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Angelina Chapin

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Stop Telling Miley's Black Backup Dancers to Feel Offended

Posted: 08/28/2013 6:18 pm

I'm not black. I'm not a backup dancer. I've never been onstage with Miley Cyrus.

Those things are true of most writers who have been weighing in on the "IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIt's Miley Show" (I mean, the VMAs).

Yet that hasn't stopped them from pontificating about how "objectified" Miley's black backup dancers should feel for being "props" in her racist charade. Especially the performer of GIF fame on who she simulated "analingus."

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Blogger Anne Theriault, who often has a clever take on gender and racial issues, wrote on our site:

Even worse, in her performance last night Miley used black women as props -- like, literal props -- and barely anyone said anything. I saw very few people displaying any outrage over the fact that Miley was, at one point, slapping a faceless black woman on the ass as if she was nothing more than a thing for Miley to dominate and humiliate. I saw barely anyone discussing the fact that Miley's sexual empowerment, or whatever you want to call it, should not come at the cost of degrading black women.

And Sarah Ditum in the New Statesmen:

If you wanted a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry, this performance has it covered: white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification pile.

While I have respect for both of these writers, neither are backup dancers. Neither are black women.

What's more oppressive than Miley's performance? Telling these women how to feel instead of just asking them.

I posed the question on Facebook as to whether writers should assume without asking how the backup dancers felt. One response I received was a perfect summation of the problem: "Regular people aren't qualified to say whether or not they've been objectified. That's the job of pundits."

And the truth of that black humour should worry us all.

The job of an opinion writer is this: write what you know (or have researched). And if you don't know, ask someone who does. Making assumptions about how other people feel has its place among friends at the dinner table, but before pushing your blog, your Tweet or your Facebook post, ask whether your opinion about someone else is based on more than speculation, or merely how you would hypothetically feel in a situation.

Even the pros make mistakes.

Drew Millard did some serious speculating in a piece for VICE titled "The VMAs Are Proof That America Is Dead Inside."

Seattle-born rapper Macklemore won a VMA for Best Video with a Social Message along with queer artist "Mary Lambert" for their gay rights anthem "Same Love." Millard wrote:

Lambert was not given an opportunity to speak when accepting the award. Instead, Macklemore patted himself on the back, calling 'Same Love' the most important song he'd ever written and explaining that gay rights were human rights. While his message is an admirable one, consider how meaningful the moment would have been if Lambert herself had been able to give a speech, or if Macklemore had ceded the moment to her completely. But he did not.

The paragraph draws a baseless conclusion about Macklemore's intentions and implied Lambert should feel robbed of an opportunity.

I think the first commenter on the post says it best:

And how do you know that Lambert would have wanted to speak after watching the Miley thing? You make alot [sic] of baseless assumptions and somehow conclude that America is dead because Macklemore is pro gay rights.

Maybe Miley's back-up dancers did feel objectified. But maybe they also felt great.

Here's what a black woman who blogs for Huffington Post had to say:

As for Miley using black women as props, I have to disagree. I have to go a different route here and say that by having black female back-up dancers, she actually increased black female employment in the dance/entertainment industry, allowing these women -- some of whom have never had a chance like this before -- to have their talent showcased.

The point is, we really don't know until we ask, and baseless speculation only lowers the level of online debate.

When a videographer took to the streets of Harlem to ask how residents felt about a meme popularizing the dance, they all responded with outrage. Yes, it was cultural appropriation. No, the real Harlem Shake looks nothing like that. The 5:32 minutes were the most interesting insight available on the subject.
Useful information a filmmaker collected by -- wait for it -- stepping onto the street and talking to people. Anyone can do it, and if you're opposed to walking a phone can make a pretty good substitute for tracking people down.

Or, if citizen journalism isn't your thing, write about something you're an expert on. Write about something you have experienced.

I love the how the Internet has allowed for broader debate -- voices that are underrepresented in newspapers now have a platform. But with this freedom should come a little responsibility to learn about a situation before weighing in.

Until someone speaks to one of the dancers, I don't think anyone's in a place to tell them they should feel objectified.

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