By the end of Ayesha Siddiqi’s article “Can the White Girl Twerk” (which is of course about Miley Cyrus’ recent adopting of a new hyper-sexualized, “black” persona) we are forced to choose between two options:
…Miley earns both praise and scorn. If Miley’s new look is acceptable, it requires a tolerance for undermining black women. If it is unacceptable, it means demanding an identity, sweet and unsexed, dictated by the anxieties of white patriarchy.
So we can either praise a young woman who was the previous embodiment of the Disney “white girl” tween princess and who shatters all this past personal history by shaking her booty up near the crotch of a mediocre male singer and earning the opprobrium of every media commentator alive–but in praising her bold moves we also erase the history of black women who have been historically oppressed and whose history Miley Cyrus usurps and appropriates for her own nefarious money-making schemes–That is one option. Option two is to scorn her, “slut shame” her for this act of appropriation, or just criticize her blatant opportunism and how it utilizes a “black identity” to accomplish its goals, but in so doing we also reinforce the repressive ideology that she has just “escaped”– What a conundrum, how are “we” supposed to react to this contradictory binary?
Unfortunately, it is only in this final paragraph that Siddiqi approaches something close to a dialectical appreciation of how cultural forms hybridize and are stolen, steal each other, are remixed, repainted, parodied, paraded, pirated, censored, erased by one hegemonic cultural sphere and its orbiting, subservient moons. I think back to my days with Ancient Greek and that middle voice, neither active nor passive, but simultaneously active and passive, verb as dialectic. This is an old dance and when we are specifically talking about American “white” culture and its interactions with “black” culture and how this affected “pop” culture, or all culture, or the birth of genres, a moralistic tale of one-sided theft will not do. It’s been a while since I’ve read Eric Lott’s “Love and Theft” in which he tries to untangle this history, American music, its roots in minstrelsy and how some of the first famous minstrels were black performers who themselves would cork their faces in imitation of the popular white black-faced minstrel singers, but his argument essentially complicates and twists around any simplistic notion of one-sided cultural appropriation.
The fact that the history of these two worlds colliding to create American music contains so much *theft*, (slavery being the ultimate act of thievery) nevertheless should not obscure the *love* that is probably at the root of the cross-fertilization, the desire to learn new musical forms, to encounter new sounds, new rhythms. Perhaps that sounds a tad naive, but it is true. There is more to music than how it eventually reflects a slave-culture’s moral decay. Stephen Foster’s melodies and often-racist lyrics end up accomplishing more than a heroic and nefarious rear-guard action for slavery’s stubborn retreat. What is his music and what does it mean that we know Stephen Foster’s name and not the names of the countless and nameless subalterns who created the blues and other strange new art form hybrids that would change the course of world art? These are knotty questions, but to answer them in such a way that trivializes the 19th century and contemporary artists wrestling with their creative forces in the midst of a racist culture is to do a misunderstand the contradictions of history and the role of the critic.
Unfortunately Siddiqi, from what I can glean from this article, sees the world in a much more Manichean way– There is a surfeit of evil when it comes to racial history in the United States, but written in a certain way it colors her narrative into tarnishing the efforts and genius of African-American artists who have taken the risks to perform and thrive in American culture. Reading Siddiqi’s essay and the dilemma she poses at the end it would almost seem that having defined the shadow of the White Capitalist superego that subsumes all of our interactions it would be better that black and white never interact. She poisons the well of whiteness in a way that all black artists engaging in “western” arts would become traitors to their race and writes almost moralistically at the “white” artist’s engagement with “black” culture. I cringe thinking what Siddiqi would think of the Duke Ellington orchestra performing at the white-only Cotton Club. Duke’s father was a kind of “house negro” in Washington D.C.; was Duke Ellington an Uncle Tom, a traitor to his race? Should he have given up the Cotton Club gig where he and other black musicians played “Jungle” music on European instruments in front of an ogling and titillated white audience? How should we write about these cultural exchanges? The history of these awkward meetings and courtships of course goes further back into the repressed enigma of minstrelsy and forward into the present with Miley Cyrus and her hip-hop collaborators.
For all of its sophistication and theoretical fluency, this essay has the obsessive’s fear of borders and boundaries being crossed and violated, and the paranoiac’s twisting of problems into persecutions:
For all its black performers, the rap industry has been run by the white establishment and caters to the white consumer. The commercial success of gangsta rap wouldn’t be possible without North America’s largest demographic buying in. The commercial demand for sexually aggressive and violent rap is appreciably shaped by white teens in the suburbs looking to live out their fantasies via imagined black bodies. And in guiding the market, white consumers dictate the available imagery of blackness.
In the context of this limited representation, black people are cornered into owning all the stereotypes white consumers afford them, particularly when these consumers allegedly “act black.” Black girls who don’t twerk are made invisible because white consumers decide not only what blackness is but also what they want out of it.
It’s thinking like this that also serves to disenfranchise and delegitimize almost any black artist who has ever worked in America. There is just very little room in this rhetoric for a black artist to be creative, i.e., to actually be an artist, to play with the stereotypes, to remake them, subvert them, be radical and new. Does Lester Young’s sax sound like white power? Working in a racist culture, performing for a white audience in this limited vision takes away the black artist’s generative force–Not to mention the white artist’s potential creativity as well. The Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice and Eminem have 4 of the top 10 best-selling rap albums of all time. But whose fault is that?
“White people clamoring to up their cred by appropriating nonwhite culture do so hoping to be rewarded for choices that are falsely seen as inherent in people of color. It’s this savvy that Miley wants us to be convinced of.”
Um, no. There is more to a rich history of artistic cross-fertilization than vain desires to “up one’s cred”. This is a cynical view that may or may not be appropriate with respect to Miley Cyrus, but does an injustice to almost all American artistic output, “white” or “black”.
Siddiqi attempts to, but never really unpacks the contradiction that there can be a hegemonic “white” culture and a “white girl” ideal that “serves as the normative gender performance, the femininity from which all femininity deviates, through which all women of color are otherized”, but that transgressing this boundary allows the performer to “reap massive profits by straddling an insider-outsider status.” But teasing this problem apart requires a dialectical subtlety in tune with desire, historical acculturation and contradiction.