So Miley is back on the scene, and she's whiter than ever.
I'm talking less about the visual and sonic content of the video and accompanying track, and more about the 180-degree transformation she just completed, the one that critics of cultural appropriation have been sounding alarms about since 2013.
In case you forgot, here's a brief history: we met Miley Cyrus as Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana, who then dropped the Disney show and the fictional double life to Become An Adult. Slowly but surely, she progressed through the "Party in the USA" / "Can't Be Tamed" era, in which conservative parents began to vocally protest her newfound sexual liberation, and dove headfirst into "We Can't Stop," a party rock anthem replete with outright sexual imagery and drug use. I would've been 100% in favor of this progression--live your truth, Miley--if not for the disconcerting fetishization and commoditization of black bodies in her video, as well as the starkness of the cultural appropriation in her 2013 VMA performance and subsequent public appearances. In addition to flouting her affinity for weed--a drug that disproportionately lands black users behind bars while white users walk away with less than a slap on the wrist--Miley co-opted black dance, hair, and fashion in a way that seemed less like homage and more like theft. Like so many white artists, she put on black culture like a costume, a gag, a point of shock value, without acknowledging the very real struggles that black individuals face for doing and wearing the same things.
And now, with "Malibu," she's casting it all aside.
Defenders of Miley's image, the one that emerged circa 2012-2013, claimed that she was just finding herself, that it wasn't a race thing, that in the creative marketplace we are all entitled to craft aesthetics from existing institutions. That's a great idea, but it's a common, naive (and white) fallacy. She wasn't "finding herself"--she was profiting off cultural paradigms that subjugate the black people who create them but are seen as innovative when projected onto white bodies. And to say that something "isn't a race thing" ignores the larger cultural context that when black and brown people so ANYTHING, it is seen as racial. As political. It is a distinctly white luxury to say that something isn't about race. When I so much as straighten my hair, it is seen as a political statement, an indictment of my view of myself and my heritage. If I don't get to escape the politicization of personal aesthetics, then neither does Miley. Furthermore, the difference between black and brown artists "borrowing" from white culture--whatever that's deemed to be, as most cultural anthropologists find that term to be nebulous at best--and the inverse is that the oppression of black and brown communities inhibits them from profiting off that exchange in the same way that white communities do. No cultural exchanges take place in a vacuum. You must consider the power dynamics at play. Miley is a wealthy white woman. While being a white woman in America is still to be part of a disdvantaged community, the disadvantages are distinctly different from those of black and brown men, woman, and trans and gender non-confirming individuals. Miley will never fully understand those experiences, no matter how many times she twerks on TV.
So what's the issue at hand, really? Namely, that with the release of "Malibu," Miley has confirmed what black and brown women have been saying for years--that her "radical" posturing as a fraudulent member of the PoC communities was nothing more than elaborate costuming. She gets to shed her corn rows and put on a white dress and dance on a beach and sing about Malibu. Meanwhile, no matter how many delicate dresses or white sand beaches I frolic on, I never get to stop being black. I never get to stop hearing the condescending comments about how I "talk white" or the questions about whether or not my hair is real. I never get to stop being afraid of police, both for myself and for my brothers and father. I never get to stop worrying about how not only my gender will affect my future salaries, but my race, too (black and brown women make even less to a white man's dollar than a white woman or black man does).
With a single music video, Miley is back to being a delicate flower. Sure, white womanhood is a cage of objectification, but at least as a white woman, you're on object that society wants to protect.
Black and brown women don't have that luxury.
I don't hate Miley Cyrus. She's not a bad person. She's just white. And to be white in this country without checking your privilege is a dangerous thing.