Archive for the ‘Race’ Category

I’m colorblind. Completely colorblind, in fact. If you rad this blog a lot or know me you’ve probably picked up on that fact. As with most people who have disabilities, especially life-long ones, our struggle through life is often synonymous with the peculiarities of our existence. I make jokes about not driving, not knowing how to much colors, the fact that my visual disabilities (I’m also legally blind) would have likely my life completely irrelevant in an earlier age.

If you’re seeing the term colorblind a lot recently, though, it’s more likely in reference to race. Individuals (often white, in my observations), one of whom will serve as the case-study for this post, often tout themselves as “colorblind” when they’ve made some serious racial misstep. Rather than acknowledge racial inequality or aspects of systemic oppression which stand out in contrast to the perceived normativity of whiteness, they persist in bull-dozing forward as though by pretending that all individuals are equal because they ought to be, this suddenly decimates long-standing systemic oppression and transforms us into a society in which we’re, for instance, “post-racial”. A fantasy, in essence. One which takes little responsibility or boasts little self-awareness at a time in which race relations are particularly fraught.

I most recently saw this “colorblind” language deployed in relation to a Taylor Swift video directed by Mark Romanek. I, for one, didn’t even know T-Swift had a new song out! Sadly, I don’t like this one as much as the stuff from her last album (some of which, really and truly, is catchy as fuck IMO), though I suspect that’s an article for another day.

The video features Taylor going through a variety of different dances, styles, and largely making a fool of herself as she attempts to navigate the world of body motion. She’s not a very good robot, for instance, but she’s a pretty decent cheerleader. She seems to have mastered the basics of singing into a microphone, but not so much for ballet or twerking. This is pretty in-line with the T-Swift I’ve grown up with, a lady who seems to view her charm as resting, at least in part, in her willingness to laugh at herself and seem (in the ultimate pop-star gambit) human.

Fair enough. Well, Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt created a momentary blip in the blogosphere when he tweeted:

“haven’t watched the taylor swift video and I don’t need to watch it to tell you that it’s inherently offensive and ultimately harmful” (Source)

Hmm. Well. Can I start out by writing that admitting within your critique of a piece of art that you haven’t actually engaged the piece of art is a bad idea in terms of argumentation? Noted? Good.

The director of the video, Mark Romanek, ultimately responded (!):

“I’m a fan of his and I think he’s a really interesting artist. (I posted a Vine to one of his tracks once.) But he stated clearly that he hadn’t seen the video and didn’t even intend to watch it. So, respectfully, that sort of invalidates his observations from the get-go. And it’s this one uninformed tweet that got reported on and rehashed, which started this whole “controversy.” We simply choose styles of dance that we thought would be popular and amusing and cast the best dancers that were presented to us without much regard to race or ethnicity. If you look at it carefully, it’s a massively inclusive piece. It’s very, very innocently and positively intentioned. And — let’s remember — it’s a satirical piece. It’s playing with a whole range of music-video tropes and clichés and stereotypes.” (http://pitchfork.com/news/56420-director-mark-romanek-responds-to-earl-sweatshirts-take-on-inherently-offensive-taylor-swift-video/)

To start, I agree that Earl’s critique is invalidated/lessened by not actually engaging with the material. Then we enter into the land of assumptions and, frankly, it just gets reductive.

However, Romanek’s response also frustrates me in the way that it engages with the “colorblind casting” trope. Initially, there are serious problems with conflating the language of disability with the language of racial politics. The appropriation of our experiences to discuss a completely different one serves neither group adequately or effectively and, frankly, ignores the fact that in comparison to the experiences of black political organizers the disabled community is far less united in terms of political representation. You can’t use the experiences of one minority group as the scaffolding to discuss the oppression of another, as in this instance the experiences of people with disabilities like mine become props (like Swift’s background dancers) for a far more visible star. That’s a rhetorical bone I have, but this article is really about the failure of “colorblind” language at representing monolithic racial America white individuals often

Romanek seems to perceive that simply because they cast dancers talented at different styles that invalidates the critique that having an all-white cast of ballerina dancers or T-Swift comically mocking the hip-hop language of “THIS.SICK.BEAT” isn’t a form of cultural appropriation. Mocking a white woman’s inability to twerk, or break-dance, crosses the line of cultural appropriation in that it markets and highlights the experience of whiteness to both treat the black experience as an inherently exotic or other-ed experience (perhaps most obvious when T-Swift gapes from beneath a line of twerkers, the shots thus far highlighting the lead black woman’s behind (check that thumbnail). It taps into the same line of thinking which prompted Miley Cyrus to attempt to gain VMA cred. by using the bodies of black women as props, to enhance her own sexuality by way of being included in the bestial portrayal of black women. Here, instead, Swift characterizes her own lack of sexual prowess/maturity by contrasting it against a long and engrained history of stereotypes about black female bodies, always at the fore-front of these segments even as the creators attempt to balance the issue with cross-racial casting. For Swift, an artist with very little relationship with the hip-hop community, it feels cheap and inauthentic. One more way of preserving a chaste, white stereotype which Swift has been monopolizing for what feels like much of the past decade.

Romanek’s notion of the whole affair being “colorblind” and ultimately harmless is frustrating, as it highlights the fundamental insidiousness of cultural appropriation that creeps up endlessly. For T-Swift, known for such a long time as a prominent “country” star, it’s inappropriate to suggest that the cultural ramifications or suggestions of these styles would be lost on her creative team. Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and T-Swift’s wide-eyed stare at a twerking booty speaks volumes about the commercial appear of non-threating, “normative” pop as a viable commercial strategy for a young artist. Harvesting the commercially viable elements of black culture and reinforcing the dominant stereotypes about black women and artists, and wearing her “aw-shucks!” expression all the way to the bank.

Romanek’s response highlights the myth of the harmless caucasian fantasy of appropriation. If you look closely, you can still see white people imagining that just because they don’t realize/acknowledge the way other cultures are frequently pillaged (especially in [pop] music) for the purposes of selling records (here to a predominantly young, white, and female audience) they’re implicitly encouraging a nascent form of colonialism. If they do it under the guise of “color-blindness”, by the way, they can pillage the experiences of two minorities at once. Now there’s a deal even Taylor Swift’s managers couldn’t turn down.

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