White Ignorance and Black Dance: My Response to the Uninformed Critic

On Tuesday, I was reading Feminista Jones’ latest post at Salon.com talking about her frustration with the recent frenzy around twerking. To all the white people that have made stupid jokes and misguided criticism about the phenomenon, Jones says:

Is it so hard to learn about the history and background of something you’re unfamiliar with, and give credit where it’s due? You don’t have to know a thing about twerking to leave it be. If it isn’t yours, you don’t have to touch it. If you don’t understand it, there is no need to form an opinion about it. If you’re curious, do the research, ask the respectful questions, and if you feel compelled to write about or report on it, do your best to do so with respect to cultural nuance and context.

Jones is right. People—regardless of what color they are—should always do that when commenting on something that is foreign to them. I’ve learned that doing your homework and talking about things in context is the only way to get people to take you seriously as a cultural critic. But the reality is that people are stupid. And lazy. I would only expect an ignorant white person to make ignorant comments about a piece of black culture they’ve never seen, heard of, or seriously considered before. I’m not mad about uninformed people making idiotic assumptions about a racial group and their cultural items they don’t know anything about. I’m just irritated that white people are profiting from a black cultural trend that has been around long before they discovered it.

That’s why I smirked and quickly moved on to the next article in my reading list after reviewing Richard Cohen’s ridiculous op-ed arguing that Miley Cyrus’ dancing (I refuse to call her awkward shimmying “twerking”) could be attributed to the Steubenville rape case. That’s also why I raised my eyebrows at Mitch Albom for saying he “feels sorry” for young people today because they are pressured into performing sexual acts on the dance floor to be seen as “worthy.”

I have news for Mr. Albom: there is a lot of gratification from knowing you can put down on the dance floor and in the bedroom. If you have a good grasp of what you’re comfortable with doing on the dance floor—and know how to subtly communicate your boundaries to the people you’re dancing with—peer pressure and twerking standards don’t have to enter the equation.

I love to dance. I mean I really love to dance. More than that, I love seeing people’s reactions when they see me dance.

In everyday life, I am not a particularly striking person. My clothes tend to be form-fitting, but they’re not trendy or provocative. My hair is modest and natural; no funky colors or heat styling. After years away from the barre, I still walk with a ballerina’s gait and I don’t have a hint of blaccent in my voice despite having lived in all-black neighborhoods my whole life. To many white people that I’m meeting for the first time, I’m sweet, non-threatening, relatable. To many black people I’m meeting for the first time, I’m an oreo.

But when people see me dance, they change their minds about me really quickly and I start making new friends.

king-the-dancehall-8-o

The classic, single girl’s whine. Not to be confused with twerking or wukkin’ up.

In Jones’ piece, she references “The Butterfly” and I got nostalgic. Learning how to do the dance from my aunt Marie at grandma’s house on Avenue K in Brooklyn is one of my first childhood memories. Cohen and Albom’s discomfort with twerking is amusing to me because black dance styles similar to it have always been a part of my life, whether I loved doing them or loved watching others perform them. In a sense, the term “twerking” is relatively new to me. I don’t twerk—I wuk up. Most of my friends and family are Caribbean immigrants living in New York, so I don’t know much about southern slang. On top of that, I’ve seen twerking many times but I’ve always thought of it as just dancing, not some hypersexualized, degrading act.

Is it still sexual, though? Sure, but not for everyone— xoJane Contributor Christiana Mbakwe writes about how elderly women from her predominantly West African church twerked during particularly joyous “praise” songs, almost with the same precision and flexibility with the teens and twenty-somethings blowing up on Vine and YouTube. Twerking isn’t even something that could be limited to southern hip hop trends from New Orleans, as it is similar to the Mapouka dance from Côte d’Ivoire that has been performed by elite dancers at religious festivals for centuries.

It all reminds me of the fuss surrounding Rihanna’s costume for Crop Over Festival in Trinidad this summer. Decked out in a beautiful diamond bikini with feathers and a headdress, Instagram photos and news coverage of the pop princess flooded the Internet. In response, a slew of disapproving Americans that had probably never even heard of Carnival, knew the cultural significance of it, much less seen the elaborate costumes men and women have been wearing for the celebration since the 17 and 1800s, called Rihanna “trashy,” “vulgar” and a “whore.” I would be horrified to see the kind of responses people would have if they saw photos of my 50-something, doctor-by-day, Oprah-lover-by-night mother in her Carnival costume that was almost as skimpy as Rihanna’s worn the year before.

