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Miley's Twerking Wasn't Racist

It's not right to call her VMA performance minstrelsy

Rick Diamond/Getty Images Entertainment

Many of the people clutching their pearls over Miley Cyrus’s gluteal gyrations at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday don’t want the America they claim to want.

Cyrus’s sin was to engage in the dance move known as twerking, in which a woman twirls her buttocks in a graphically suggestive fashion, often against her partner. It’s been around awhile, once associated with the strip scene but having long since jumped the rails into ordinary videos and the tersipchorean repertoire of ordinary people. It would seem, especially over the last year or so, to have become what is known as “a thing” in terms of mainstream awareness of its existence.

And a white girl twerking on television is merely a symptom of what Leon Wynter, in a sadly underacknowledged book a while ago, called the “browning” of American culture. It started with rap becoming white America’s music, but that was just an appetizer. Britney Spears would have looked oddly “Negroid” in her dance style to someone from as recently as 1980. Or, a TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Brandy as the star and nobody bats an eye? White guys calling each other “bro”?

America may not be “post-racial,” but American popular culture is increasingly black-inflected, in a fashion that people under 25 today, including Miley Cyrus, don’t even realize is a novelty. Quite antique, irrelevant, and even ridiculous to such a person will seem the harrumphings from what she thinks of as “old people” that her twerking is a continuation of the minstrel tradition.

That charge–that she is making fun of black people in the guise of entertainment–is, among other things, reductive. How do we know Cyrus isn’t sincere when she says she loves “hood” culture? Because she’s white? I’m afraid that’s a little 1955. Even that term “hood,” when used by whites of her generation, connotes a genuine affection and even identification with vernacular brown culture, increasingly processed as less a matter of race than class–along the lines of the increasingly cross-racial nature of the underclass (consult either Charles Murray’s Coming Apart or “Breaking Bad”).

I know–I’m missing certain condescending undertones in this love of that which is “hood.” But I’m not. It’s just that there's an element of condescension in black and Latino people's view of "hoodness," too. The idea that Cyrus is a new “minstrel” just doesn’t hold together. She is, in her position, just American.

For many, the problem is that Cyrus’s wigglings exemplify an aspect of the American culture they’d rather not see. But we have to be careful what we classify as repulsive here. For many, when a black woman does just the kind of thing Cyrus did, it’s bracingly political, independent, genuine, and so on. There are people disgusted that black girls twerk at all–and most would classify them as uptight grouches on the sidelines.

I sincerely believe that if it were Nicki Minaj who had twerked up against Robin Thicke on television, quite a few would be celebrating it as “transgressive” and such. Somehow we have an easier time with that when the twerker is black. When a white girl does it, though, something’s broken? Where are we going with this? Why can’t Cyrus be transgressing from her position as a woman, period, or a young one—or even as a white one being told she can’t dance in certain ways because of the color of her skin?

Intellectual sorts need to be especially careful here. Cyrus shouts out to Lil' Kim, for example–and in 2005 at Syracuse, English majors could take upper division courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen or, you guessed it, Lil' Kim. The rationale by Professor Greg Thomas was that Lil' Kim “recasts gender and sexuality in a manner that radically challenges patriarchal and homophobic socialization–while embracing sexuality on her own terms, instead of rejecting it in terms of the status quo.”

But if Miley Cyrus does what Lil' Kim does, it’s no good? White girls are so “privileged” that they have nothing to transgress, I suppose the rationale would be–and quite a few white girls, with plenty of problems of their own, would disagree. Last time I checked, it was even part of being human to seek transgression on one level or another, and the time before that that I checked, transgression was the core element in modern American popular culture. It was only a matter of time before Miley Cyruses starting twerking on national television.

Especially hopeless is the idea that someone like Cyrus is “stealing” or exploiting something. Academics, in particular, are fond of a kind of rhetoric along such lines which is really a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” exercise motivated by recreational contrarianism over problem-solving. “At the core of capitalism from the days of minstrel shows until now has been about selling black bodies” says James Peterson at Lehigh, in reference to Cyrus dancing alongside black dancers and doing a shout-out to “big butts.”

But then, black writings are replete with complaints that mainstream America doesn’t appreciate black women’s fuller figures. Cyrus gets up and does exactly that and she’s a recap of a slave seller? How exactly are we to celebrate black women’s bodies–in a sonnet? “It’s just a clumsy white appropriation of black culture,” says Salamishah Tillet at the University of Pennsylvania. Right–but let’s see how it would go if we decided blacks can’t “appropriate” white culture. Wait, it’s not the same thing because whites are the oppressors? But in which human culture, ever in the history of our species, have groups living together not borrowed one another's cultural traits? What is the point in decreeing that whites must suspend this natural urge regarding the specific case of descendants of African slaves in the United States, other than to have an endless source of underdog grievance?

What it all comes down to is that America as a whole—white, black and everything else—is subject to a jolly, messy and multiracial cult of openness, informality and raunchiness. Everybody seems to find that just luscious when describing Harlem 90 years ago. More recently, we have accepted this in rap—to diss the vulgarity is considered elderly, and grumbling about white rappers like Vanilla Ice as interlopers is yesterday’s conversation; Eminem is one of the boyz.

But let a little white girl spin her posterior in open-hearted celebration of the “uptown” culture she has grown up drinking in and she’s a white man corking up and playing dumb sometime during the McKinley Administration. Sorry–this is people too caught up in yesterday’s battles to perceive the nation moving ahead.

I believe you, Miley Cyrus.