'Black culture is popular, black people are not'

A screengrab of Taylor Swift latest video.

A screengrab of Taylor Swift latest video.

I’ve been wondering about the racial dynamics of pop music lately.

Taylor Swift is one of my favourite pop stars; mostly because I get the sense that she’s always just being herself. She annoys the hell out of some people, but she is a talented singer and songwriter and she seems quite self-reflective. So I was disappointed when, at one part of the video for her new song Shake It Off, aimed at her haters, she veered into questionable territory.

The video is a parody of different dance styles, with Swift being adorkably ill at ease in most scenes. 

So far, so Zooey Deschanel. Then came that scene. The one where Swift is decked out in “ghetto-fabulous” gear and crawls uncomfortably through a corridor of thighs featuring – yes, you guessed it – mostly black women from behind, in full butt-shake mode.

This again?

I got what she was trying to do with the rest of the video and appreciated it but that particular scene bothered me. I tweeted my thoughts about it in brief and was met with a flurry of tweets taking offence. Mostly from white Capetonians, funnily enough. Their points made me sad. I know too many white Capetonians live in something of a racial vacuum but seeing how ignorant they are about race relations here and in America was startling. Here are a few of the points they made, and my answer:

1)  It’s not racist. It’s parody.

Here’s the thing about parody and satire: you have to be very careful that you don’t become the thing you’re satirising.

If Swift and her creative team were trying to parody, say Miley Cyrus and the problematic use of black women’s bodies by white pop stars, they failed. The segment did not adequately critique this issue to justify its conclusion. In the end it was little more than ironic racism.

In case you missed it, hipster or ironic racism is when hip white people make overtly racialised or racist comments that are meant to be really funny and ironic because the people saying it are not racist. Obvs.

Except it hardly ever works. Trust me, I got my fair share of this in Cape Town where it was de rigueur for some white people to walk up to me and put on a funny Indian accent or intentionally confuse me with the only other Indian girl they knew. It was funny because they weren’t racist! Get it? No, neither did I.

2) The video was ONLY a dance parody.

Yes, I know the video was a dance parody, but that particular scene was still a little racist. Why can’t it be both? Saying something is a parody does not magically make it exempt from any criticism.

3) Neither she nor the director was trying to be racist. 

A basic understanding of textual analysis will tell you that the author’s intent counts for very little in the way their work is perceived. With something bound to go viral like this, the director’s intention is almost meaningless.

But what commentators around the world who have criticised this video are saying is not that Swift or the director is racist: we’re talking about the problematic racial implications of the clip.

Why are some white people so hypersensitive about these sort of discussions? One launched a personal attack on me because of my opinions on the video. Given the centuries-old dominance of white culture and people, it’s important to keep having these conversations. Which brings me to defence number four:

4) The media constantly bring race into every issue. We’ll never move on at this rate.

This and the next two points are actual quotes from one white Capetonian who was particularly incensed that I had dared to criticise Ms Swift.

If you are a white South African and you think the media has somehow invented issues of race in this country, you desperately need to step out of your clearly lily-white circles once in a while and talk to people who don’t look like you.

We’ll move on when we can talk frankly about the simmering racial tensions brewing in this country.

Not when we have people like you telling us to shut up and move on – just because you’ve chosen to pretend these issues don’t exist.

5) Why can Nicky Minaj show black girls twerking but white people can’t?

Paying homage to the culture whose sounds you draw from is one thing. Expropriating it tastelessly is another and there is a fine line between the two.

If you don’t understand the nuances, read this helpful article.

The bottom line though, as this piece points out, is that cultural appropriation is infuriating for people of colour because white people can take off their appropriated costume and return to their everyday life without the discrimination or stigma commonly associated with those cultural expressions: Miley Cyrus can play at being “ratchet” for a video shoot and capitalise on it, and then take off her gear and retreat to her lush life in the suburbs and not get stalked by police or security guards in malls.

6) Why can’t we look past race?

Yes, white people in Cape Town are still asking this question. One word: Ferguson. As one Twitter user put it: “I have yet to hear anything about #Ferguson from Miley or Bieber. Katy? Iggy? Everyone wants to be black until it’s time to be black.”

Or, as another commentator wryly noted: “Black culture is popular, black people are not.”

And that is why we can’t just “look past race”. It’s important to keep talking when racial dynamics make us uncomfortable, whether certain white people like it or not.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Laudium, Pretoria, learned her trade at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, spent a spell in Cape Town as an online journalist, and now loves living in Jozi. Her interests are broad but include a focus on politics and multi-platform storytelling. Read more from Verashni Pillay


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