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.