In the wake of Miley Cyrus’ apparently disastrous performance on MTV’s 2013 Video Music Awards show, I’ve been seeing a lot of conversations (or more often, declarations) about twerking as a form of cultural appropriation. Twerking, according to what I’m reading, is intimately bound to black culture and when white women integrate it into their own dance performances, they are essentially stealing black culture — appropriating to themselves the street cred of more authentic dancers and musicians while avoiding, due to their racial privilege, the more negative sexual and cultural disempowerments that come with being a woman of color.
OK, that’s not entirely a horrible argument. It’s true that, for the most part, black women are judged more harshly for outward displays of sexuality, which reinforce racist stereotypes about black people being innately animalistic, uncivilized, unintelligent, and deserving of their lower social status. White women can often imitate tropes of black sexuality and “shake off” the essentializing that comes with them, presenting their sexualized performances as “just for fun”. The appropriation of black sexuality as a liberating force for white womanhood has a long history — we can see it at work, for instance, in Sophie Tucker’s early-career (c. 1910) blackface performances, in which she sang bawdy songs full of double entendre (and often single entendre) as an ersatz black woman, then shed off the implications of blackness by reclaiming her whiteness, peeling off a glove at the end of her act to reveal the light skin beneath.
Cultural appropriation can do real damage to communities. Blackface perpetuated and exaggerated black stereotypes and arguably contributed to the longevity of Jim Crow segregation (itself named after a popular blackface character). Representations by white women of hyper-sexualized black, Native American, Southeast Asian, and other minority women in our “she was asking for it” rape culture contribute to the high levels of sexualized violence faced by women of color, and the ease with which that violence is dismissed by law enforcement and by the wider mainstream population. (Remember the Duke case a few years ago? Within hours of the accusations filed by a black stripper against members of the Duke Lacrosse team, articles were appearing all over the media blaming her for leading the alleged perpetrators into rape — long before any evidence about the case was made public.) White popularization of black music styles in the mid-20th century left many of our greatest musical innovators penniless while their imitators went on to fame and fortune. The use of American Indian caricatures as sports team mascots continues to make it difficult for Native Americans to be taken seriously on issues ranging from the misallocation of tribal resources and theft of tribal lands to crushing unemployment rates and skyrocketing health issues.
And so on. But while there are some pretty obvious acts of cultural appropriation out there (a white actor playing a Native American character in a movie, for instance), rejecting out of hand any imitation of one culture by another — even in the power-laden social context of modern racism — is a dangerous, dangerous trap. To insist that these acts, behaviors, beliefs, and whatnot belong to group A and those acts, behaviors, beliefs and whatnot belong to group B and only members of Group A can do things in set A and only members of group B can do things in set B is a recipe for essentialism, racial antagonism, and cultural stagnation.
The goal of social justice politics simply cannot be to build walls around cultures and ethnicities that cannot be crossed. Hell, that was the core tactic of racist politics for the last 400 years — separating and setting against each other poor and working class whites on one side, blacks on the other, and various other groups that might be present on yet another. Reiterating the politics of racism in the name of social justice cannot be reasonable, right?
So back to twerking. The origins of twerking are a little hazy, but we do know it started appearing in recorded music in the mid-90s in the New Orleans and Miami bounce and hiphop scenes, largely in lyrics by black men. (Interestingly, the word “twerk” as a form of dance only starts appearing in print in the early 2000s, though it was quite common in work on nuclear physics and Indo-European etymology in the early ‘70s [Google Ngram Viewer].) What’s pretty clear is that twerking emerged as a dance move in nightclubs and as a word in dance hall music.
But by the mid- and late-1990s, hiphop and related styles had long since entered the mainstream of American music — actually, of world music. Both the dance and music of once-black venues were entirely mainstream. Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé, 2 Live Crew, and other musicians recorded and released songs about twerking (or twirking, in Destiny’s Child’s case) not as part of secret underground racial resistance movements but for promotion on MTV and sale at Sam Goody. Twerking was, nearly from its inception, part of the public sphere, a public sphere shared by black and white and other clubgoers and music consumers alike.
I’d argue that twerking — along with contemporary hiphop and other once-racially-identified forms of music, dance, and art — is in the public domain, part of the pool of culture that none of us have a choice but to draw from. But that doesn’t mean the word or the dance move are free for the taking — they have implications, and those implications have consequences. Art is communication, and communication exists in context. Just like one person can use the N-word to signify a shared bond with his or her friends and another can use the same word to signify his or her hatred of those very same people, twerking can signify different things to different people in different contexts. By all accounts, Miley Cyrus’ performance was terrible and laden with racist and sexist signifiers, even leaving out the apparently clumsy attempt at twerking. For many commentators, it came across as a desperate attempt by a child star to gain some degree of adult credibility by imitating the moves and tropes of black hiphop performers — exactly the opposite of the authenticity that seems to have been Cyrus’ goal.
But in the end, that’s on Cyrus and the particular context she created with her performance, not something innate about the act of twerking itself. In and of itself, twerking is a kind of rhythmic twitching of the backside and rough approximation of the movements of intercourse, a function of human anatomy that gains meaning only in the context of its execution. As a way of highlighting a performer’s sexuality, it’s practiced by dancers of many ethnicities in strip clubs, dance halls, and burlesque stages on a nightly basis without much, if any, racial significance. In the end, it’s a fairly trivial thing, a dance move — but it feels like if something this insignificant can’t be shared by people of different backgrounds, then we don’t have much chance at all when it comes to the things that profoundly affect our lives: sexual violence, racialized poverty, environmental racism, educational inequality, and so on.
I don’t usually post related articles from the Web, but I figured it would be good to include a small taste of the commentary generated by Miley Cyrus’ act and how people are talking about twerking and cultural appropriation in relation to it. These articles aren’t necessarily endorsed by me, they just represent the breadth of talk on this matter.