Miley Cyrus and Janis Joplin, Cont.: How Racism Subverts Good Intentions

Equating clueless VMAs twerking with virtuoso blues singing doesn't cheapen the word "racism"—it shows we need to use it more.
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In an article yesterday, I argued that Miley Cyrus's twerking and Janis Joplin's blues singing were both examples of a kind of racial minstrelsy. Cyrus wants to shed her good-white-girl image, so she adopts the stereotypical image of black women as ultra-sexual to make herself seem edgy and sexual. Joplin, similarly, adopts the stereotypical image of black blues women as earthy, authentic, and enduring to give her performance a depth that (by sexist convention) isn't usually associated with white women. The process, I argued, is broadly the same, and broadly racist. Joplin's talent means that the racism is easier to ignore, or look past, but it doesn't change the basic dynamic of how black women are being used.

The piece generated a lot of resistance, and I'm not surprised. Joplin is very popular, as she deserves to be. As a white person, and as someone who enjoys her music a great deal, I find it painful to talk about and think about the aspects of racism in her work, both because I admire her, and because they reflect on me.

Several commenters, of various backgrounds, raised an objection that I think goes to the heart of my argument, and that I therefore wanted to respond to at some length. These commenters argued that calling Joplin racist cheapens the charge of racism, and weakens our ability to call out real racism when we see it. Joplin's appropriation of black voices is clearly moving, sincere, and in good faith. If you're going to call that racism, the argument seems to imply, you won't have anything left to call Miley Cyrus, much less the KKK.

I think this argument has things the wrong way round.  People aren't too eager to find racism. On the contrary, they tend to be way, way too shy about pointing it out. When people talk about racism, they tend, in my experience, to want to look for intent, or, as with Cyrus, for stupidity.  David Duke is a racist; Hitler is a racist; evil people (or very dumb people) are racist. Folks like Joplin, who are clearly well-intentioned, smart, thoughtful, and talented, are not.

But that's the whole point of comparing Cyrus and Joplin. Joplin is an amazing artist; Cyrus is an embarrassment. And yet, they're doing the same thing, because they are working in the same systems. Both are white, Southern women. Both want to get out of the bind of stereotypical white, Southern, passive femininity—which codes white women as vulnerable, desirable but not desiring, pretty, fragile, and frivolous. Both want instead to be aggressive, independent, sexual, and authentic. And both so this by deploying stereotypes of black women.

In short, racism isn't something you overcome by being an exemplary white person. Even with all her talent, even with all her skill, Joplin still ends up being racist, because the culture, and the pop milieu she exists in, is racist. In defining herself, in creating her image, she uses the materials at hand, and many of those materials are racist stereotypes. So she ends up underlining and validating those stereotypes — a fact made painfully clear (as I mentioned in the piece yesterday) by the Cheap Thrills album cover, which uses the racist caricature of a black mammy in order to situate Joplin's "Summertime" as deriving from authentic black sources.  Similarly, Cyrus's equation of black females with sex is a way for her to declare herself more sexual—but it also reinforces stereotypes that have racist effects on actual black women, as Tressie McMillan Cottom outlines in some detail.

So does that mean that all white musicians, or all white people, are automatically racist? No, it doesn't. It just means that there are tropes and systems in place that are easy to use, and that lots and lots of performers have used. But if America's great blight is racism, its great saving grace is anti-racism, and there have been a number of really inspiring examples in popular music. One example is the great duet between country star Jimmie Rodgers and jazz giant Louis Armstrong, in which Rodgers treats Armstrong not as a touchstone of authenticity but as a peer, both in artistry and in the experience of being victims of the police. Another is, perhaps, Danity Kane, an integrated pop group in which black women are treated as band members rather than (a la "Scary Spice") as occasions for stereotype.

I like Danity Kane's first album, but even I, the unapologetic pop fan I am, wouldn't claim that the group is more talented than Janis Joplin. But that's the point. There isn't a direct relationship between talent and racism.

This is actually fairly obvious, but—speaking as a white guy—it can be a hard lesson to accept. The dream of the exemplary white person dies hard, as does the belief that the racists are all as transparently soulless and avaricious as Miley Cyrus or Robin Thicke. The reason to call out the racist elements of Joplin's performance is not to shame her or pull her down—she's past shame now, and she's too great an artist for criticism to knock her out of the pop canon. Rather, the point is to remind folks, and especially white folks, that racism is a system that can subvert good intentions, and even genius. Which doesn't mean we should despair, but does mean we should spend more time paying attention, and perhaps less time patting ourselves on the back. As James Loewen said of another figure famous for his relationship with the black tradition, "[I]f Lincoln could be racist, then so might the rest of us be. And if Lincoln could transcend racism, as he did on occasion, then so might the rest of us." 

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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