White artists appropriating black culture isn’t new (Elvis, anyone?)—but pop culture social commentary as of late is taking a hard look at the practice. Recently, singer Lily Allen has been criticized for using black female dancers as props in her video for “Hard Out Here.” “Much of the video features Lily Allen dancing in a golden room in front of a primarily black group of female dancers,” writes the blogger behind Black in Asia. “Of course, to contrast the sexuality and exotic nature of their bodies with the others and hers, the black women are dressed in leotards and bikinis while the others have jackets, pants and the like.”
Allen isn’t the first to be accused of doing this. The most popular example at the moment started back in August: Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance.
Amongst the slut-shaming nonsense came valid points about Cyrus’ use of black women as props. Her all-black group of back-up dancers seemed to be there more to authenticate Cyrus’ need to appear “urban” as opposed to the bubblegum wholesome image she started her career with. By now, we’ve probably all heard about her slapping a dancer’s bum as the rest of the crew admires her own as it twerks. Part of the former child star’s revamped image is to be more sexy, and playing on racist stereotypes that black women are more sexual, seems to be part of this revamping.
In a September 24 Rolling Stone article Cyrus says, “I don’t keep my producers or dancers around ’cause it makes me look cool. Those aren’t my ‘accessories.’ They’re my homies.” And yet the timing is all too convenient for her new image. When she spoke with the songwriters behind her single, “We Can’t Stop”, she told them, as reported in a June 12 Vibe article, “I want urban, I just want something that just feels Black.” For her, that seems to mean gold teeth and twerking.
The question if Cyrus’ twerking was cultural appropriation was first posed on the blog Black Feminists on September 17. A commenter named Daria responded, “Within the mainstream conversation, there’s the implication that I somehow have [to] identify with twerking and its supposed place within ‘black culture’ to feel angry that’s it’s been appropriated. It bothers me that in order to understand the anger behind the Cyrus situation, people have to understand and equate this to being a ‘black’ thing that she is imitating which leads to all sorts of issues about supposed norms and stereotypes surrounding black female sexuality.”
Talk show host Wendy Williams responded to the VMA performance and Rolling Stone article on her show, “You can’t pick up black and put it down. Black is something that you are, and it is.” Her more thorough explanation includes, “When young white people do ‘the black thang’ these same young white people grow up to be middle-aged white people. They take off the whole black accessory thing and they become white again.”
There are obstacles out there that those of us with white privilege will never have to face. Maybe that’s why it seems so easy for some to reduce a race to a fashion statement. “Miley and the black actors in the video are all props on the stage of visual pleasure,” Akil Houston, professor of African American Studies at Ohio University tells Vice writer Wilbert L. Cooper. “I think it’s important to consider that these images function within the sphere of multinational corporate control so both the lead (Miley) and the accessories do not maintain a high level of autonomy in terms of imaging.”
Cyrus tells Rolling Stone that she doesn’t try to be black, her bum is too flat for that. But we all know women, of all colours, are more than their physical assets. We, all of us, are not props.