It was less than a minute into Nelly’s 2002 classic “Hot in Herre” that I began to realize what was happening. With a sustained look and playful smirk, the Boston University frat guy dancing with the gaggle of drunken girls standing across from me, sweating through his madras button-down, was challenging me to a dance battle. I coolly accepted.
Channeling my inner Sasha Fierce, I easily put his tired Jonas Brothers moves to shame. After my swift victory, an onlooker slurred her congratulations. “You’re so good at twerking!” she said. “I wish I could twerk like you but I’m so white!”
It didn’t matter that I wasn’t twerking, that I was wearing a pair of pants too tight to twerk in, or that (despite tutorials from friends I met through my summer job) I can’t even do something a seasoned twerker would recognize as twerking. In the Miley Cyrus/“We Can’t Stop” culture that many of us occupy, I’m black and I was dancing, therefore I was twerking. The crux of Cyrus’ new “edgy” image is her appropriation of what she perceives as Blackness, which she wrongly equates with unbridled sexuality. She’s not the first celebrity to do this, but with a mantra of “can’t stop, won’t stop” put to a catchy Mike Will beat, her influence perseveres despite its racial bias.
For students of a school with a prestigious film department, it should be clear why watching Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” music video is an exercise in aesthetic tackiness. The racial undertones are more sinister. Sure, Cyrus can splash around in the pool with her favorite gal-pals and break open a piñata filled with hotdog sized-blunts, all with a crew that is overwhelmingly white, and there’s no problem with that. The qualms arrive when it’s clear that whenever Cyrus is twerking or being overtly sexual, her cohorts are exclusively black. Though Ms. Cyrus wakes up in the morning watching the sunrise surrounded by what could conceivably be her “real” friends—the white, tattooed, Los Angeles hipsters that she shares most of her screen time with—the black women she twerks with are nowhere to be found.
As the nameless, faceless, gyrating big girls with even bigger behinds, these African-American women are the distinguishing factor upon which Cyrus has staked her new image. There is a clear power dynamic upon that infamous Video Music Aawards stage in which they are not the beneficiaries. Amazon Ashley, the nearly seven-foot-tall, black burlesque dancer, wasn’t so much a back-up dancer as she was a prop, an object used earn a few gasps as Cyrus feigned analingus on her thick frame. Amazon Ashley was then replaced with Robin Thicke and his “Blurred Lines” so Cyrus could twerk on his Hamburglar pants, inviting eye rolls from those who are truly pro-body and pro-sexuality, not just when it sells records.
This is the true crime of Miley Cyrus, and other musicians that appropriate race in a similar way. When Gwen Stefani dons Native American-style dress in a No Doubt music video, or Katy Perry affixes golden “grillz,” they are commiting the same sort of silent misconduct that will outlast their respective albums’ radio viability. Cyrus’ “progressiveness“ (if you can call it that) only happens at the expense of the hyper-sexualization and/or objectification of other women, usually of color. Her recent racial appropriation is yet another entry into a history of what one American Prospect writer quantified as a tendency to “foreground [one’s] own whiteness and the implied coolness that comes from dabbling in the ways of exotic others.“
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not calling the drunken sorority girl that assumed I was twerking (despite all evidence to the contrary) racist. Maybe it was an honest mistake; maybe she just thought whatever I was doing is what twerking is. Still, it prompted an internalized conundrum that is worth opening a dialogue about. Twerking, a dance Cyrus presents as the wild, raunchy pastime of the improper and carefree, is one that she specifically associates with Blackness, so much so that it’s largely inaccessible for someone of any other race.
Cyrus is allowed to popularize her idea of what it means to be a racial minority (and objectify minority women in the process), all with the insurance of that promised dawn, in which she can leave behind those gyrating black women in multi-colored spandex. The racial connotations Cyrus establishes in her documented desire to craft a sound who “just feels Black” are just as temporary for those who share her race as they are permanent for those that share mine. Whether I’m dropping it like it’s hot or goofily raising the roof, the assumption is that I’m black so I must be twerking, or, more abstractly, accessing some deeper, more animalistic sexuality that’s just begging to be adopted and exploited, as per the larger racial falsehoods that “We Can’t Stop” instructs.
With an insurance policy as enduring as her skin color, Miley Cyrus can afford to take a walk on what she considers the “wild side.” She gambles, after all, with cultures, perceptions, and sexualities with which she shares no investment and therefore no risk.
Faced with a bargain as sweet as that, Jay Z said it best: “Twerk Miley, Miley, twerk.”