Taylor Swift’s Racism & “Shake It Off” Video
We clearly need to start a hashtag campaign at this point to #stopracistwhitegirls. Between Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Lily Allen and more, the mainstream pop bench is absolutely stacked with racist white girls galore at the moment. But in our 2014 “post racial” America where black people are getting killed every 28 hours by vigilante justice, where Mike Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, is on paid leave for brutally executing an unarmed black teenager as we speak, and where police brutality against black bodies in Ferguson and across the country is the norm, it’s still so fun and uber cool for white girls to make blackness a costume! You know, since it clearly doesn’t get us killed or anything.
Enter Taylor Swift stage left.
[image description: Taylor Swift in a leopard print jacket with large gold hoop earrings, and cut of jean shorts with a gold chain posturing in front of twerking dancers]
So I’ll admit that I do have a bit of a penchant for bland pop music, and so I have followed Taylor Swift in varying capacities for many years. I understand that her entire image is carefully cultivated to exude innocent, bright eyed and bushy tailed white girl who is always “shocked” when she wins an award. I understand that the reason her image sells is because of the white supremacist patriarchal notion of the “cult of true womanhood,” where moneyed white woman had their femininity defined by 4 traits: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. It is in this mold that Taylor Swift has built such a massive following and sold so many millions of albums. Ascribing herself to these narrow values by which white womanhood is exalted and elevated in a way that is only accessible to white female bodies and not to WOC has been Swift’s “in” in the music industry more than anything else over the years.
But in the pop industry there is a constant need for reinvention and to push the boundaries ever further with each succeeding musical effort. Even as Swift has cultivated and carefully molded her image to fit this fairly rigid white supremacist patriarchal construct of white femininity and has made millions doing so, the constant churn of capitalism has made the appeal of her wonder bread white girl image fade with time. She needs some way to “spice up” her act and draw attention to herself along with it. As bell hooks so brilliantly says in her cultural criticism & transformation:
There’s a way in which white culture is perceived as too “wonder bread” right now—not edgy enough, not dangerous enough—let’s get some of those endangered species people to be exotic for us. It’s really simply a more up-scale version of primitivism resurging. When blackness is the sign of transgression that is most desired, it allows whiteness to remain static, to remain conservative, and it’s conservative thrust to go unnoticed.
And so, with this in mind, Swift like so many white girls and boys before her, turns to blackness to find that “exotic” flavor to give her bland image the kick it needs.
What strikes me about the “Shake It Off” video is just how true to form it is with all of the other racist music videos we’ve seen from white women in the past year alone. “Hard Out Here,” “We Can’t Stop,” “23” and more, white girls have been on a roll with their racism and racialized misogyny and Taylor Swift couldn’t wait to join the party.
[image description: Taylor Swift in a red hooded jacket, holding a boom box and wearing a fitted cap in front of black and Latino break dancers]
In one scene from the video we have Taylor Swift dressed as a b-boy with a fitted cap and all, in a brazen and blatant act of cultural appropriation. We all know that the b-boy tradition comes from black and Latin@ youth who get demonized and criminalized daily and who are not able to breakdance without facing harassment from the police. But Swift, drenched in her white privilege and concomitant myopia has no sense of how insulting it is to slip this on as a fun “costume” for a few seconds in her video, as she can always retreat back into her whiteness unassailed while the black and Latin@ breakdancers in her video cannot.
The most disgusting part of the video, though, came, as usual with the twerking scene. White girls just seem to love to throw in a twerking scene into their videos these days.
[image description: Taylor Swift in a leopard print jacket and gold earrings and chains crawling in between the legs of several twerking dancers and staring up at the butt of a twerking black woman]
This is different from the “Anaconda” video, where black women have agency and control of their sexuality and bodies. Instead, just like her racist white counterparts (namely Miley Cyrus and Lilly Allen), Taylor Swift makes twerking and black female bodies a spectacle before the white gaze. Particularly as she walks between the legs of her twerking dancers and pauses at the black woman in the group and gapes astoundingly at her ass, the white gaze is centralized. In this scene black femininity is clearly exotified and demonized in an animalistic contrast to her conservative white femininity that can gape “shocked” at what she’s witnessing (which black women have literally been doing for centuries). This is white feminism at work, which perpetually ignores crucial intersections of race and gender, and to add insult to injury the scene ends with Swift giggling and looking bashfully at the ground, reifying her innocence and white privilege in the spirit of the cult of true womanhood. These are constructs which black women and other WOC do not have access to due to their race, and which Swift gleefully reinforces with this imagery.
This entire scene is a blatant example of primitivism and misogynoir (racialized antiblack misogyny) in the spirit of the spectacle that people made out of the body of Saartjie Baartman.
[image description: Caricature cartoon image of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus.” She is scantily clad with a spear, very large buttocks and her large breasts exposed as well with a white Cherubim alighting on her buttocks]
In case you are not aware, Baartman was a Khoikhoi South African woman, who was brought to Europe in 1810 where she was subsequently paraded around as a freak show with the “exotic” features of her black female body—her butt, breasts and elongated labia— as the main event. Racist caricatures of her body were made, including the famous cartoon above. After her death, her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in Paris’ Musée de l’Homme until 1974. Her remains were not returned to South Africa until 2002 when she was finally reburied near her home town over 200 years after her birth.
In this video, Swift, like her racist white pop counterparts, taps into the racist traditions that we see in the dehumanization of Baartman. This is absolutely unacceptable. Black female bodies are not foreign, exotic, alien lands for your debasement in a cheap pop video for mass consumption. Black women have agency and deserve humanity and respect. Nobody cares if the dancer was “okay” with being in the scene or not, what we care about is the imagery being produced which enshrines white femininity as the standard and strips black women of agency rather than giving homage and due respect to them (as we see in Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” video, Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video and more which centralize the black female gaze).
But, if we didn’t know before, we’ve learned in the past year that Swift and all of these other white pop stars are simply shameless. They don’t care. We critique and point out their racism and racialized misogyny and they throw out obtuse comments about how they actually “really love black people” and “have black friends,” you name it, rather than accepting the problematic nature of their work and just apologizing. This is white supremacist thinking in action, as the only emotional universe which matters is that of the white individual in question and not that of the black people who object to the debasement of our bodies and commodification of aspects of our cultures in videos like this. And we see the impact of all of this in the thinking of their fans who myopically follow their stars and don’t realize that they can be fan while still being critical of the actions of their favorite pop stars. It is unacceptable that Swift can shamelessly appropriate from b-boy black and Latin@ culture, parade herself around as a faux-black woman and then exotify and degrade black female bodies for mass consumption in her videos. And it’s so important that we call videos like this out, and demand accountability from artists who put out degrading videos like Taylor Swift just did with “Shake It Off.” #stopracistwhitegirls2k14
+ Lily Allen’s Racist “Hard Out Here” video
+ Ke$ha’s Racist “Crazy Kids” video