Is Miley Cyrus’ ‘We Can’t Stop’ Video Just a Little Bit Racist?

Whatever else you might say about her, no one can accuse Miley Cyrus of being afraid to make bold moves. The current pop climate has been divided on whether Miley’s platinum ‘do and rabble-rousing lyrics are imitation or innovation, but she is without a doubt doing exactly what she wants to do right now, and moving her career in the direction she wants it moving. Personally, I’m all for the liberation of Miley. She’s an adult woman, and she is owning her own life more than ever before.

However, there’s been some discussion lately about the themes of Miley’s ‘We Can’t Stop’ music video, along with some of the soundbites she’s been giving in interviews about her latest album. “I want urban, I just want something that just feels black,” is something she’s stated in several variations about her new direction in music. She’s labeled herself a “white Nicki Minaj” (or claimed that others have called her that), and said that in her past life, she “feels like that was me” in reference to Lil’ Kim, saying, “I feel like Lil Kim is, like, who I am on the inside.”

It’s obvious that she admires the music of these black artists, but reading those quotes (even in context of their full interviews, they just get even more squirm-inducing) leaves me feeling uncomfortable. What is it, exactly, that she’s idolizing? The way that Lil Kim and Minaj broke through the not-so-invisible glass ceiling of the rap world? Their personas and undeniable star swagger? Or is she envisioning herself wearing their attitude and actions and adopting them as her own? It would seem like that’s the case, considering her frequent commentary on race-flipping herself into their roles.

Vice recently published a fascinating dialogue on the subject of the apparent racial appropriations in the ‘We Can’t Stop’ video. They asked Professor Akil Huston, who teaches African American Studies at Ohio University, his thoughts on the video. If you haven’t seen it (and I have watched it many times over while writing this article), it features Miley being sexy in white pants, her friends doing crazy shenanigans, and then, several sections in which Miley twerks with black women. It’s been noted that in the video, her “friends” are mostly young, thin, white people, and that the black women in the video are being used as props. While some believe that Miley’s taking a tongue-in-cheek approach at mocking hip-hop trends, Huston doesn’t see it that way.

“It continues a long tradition of what bell hooks might refer to as “eating the other.” Hooks noted that within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes like spice seasoning. It is used to liven up the dull dish that is mainstream/white culture.” Basically, the observation is that Miley is embracing what she sees as “exotic,” in this case, the hip-hop and rap stereotypes she’s embracing and emulating, in an attempt to make her product more edgy and interesting.

I think that’s an accurate analyzation of what’s going on in Camp Miley these days. It was boring, being a Disney star. She didn’t feel like she was able or allowed to be herself and express what she was feeling. We get that. Every artist deserves the right to grow, and sometimes that means awkward stages of their careers. Every young woman deserves to be able to decide for herself who she is and who she wants to be. I just wish Miley could do those things without this completely ignorant treatment of black people and African American culture. Lumping in her ghetto-fascination under the category of music that “feels black” is problematic. In the Vice interview, author Wilbert L. Cooper asks Professor Huston the following question: “What does Miley’s Cyrus’s interpretation of what she has gone on record to call “black” say about her perception of black people and their culture?”

Hurt’s response was, “She could stand to take a few African-American studies courses.”

And really, while I’m sure she sees herself drawing parallels between artists like Lil Kim and comparing herself to Nicki Minaj as nothing but flattering, she’s got a very shallow view of what it means to be someone who is “black” and “urban.” Maybe she’s just as guilty of accepting popular sterotypes as the rest of us are, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t disturbing to see.

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