Last night, Nicki Minaj tweeted her frustrations that the music video for her single "Anaconda" was not nominated for the MTV VMA Video of the Year Award. She suggested that race might have something to do with it; that despite the major pop cultural impact of the record-breaking video, "Anaconda" was dismissed because it celebrated black women (with big butts).
"[I'm] just tired. Black women influence pop culture so much," Minaj wrote, "but are rarely rewarded for it."
And then, in the middle of Minaj's ongoing tweets, Taylor Swift decided to step in and make the entire thing about her:
Thus began what many have erroneously described as a "feud" (both parties expressed their love and respect for one another during their Twitter exchange), and with it a heated online debate about who was in the wrong and who was in the right. But debating who the "bad guy" is isn't productive. What we should be talking about is how the exchange, and Taylor Swift's responses in particular, are a perfect example of the problem "White Feminism" (i.e. feminism that ignores intersectionality) has with race.
It's very easy to see why Swift might have thought the tweets were about her, and why they might have made her want to say something. Minaj's mention of "other girls" with "very slim bodies" may very well have been in reference to Swift (after all, very slim Swift and bootylicious Beyoncé are the only two women nominated for Video of the Year).
But as Minaj herself pointed out, nowhere in her tweets did she actually name or blame Swift for her grievances. Instead, she was speaking to her own experiences as a black female artist, and her observations on the ways she feels body politics, racism, and sexism within the industry and society at large have affected her career. She was calling out a system that favors women like Swift, a system that Swift is complicit in whether she likes it or not.
There is a lot that can be picked apart here. Minaj did get three nominations in major categories for both "Anaconda" and "Bang Bang" -- just not Video of the Year and Best Choreography. And yet it's too simplistic to label Minaj as greedy or cocky for wanting to be recognized for the biggest award of the night. The fact that an artist as insanely successful as Minaj -- an artist who in a lot of ways conforms to the beauty standards of acceptable blackness (light skin, "good" hair, "thick" but with a tiny waist) -- still feels a racial disparity is significant, and should be acknowledged.
The way Swift responded was the opposite of acknowledgement. She may have felt hurt, confused or insulted, but she should have also realized that this wasn't about her. By centering Minaj's observation around herself, and thus shifting the narrative into a Nicki vs. Taylor story, she silenced Minaj, dismissed her experiences, and derailed an important conversation about race and gender.
Swift tried to deflect Minaj's criticisms of the music industry (again, not about Swift personally) by pointing out that "one of the men" might have taken Minaj's nomination spot. This was irrelevant to Minaj's argument, and a classic example of the way White Feminism works to undermine women of color -- trying to make things solely about gender in order to not have to talk about race, while perpetuating the idea that white women and women of color experience the same kinds of sexism and oppression.
It's vital to note this doesn't mean Swift is a terrible, horrible racist. She was clearly well-meaning, even when she (a tad condescendingly) added later that Nicki was invited to come up with her on stage if she won. All her words were well-meaning, but they spoke to her cluelessness and privilege.
Some take issue with the term "White Feminism," seeing it as an unfair indictment of all women who are feminists and happen to be white. Columnist Rebecca Griffin even tweeted:
Calling out White Feminism isn't about demonizing all white feminists, or erasing the history of feminism and the role white women (and all women) have played in it. It isn't about attacking women like Taylor Swift, who in recent years has proudly taken on the feminist mantle. And defending Minaj does not mean that she epitomizes what it means to be a "good feminist," while Swift epitomizes everything wrong with the movement.
But. Intersectionality is real, it's important and it's integral -- the popularity of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag, which called out the imbalances in feminist online media in 2013, signals as much. White Feminism turns Taylor Swift into the victim and Nicki Minaj into the bully. It cries "women make 78 cents to the dollar of men" but forgets that the missing qualifier is "white" -- black and Hispanic women make far less. It compells Swift to say Minaj's words "pit women against each other" instead of forcing her to examine how her whiteness and her thin body have contributed to her success.
There's one thing Minaj wrote in the exchange that should perhaps be the biggest takeaway for Swift and those who support her.
"I love you just as much," Minaj wrote. "But you should speak on this."
Tonight, a documentary examining whiteness in America called "White People," will premiere on MTV. On July 18 politician Bernie Sanders was confronted by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and was not equipped to respond in any meaningful way. We are still grappling with the circumstances surrounding Sandra Bland's July 13 death. We're in a moment where it has become imperative that white people engage with discourse about race in a real way.
For Swift, this means not silencing the experiences of black women. It means being an ally by listening, but also speaking out in solidarity and with understanding about the inequalities that women of color artists face -- even if they benefit her. She shouldn't stop talking -- nothing productive can come out of no dialogue at all. But she, and other white women like her, should stop, take a step back and consider the real impact of their words.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article listed "Feeling Myself" as one of the videos Minaj was nominated for. Her only solo artist nomination is for "Anaconda."
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