race conversation.
Kat: Totally. But yes, I think a checks and balances system is really important, especially in liberal communities where sometimes we take for granted certain truths. It’s important to rediscuss and redefine what we know to be true sometimes. For some people, simply saying America Appropriates Everything is a great way to blow off this entire argument. Being given the opportunity to say “yes, BUT” is really helpful in convincing others who are perhaps further to the right than we are.
Bill: I was merely looking for a way OUT of whiteness and the systemic oppression of a white world.
Kat: I often feel like I want to find a way out of the white world also. I’m deeply ashamed of white culture because I don’t feel it represents ME and what I believe. But I /am/ white, so I am allotted certain privileges that even I believe are unfair simply due to that fact. And as much as we’d love to completely restructure society, it won’t happen in our lifetime. So we just have to make sure to remain aware of its problematic nature and use dialogues like these to take realistic baby steps to improving the world. You guys rule.
Austin: Whiteness and white people are two different concepts. Don’t confuse the two. No need for white guilt or shame, but you can try to side step whiteness. READ THE WHITE PRIVILEGE KNAPSACK. It’s one internet page long and an easy google away. It’s a great refresher/starting point, and written by a white woman.
Kim: I’ve been thinking a lot about race issues here too [as an Asian-American in Shanghai]. It’s such a difficult thing sometimes I don’t know how to feel. The foreigners here in Shanghai disgust me sometimes at how imperialistic their attitude is. There is this feeling of camaraderie over their ‘superiority’ that they feel entitled to as (mainly) white people among Asians. Instead of feeling a sense of inferiority as a minority the way many Asians in America do, it somehow has turned out the opposite. And what’s most confusing is how I identify with them often! I feel so ashamed when I have this attitude, but I can’t help it. Like many of you have pointed out, I can’t escape my background and how it’s shaped me. Lately I’ve been trying to take race out of the picture and just look at them as human. Because it gets so fucking annoying when all you are is where you’re from.
Austin: Yeah that makes so much sense. I was talking to Bill last night about ways to stay racially aware/conscious without letting all the negative aspects of racism bog you down emotionally and spiritually. It can be really hard to navigate.
I know I usually regale my readers with stories of hilarious missteps on the road to Glam Life, but I’m thinking about including more posts like these. I hope you gained something from it and if you’d like to join the conversation I encourage you to comment or email me using the contact form in my About section. I’ll be back with a Disaster Story next week.