by Guest Contributor Jacqui Germain
On Sunday night, four of my friends and I—all people of color—watched a YouTube clip of Miley Cyrus’ performance completely prepared to laugh and joke about it by its conclusion. We were expecting something that would fit neatly in the long line of ridiculous and yet mostly entertaining awards show performances. Instead, as the YouTube clip reached its end, the room fell completely silent. Even as a writer, I don’t quite have words to describe what that moment felt like. Using academic lingo to explain why cultural appropriation is problematic is one thing; the feeling in your gut when you actually watch parts of your identity being used as props is another. As is true with so many shockingly specific traumatic black experiences, this is a feeling we all recognize immediately, and a feeling we all have no words to describe. In the hours and days following, the critical feminist response was, yet again, a reminder of the ways in which my blackness—even as it exists in concurrence with my femininity—is still actively being othered.
A few weeks have passed since the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag first surfaced on Twitter. The subsequent conversation about the lack of representation and further marginalization of women of color by white women in the feminist movement (not at all a new conversation) seemed suddenly reenergized. Women of color have always talked about the subtle racism that happens within the feminist movement; just because you haven’t heard it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been said—especially considering which narratives are allowed space and which ones aren’t. But with this hashtag, their voices suddenly had a stage. And some white women listened. Some critiqued their own privilege and pointed out the ways the feminist movement has historically dismissed women of color and their experiences. But now, it seems that even those well-meaning white feminists have yet to turn their articles into actual actions.
Most of the responses following Cyrus’ performance have been a conversation of the unconventional way in which she expressed her sexuality on the VMAs stage and the slut-shaming that ensued. Many feminists have since rushed to her defense and appropriately prompted us all to question our immediate negative response to Cyrus’ choice sexual presentation. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a valid stance—in the sense that slut-shaming is certainly a habit that supports rape culture and demanding that society recognizes a woman’s sexual autonomy is hard and necessary work. Back when Cyrus was being sexual without involving the appropriation of my blackness, I was totally on board. Now? Not so much.
Here’s where the racial fissures in feminism come out: by all means, defend a woman’s right to govern her own body; it’s great that white feminists have that goal at the top of their lists. But meanwhile, as a woman of color, I’m still defending my right to actually be considered a body at all and not decoration. Expressing your sexuality at my expense isn’t okay. You don’t get to claim sexual freedom while simultaneously perpetuating the oppression of another body. When you feel the need to express your sexuality by turning my body into an accessory, the black feminist in me—two identities which I refuse to separate—can’t have your back anymore. The feminist struggle is a struggle for autonomy. It’s a fight for recognition and full-body respect. But in Cyrus’ search for and exploration of her sexual identity, she limits my autonomy as a woman of color. She appropriates it. She cheapens it. She effectively uses the identity and lived experiences of so many women of color as a crutch for her career.
For the women in her “We Can’t Stop” video apparently used to give her “credibility”;
for the (mis)use of our slang and our language—which, since the time of the transatlantic slave trade, we’ve been fighting to keep ownership of;
for the (mis)use of our style, the particular way we decorate our bodies;
for the black woman Cyrus smacked on the bottom during her VMAs performance and then casually dismissed—quite literally reduced to a faceless, body-less prop;
I state this truth: we are entire bodies. I am an entire body. We are not bracelets or stage props or trendy hobbies or cute decorations for your career. I am breathing and moving and living and even if I wasn’t, do not disrespect the energy it took to create me and keep me alive in that way. As a black feminist, this is what I’m fighting against.
But in the middle of all of this, in the middle of this display of entire disrespect for my black femininity, I’m hearing very little to nothing at all from mainstream white feminists. And while it’s certainly frustrating and worth criticizing, I understand where the disconnect comes from; we come from an entirely different history of experiences and legacy of oppression. For white women, Slut Walks are a demonstration in favor of women permitting themselves and demanding the room to be more sexual than their predecessors. Meanwhile, black women have spent the past few centuries struggling to do the opposite. Historically, black women are actively being hyper-sexualized; the black feminist struggle, then, is a fight to remove that hyper-sexual assumption from our bodies. Note, though, in light of the contrast, that both movements are indeed a struggle for all women to be allowed to express the full range of their sexuality.
Autonomy is everything. It is one of, if the not the, ultimate freedom. But at the end of the day, the feminist movement is itself weakened by excluding the needs and concerns of women of color.
Black women, in particular, are charged with fighting against a system of assumptions that has affected us for generations, and frequently it feels like we are fighting it alone. It’s important that feminists said something in the aftermath of Cyrus’ VMAs performance, but for black women to not be considered in their critique yet again—intentionally or not—is disheartening. At some point, the movement has to decide to recognize its own examples of privilege, as well as the unique experiences and sufferings of all marginalized women in the community. Zora Neale Hurston tells us, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” It is our responsibility to ourselves and the generations after us to not remain silent about our pain. We are charged with constantly speaking our truths, and as uncomfortable as this may be for some non-black people, we certainly will.