Over at “New York,” Jody* Rosen accuses Cyrus of minstrelsy:
Cyrus has spent a lot of time recently toying with racial imagery. We’ve seen Cyrus twerking her way through the video for her big hit “We Can’t Stop,” professing her love for “hood music,” and claiming spiritual affinity with Lil’ Kim. Last night, as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma, and by the dark beauty of “We Can’t Stop” — by a good distance, the most powerful pop hit of 2013.
And earlier this summer Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart described how Cyrus uses black women’s bodies as accessories in “We Can’t Stop”:
In the video, Miley is seen with her “friends”: Mostly skinny white boys and girls who appear to be models. But in a few scenes, she’s seen twerking with three black women. Are they also her friends? Or is she just hoping for street cred? Note that she is wearing white, in the spotlight, the star of the video — and they are treated as props, a background for her to shine in front of.
For my part I’d like to share the solution I daydreamed up while watching Cyrus do the 2013 version of a white balladeer crowing in front of a black choir to signal depth and soul. In my dream solution, every single black woman Miley attempts to book for a video, tour or award show from now on flatly tells her no.
Not, “I can’t make it, Miley. I have another gig.” Not, “Sorry, I’m not that good at lending relevance to confused white former Disney stars with the clap of my butt cheeks.” Not even, “No. I find your fetishization of my behind offensive; your attempt to imitate Big Freedia pathetic; your stank-ass minstrel show to be a racist travesty.”
Think about how powerful that chorus of no’s would be. They would serve as a reminder—to us—that everything isn’t a “Kumbaya”-filled teachable moment wherein a person of color is responsible for showing flossers of white privilege that plundering black dance culture and commodifying black women’s bodies isn’t OK.
Now some might say that my dream solution is counterproductive because it doesn’t educate or transform the Cyruses of the world.
To that I respond with one of my favorite concepts from vintage hip-hop: “You can’t see me.” (To use this in a sentence refer to Showbiz and AG’s 1991 classic Soul Clap: ”I roll up rappers like a DT/ And don’t worry, yo, because the brothers can’t see me.”) “You can’t see me” speaks to the non-seer’s irreparable lack of insight, connection and common sense. And that’s what we’re dealing with in a case like Cyrus’.
Of course there are some educational interventions worth doing—I’m thinking of how a group of South Asian activists, thinkers and cultural producers helped Kal Penn re-imagine stop and frisk.
But attempting such an intervention in a pop culture landscape that rewards a clown like Miley Cyrus with record sales, performance opportunities and attention would be a waste of energy. That’s why in my daydream—and of course it’s a dream—there’s an expansive group of black women dancers who have enough options, wherewithal and dignity to simply say no to playing new millennium Saartje Baartmans.
*Post has been updated to reflect the writer of the post. It’s Jody Rosen, not Hilary Rosen. I regret the error.