What Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus can teach us about race

What can Taylor Swift teach us about race?

What can Taylor Swift teach us about race?

Taylor Swift has recently helped a lot of people become educated in terms like "intersectional feminism" and “tone policing.” The problem was, she did this by accident.

Swift — who brings her 1989 World Tour to Xcel Energy Center this weekend — started this firestorm of dialog when she shut down Nicki Minaj’s series of tweets implying that Swift’s “Bad Blood” video was nominated for a VMA over Minaj's because the video “celebrates women with very slim bodies.”

Swift responded thusly:
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) July 21, 2015 Swift's intentions were seemingly good. We’re all in this together, right? Women supporting women! The problem is, she’s unaware that there is a large discussion happening about how mainstream feminism primarily supports white women, and doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the realities of women of different ethnicities, religions, gender orientations, and classes.

In other words, feminism is great for the pumpkin spice latte crowd, but could do more to include and trumpet all kinds of women. Nicki Minaj herself tackled this issue by questioning why her "Anaconda" cover artwork was labeled inappropriate, while images of the rear ends of thin white women are universally celebrated.

To make matters worse, Miley Cyrus quickly came in and smack-talked Minaj, telling the New York Times, “If you do things with an open heart and you come at things with love, you would be heard and I would respect your statement. But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it." 

This is an example of tone policing, or demanding that people shouldn’t talk about their anger at their own oppression because it is unpleasant for white people. It’s today’s dark equivalent of “you catch more flies with honey.” If you’re not going to talk about racism in a way that is entertaining or funny, or at least polite, white people often don’t want to hear about it. Yes, this is extremely oppressive.

So, are Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus racists? Should we stop buying their music and supporting their careers? It’s certainly within your right to do this. What they each said was ignorant, and they both benefit from their slim bodies, white skin, and the occasional appropriation of oppressed cultures.

But at the same time, treating racism like a binary concept — where either you’re racist or you’re not — is a problem. This idea that just by saying, or even tweeting, one ignorant thing you suddenly become racist forever is going to shut down more discussions about race than facilitate them. In fact, I would argue that a lot of educated, liberal white people decline to participate in discussions about race precisely because of this phenomenon.

We often derive so much glee from labeling other people as racist, and implying that we, in contrast, are not, we don’t realize we are making people feel too paralyzed to say anything at all when race comes up. (This was parodied on 30 Rock, when Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy don’t want to say the phrase “Puerto Rican” because that “does not sound right.”)

Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus said ignorant things. But ask yourself: When you were in your early twenties, did you ever say ignorant things about race? Probably. We need to stop talking about racism as if there are only two kinds of people in this world: racists and non-racists. Anyone who benefits from a position of racial privilege in society is benefiting from institutional racism. By not talking about it, or even denying it, you’re allowing it to continue at the expense of the less privileged.

Instead of the knee-jerk labeling of people, we need to allow people to make mistakes and learn from them. For white people, getting to learn about racism instead of having to experience it firsthand is a privilege, one that we all work out in messy ways. Without the experience of what it’s like to face discrimination, we’re inevitably all going to say stupid things. What matters is when those stupid things bring up a discussion, are we stopping to listen to it and learn from it? Or are we so caught up in not wanting to be called racist that we miss the whole point?

I hope that both Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are reading the many articles their comments have inspired. They’ve both got large soapboxes to speak from, and we just need to give them some room to evolve their worldviews.