Many excellent perspectives have emerged among the media pandemonium following Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs this week. Before I get to the main point of this blog, I just want to say Robin Thicke is gross. In the world I want to live in, an artist 16 years Cyrus’ senior would have wanted to mentor her, not just attend rehearsals where she grinds on him (an apparent fetishizer of black women) and a foam finger in preparation for an international stage. I also find the “Is Miley racist or not?” debate ridiculous. Of course she is. Cyrus is descended from a long line of European American celebrities from a range of artistic disciplines—Gwen Stefani, Elvis, Alan Ginsberg and other beat poets, Madonna, The Eagles, The Beatles, to name a few—whose careers are built on the backs of people of color and the third world and the use of black women as sexual and racial props.
Going beyond the holding of one young racist female (albeit filthy rich, privileged, and powerful) accountable, and beyond the notion that racism is simply individual acts of stupidity, poor taste, appropriation, or hate, I deeply appreciated the commentary coming from women, particularly women of color. Some bloggers have commented on the precedent to Cyrus’ literal use of leopard-print dressed black women—the “homegirls with the big butts”—of Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a Sarah Baartman, a.k.a. Hottentot Venus (who lived from around 1790 to 1815).
Ms. Baartman was enslaved by a Dutch farmer after she was orphaned, and later sold to British enslavers, after which time she was paraded as a spectacle for the White European world by “keepers” including an animal trainer, and upon her death her genitalia and brain were exhibited at Paris’ Musee de l’Homme until as recently as 1974. Whether or not she was a “willing” participant in her own exhibition is contested, and given the context of a global capitalist trade in the bodies of African people from which profiteers from institutions like Wachovia, JP Morgan Chase, and Barclays Bank (which sponsors the annual NYC AIDS walk, by the way) continue to make bank, the concept of consent is complex, to say the least. It’s painful to read about Ms. Baartman’s life and the utter horror of what is deemed harmless entertainment in a White supremacist patriarchy.
Cyrus’ show also followed the centuries-old White tradition of using imagined symbols of the “exotic” or “Oriental” to enhance White and European sexuality. One of my students noted the disconnect between the early 1900s White American obsession with Japanese culture—But White people had to have liked the Japanese if they were putting on kimonos and decorating their houses with fans, right?—and the simultaneous dehumanization of actual Asian people through Alien Land Laws, dual wage systems, lynchings, arson and exclusion policies. A good analogy for this kind of appropriation might be: Hi, I like your watch, and I think it looks better on me, so I’m gonna steal it from you and rock it, and I’m going to burn your house down in the meantime.
Miley Cyrus’ appropriation of twerking and other emblems of “ratchet culture” (e.g. NYC public school in the nineties…good times) was made possible by the historical and social context from which it arises. It’s completely in line with not only recent White pop culture but also the spectacalizing of non-white women’s bodies as early as Ms. Baartman and that of Ah Fong Moy, a young Chinese woman who performed “Chineseness” and was exhibited along with “Oriental” furniture just a few decades later in the U.S. as a teenager.
Today, we have the appropriation-cum-bastardization of kama sutra, ginseng, “geisha” lingerie, grills, colloquialisms, moccasins, and so much. We have Sports Illustrated photo shoots of exemplars of “western” beauty with backdrops of parts of Asia that look very much like places where, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. buried thousands of mines that blow up little kids to this day. We have Katy Perry rocking grills while over a million black men are locked up. We have White suburban youth wearing scanty Pocahontas costumes while over 30 percent of Native women are raped in their lifetime. We have foodies and hip fusion eateries proliferating right next door to food deserts in the U.S., while Montsanto appropriates seeds in Asia and devastates the ecosystems, economies, and lives of millions in Asia. We have the myth of Western democracy (read: capitalism) as a catalyst for gender equality in the third world while the meme “little brown fucking machines”, coined by U.S. military personnel in southeast Asia, continues to generate over 111,000 Google search hits for the use and pleasure of the “Western” male to “[d]iscover what only Asian girls can do with their pussy: Extracting flowers, needles, razor blades, bananas…writing a letter, playing trumpet….”
I just want to say no. I really, really just want to say no.
8 replies on “After Miley, Remembering Hottentot Venus and Ah Fong Moy”
I agree with much in this post, but to a certain extent, I’m getting tired with notions that cultural appropriation is inherently bad. Or at least when it’s done by white folks. Within art and music people always appropriate other cultures and make their own. In this argument then, black folks or Mexican folks should make “heavy metal” music because that’s “white cultural music”, no?
Plus, who are the police (I guess blogs like yours and others) for who are appropriate users of particular cultural expressions? Is it fine for middle class black rappers to ‘appropriate’ gangsta rap because they are black, but then say Chicanos or white folks who grew up in gangs (and in ‘black neighborhoods’) not okay?