The problem isn’t just that American has a horrible habit of labeling black cultural items as hypersexual. The problem is that Americans have a horrible habit of labeling black sexuality as being pathologically evil. For me, club dancing (and the dance styles associated with it) has always been sexual. I didn’t begin having sex until I was an adult, so from childhood to adolescence to the present day, dance has always been my avenue to understanding myself as a sexual being. I loved dancing because no one had to tell me what the erotic was; I could create it for myself. It’s a special and important skill, considering the way black women’s bodies (and sexuality) are constantly discussed as if they don’t belong to us. As Hortense J. Spillers explains in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” our bodies don’t stand alone; they are a “plus”, a “split subject” that can never fall neatly into the normative categories of whiteness and masculinity. We are stolen goods, dispersed from a trade system that was out of our ancestors’ hands centuries before. We are seen as abnormal for bearing children while castrating black men through rupturing the western, patriarchal tradition of inheritance in name and wealth. The black female body doesn’t signify a person; it signifies a status of otherness, a tool for political manipulation, a legacy of deviance. And in being seen as a tool, or a commodity, the sexuality that is associated with it becomes an object that is containable and destructible by others who are more privileged.

Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote a brilliant piece discussing the Cyrus twerking fiasco, pointing out that the VMA performance wasn’t problematic just because it appropriated black culture, but because it used a specific black female body type as a prop to put Cyrus on a pedestal. Cottom identified with the curvaceous woman Cyrus pretends to eat on stage, describing herself as plain-looking. She doesn’t consider herself to be a threat to white women’s desirability. And because Cottom lacks beauty, she lacks the commodity that increases her chances of marriage, and institution that gives her—and other black women that look like her—white women’s long-held access to power and wealth.

miley-cyrus-2013-vma-large-women-1024x560When Cottom saw the black female background dancers twerking on stage, positioned to be items of consumption, she saw herself as the invisible, non-threatening fixture that is approached by strange white couples and frat boys in southern bars for sexual experimentation. Drunk men and women have asked to feel her breasts, some have offered her money to motorboat her chest, others come behind her to grind her backside so they can impress their friends.

Cottom’s accounts are disturbing, but they aren’t surprising. I’ve had countless strange men (white, black and orange) grope me in club settings or arouse themselves by rubbing their crotch on my back, using the crush of people to prevent me from seeing their face. I cannot speak of pleasure and agency on the dance floor in absolute terms because the place where I’ve experienced sexual enlightenment is the same place I’ve experienced sexual assault. While bored at a loud, dimly-lit house party in a Brooklyn, I asked a white Hispanic man I knew through a mutual friend to dance. To my surprise, he proceeded to back me in a corner and ram his erection in my pelvis while grabbing me from behind, praising me for being a good dancer and asking if he could kiss me. I was in a room filled with people. No one did anything.

I am not the same as Cottom. I am not rotund or plain. I am slender and youthful-looking. Yes, I think I’m beautiful. No, I don’t think I am a 10. I am brown-skinned with 4C hair but my education, my desirability and my upbringing in a two-parent, middle class family tells me that I am privileged and a prime candidate for marriage in a white or black man’s eyes. Interestingly, though, the different ways that Cottom and I describe our appearance didn’t preclude our shared experience as black females being seen as sexual props—especially in spaces where dance is a tool for unwanted sexual attention.

The visual of achieving pleasure on the dance floor is murky because on one level, basic access to and venues for sexual agency are reliant upon the specific body type navigating the space. On another level, others navigating the dance floor have the ability to disregard one’s personal boundaries, despite whatever cues the subject in question signals to other people. My experience with dance and assault helps I understand why people are concerned about cultural items that appear foreign and uncomfortably sexual. But I want people to know that my love for dance—and the dance floor—is still alive and well. When I’m dancing, I’m not dancing to imitate the Twerk Team. I am dancing to pleasure myself in a way that a lover never could. My dancing is not tainted by the misogynistic hip hop lyrics that are blasting around me or by the expectations of how a black woman is supposed dance or even by the man who assaulted me. My dancing is just mine.

All hail Big Freedia, queen of twerking.

All hail Big Freedia, queen of twerking.

Unlike Jones, I would love for people to keep talking about twerking because like any piece of pop culture, it helps give the conversation context. Of course that comes with a caveat: people need to stop talking about twerking as if it is a source of social evil. It’s just a dance. To any conservative white pundits in high places that took out the 8 minutes to read this post, the problem does not lie in black cultural forms. The problem lies your perception of them. Attributing the Steubenville rape to twerking is like attributing the lack of affordable housing in New York to white people’s fascination with the new Harlem shake. It just doesn’t work. I would hope that this project and all of the amazing writing that has inspired it makes people consider the way they see black cultural items and how that limits their understanding of black people. It’s a crap shoot, but a girl can dream.

Until that happens, I will not validate other people’s oblivious discussions of black dance with a response. If Richard Cohen’s understanding of twerking means something different from my understanding of twerking, we’re not having the same conversation. Therefore, there’s no use in me getting worked up by his bullshit.

Let the conservative white pundits think they are saying something substantial. Let them feel like they are discovering something, that they are saying something important. Focusing on their perspectives just clouds our (read: black people, young people, women, or just people of color) own conversations about our personal relationships with dance, sexuality, the erotic, agency and the media items that represents them. Just like you can’t teach a dog new tricks, you can’t teach Albom new moves—much less change his mind about a dance and cultural phenomenon that is clearly beyond his mental grasp.

What is your relationship to dance? Do you twerk? Why or why not? When did you first hear of it? And what’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard someone say about the phenomenon?

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