I’m guessing, in the end, you just think white folks shouldn’t use culture that doesn’t come from other white folks – (but can Irish people play Italian music?) but it’s fine for folks of color to use white folks and each other’s, right?
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I agree with much in this post as I think it has to do more with festishization and commercialization in really obscene if not violent ways, such as the mysognist stuff you’ve used as examples. But when you list, like the Eagles or the Beatles, and go down the road that any cultural appropriation is fucked up and wrong – well you lose me there. Culture in essence moves in and out of boundaries and that is how it is made and remade.
Thx for your comments black and red star. I think a lot of ppl share your questions. Cultural appropriation is so a part of American “culture”, we all participate in it to some extent, I think the judgment of it for me, i.e. good or bad, boils down to the results…the eagles and the beatles (and i love the eagles btw), elvis, these are all artists who are legendary, and while Miley Cyrus will never hold a candle to them artistically, this use of appropriation translates into lots of individual profit and the legacy of white people famous because of the things they borrow/take from communities of color–communities that continue to be disenfranchised by virtue of their membership to a race or ethnicity–that’s the hurtful part of cultural appropriation. And when those groups actually practice those cultural aspects, they are called “ghetto”, “slutty,” etc. further contributing to the narratives that disenfranchise them, encourage violence against them, etc.. I don’t know if I’m being articulate right now, and there is so much to talk about…thanks for posing the hard questions.
Black and red raises several very thoughtful points concerning cultural transmission, adaptation, and exploitation. All human cultures learn from each other to mutual benefit: the early development of mathematics, spread of the discovery of fire and cooking, building of shelter, hunting technique, and the developments of writing, plastic arts, and music.
Most of this human culture was universal in the sense that people learned these skills independently, in different parts of the Earth, or people freely shared and passed these skills onto other in the normal run of elemental commerce and trade.
The “rub” began when society become stratified into several segments of privilege and servile strata, when common ownership of clan property was gradually appropriated (over many centuries) by a ruling segment or class of society based on the command of superior land, herd or implements of agricultural production (and consequent command of weapons and means of force).
As capitalist relations of production and distribution became dominate in the 18th-19th centuries, the role of human culture was transformed into a commodity, too.
We presently witness the extreme fetishism (extravagant irrational devotion, or the pathological displacement of erotic interest and satisfaction to an image) of all human culture by capitalism, especially in the U. S. If we believe in people before profit, we must ASK ourselves the root question: Can it be any other way under the present economic system?
As a side observation to the various discussions that I have followed on this blog and others, I notice that most appeals or objections are based on moral arguments or grounds of fairness, etc. That is not good enough! Any effective challenge to the status quo ante must be grounded in a thorough analysis of the origins, history, and interconnections of contemporary social/economic/political reality—included here, too, is the cultural/intellectual life of human beings. Generations x, y, and z are extremely light on historical background of human struggles, social revolutionary thought and practice.
I think Fanon said:“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
To fully discover that mission you must read Marx, Engels, Fanon, Lenin and Tolstoy, and many others. Above all constantly organize struggle and resistance movement among the common people. That what we did because we consciously prepared ourselves for the revolutionary uprisings that we built in the US and elsewhere from 1964 to 1978. In hindsight we saw that our mission was not to engage in the actual overthrow (does be afraid to utter that phrase human liberation depends on its achievement) capital, but to assist in preparing the foundation for its success. Hence, my comments to you and your young readers. You have a mission to fulfill and a new world to create, so go to it my young comrades, take down all the barriers!!!
Can I just say metal is technically white music but it’s an offshoot of rock n roll which we appropriated off people of colour. Also John Lennon beat both his wives, emotionally abused his son, and knew nothing about any of the charity work he supposedly endorsed. It was all about his image.
Masterful and pointed as always. My comment is more of a question : How do/can womyn of color (& maybe white womyn too) parcel out issues of consent when it comes to exoctification? Is it ever okay to consent (i.e. role playing, etc)? If you and your white partner are “liberal” and discuss how both are doing it to the other but are genuinely in love, is acknowledgement enough?
Great piece. Not to mention, the woman who won best pop video appropriated the sh%t out of South Asian culture for that song.
Having a hard time wrapping my head around the comparison of orientalism (appropriating tropes of an “exotic” Other culture) with a white girl co-opting “ratchet” style. Really? I keep getting hung up on the fact that critics seem to ignore the culture-swapping power of URBAN (i.e. neither simply black, white, asian or latino) culture. Has always been the case, and always will. We find it quaint that white racists did not want their children listening to Jazz in the early 1900s, for fear that they would pick up other cultural markers and lose their white identity. But we get anxious that black and white women are twerking together on the same stage and slapping buttcheeks. Yes, we (whites) are inherently racists. Nevertheless, the culture-swapping train left the station a long time ago, and everyone — regardless of race — hopped on it. [He said, chewing on his Bagel Maki of smoked salmon and cream cheese rolled in tobiko.]
The model that you put that caption over is Native American…