By Erin Moyer || Senior Editor
Celebrities: they’re just like us. In that they don’t really seem to know how to handle this whole “race” thing. This Summer, we of this decidedly less-than-post-racial American hellscape we call home were blessed with two terrific “teachable moments” (liberal arts, am I right, guys?) in how to, or rather, how not to, be a good ally. And those two teachable moments were brought to us by three unlikely sources: Mistresses of Music Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus.
You may know (or you may live under a rock) that this Summer, three very different female musicians– Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus– had, in rotating combinations, what many entertainment news outlets described as “feuds:” Twitter back-and-forths, shade allegedly thrown in interviews, a surprise awards show performance, and finally, one spectacular, completely real call-out during the very same awards show. It’s been legitimately exciting to watch, enough for any E! News anchor who already “could not even” to get “all of the feels,” as those forty-year-old reporters so naturally say.
I, too, followed these exchanges breathlessly. I brought up Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj’s exchange in seminar discussions. I forced the more polite of my friends to listen to me read Tweets out loud. I invested myself in the MTV Video Music Awards, for God’s sake. And I really wasn’t in that deep out of love for celeb culture, my fixation on Kanye West notwithstanding. I devoted so much energy to following these exchanges because each moment– Minaj’s and Swift’s Twitter interplay, Cyrus’ subsequent comments on their Twitter exchange– encapsulate so much about the way we do, and do not, talk about gender and race in America.
Time to break this down. This all began on July 21, the day MTV announced this year’s Video Music Awards nominations. I know I need hardly remind you of that date, because how could anyone ever forget such an important day for we as Americans? Anyway, Nicki Minaj’s music video for her single “Anaconda,” a booty-centric masterpiece that broke the Internet months before Kim Kardashian ever did, did not receive a nomination for Video of the Year. Taylor Swift’s glam-squad starring “Bad Blood” video, however, did. Minaj seems to feel herself snubbed, and Tweeted several Tweets (is that really a proper sentence? Is it really?) implying that the music industry, and this award show in particular, is slanted to favor and “[celebrate] women with very slim bodies.” Taylor Swift sees this Tweet, and, it would seem, feels herself called out. She in turn Tweets Minaj to say that she, Swift, has “done nothing but love & support [Minaj]”. In her mind, Minaj was singling her out, and even blaming her, Swift, for taking her nomination. Minaj soon replied that, no, she actually was not addressing you, Ms. Swift, but instead, an imbalance in the music industry and really, all of America.
The world holds its breath for 48 hours of turgid Tweets and think-pieces. Soon, Swift Tweets that she misunderstood, and the two titans of the industry make up. Mankind can sleep soundly once more.
Flash-forward several months. Miley Cyrus is in the midst of a publicity blitz leading up to her hosting of the Video Music Awards. She is giving an interview with The New York Times, and the writer, Joe Coscarelli, asks her what she “makes” of the “Nicki Minaj controversy” surrounding her Video of the Year nomination snub. Cyrus responds that, though she did not “follow” it, she did not “respect” Minaj’s remarks because of its accompanying “anger: “If you do things with an open heart and you come at things with love, you would be heard and I would respect your statement,” Cyrus said. “But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it.” In Cyrus’ estimation, Minaj’s reaction made the VMA’s lack of Video of the Year nomination “about [her],” as opposed to the larger issue of racism in the music industry, and was not “very polite.” If Nicki had conducted herself with a more kind, “open heart,” as per Cyrus’ view, perhaps the discussion would have stayed on the larger issue, where it belonged. (Hopefully it goes without saying that to imply someone of minority status needs to restrain their anger for more progress brings up troubling echoes of protestors needing to level with their oppressors in the Civil Rights movement. It doesn’t? No?)
And it was those remarks that moved Minaj to an absolutely magnificent outburst at the VMAs, which, if you have not yet made time to see it, is truly a mistake on your part. After “Anaconda” won one VMA, Minaj gave shout-outs to her fans, encouraged them to stay in school, as she is wont to do, and then yelled: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
Now, the learning part of these learning moments. What did Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus overlook, or forget about, in how they responded to Nicki Minaj’s anger at being denied the VMA nomination? Here’s the truth: they didn’t listen. They fell down on the job of being critically-thinking, self-examining allies. They forgot to put themselves in Nicki Minaj’s shoes.
When someone with a different perspective, a different experience, an entirely different world than yours speaks up, you should listen to them. You should try to learn from them, and understand where they might be coming from. And let’s try to learn from these two interactions. Let’s learn from these exchanges how we can be more supportive, all-around more helpful people.
Just as an aside: an ally is someone who tries to help a group who is discriminated against, but is not themselves a member of that group. So an ally would be, for instance, a straight man who supports LGBTQ+-geared causes. Or an ally might be, perhaps, a Christian who stands up for the rights of all other religions to worship freely. You may see something key in both of these examples: an ally may not necessarily have more privilege than the group they’re working to help, but they normally do. So this article, written by a white, middle class girl with most of a liberal arts college degree and a fair amount of privilege, is really mostly addressed at well-intentioned people like me, like Swift and Cyrus, who are not hateful so much as they are human, and could use some pointers in how to be more helpful.
If a person like Nicki Minaj, a empowered Black woman with pronounced curves and an articulated sex drive, is speaking about a system that prefers people who look like you and not her, please don’t let that remark hit you personally. It’s easy to feel called out, as Swift did, and leap to defend yourself. You may want to inform the speaker, as, again, Swift did, of how perfectly nice you’ve been to them. You have done nothing but love and support them, after all. And perhaps you have been very nice to the person speaking, and you are hurt they seem to be insinuating you are less than loving or supportive. But that really isn’t the point, because they really are not talking about what you, as a person, have or have not done. Rather, they are trying to speak to a system that, like it or not, we are all a part of and may actually favor you. You never did anything to ask for your position in the system, I know, but you have it all the same. So don’t feel guilty, and don’t feel attacked, either. Just take a moment to understand what the speaker is really telling you.
And if a person like Nicki Minaj, a Black American who has spent her whole life being subtly and overtly shut down, is speaking angrily about a subject, listen to them. Let them speak their mind. Let them be angry. They probably have plenty of reasons to be angry, and you might not know what all of those reasons are. And you might never learn what all of those reasons are, moreover, if you tell them they’re coming from a place of “anger” and should try to moderate themselves more in the future. It might be easy to feel that said speaker is speaking rashly, and their anger may make you uncomfortable because it can be difficult to confront that you’re a part of, and often beneficiary of, a system that oppresses very many people. That said, though, we need to value candid conversation. Because people who are speaking honestly are people who are ready to engage with the world and have a meaningful discussion. If we focus on telling others, especially those whose voices have been historically silenced, to “tone it down” in as many words, we miss a chance to actually have a productive dialogue.
So when someone different than you speaks up, listen. Be open-minded and patient. Try to understand their perspective. Even this, the act of trying to understand, is valuable. You might never be able to truly grasp another person’s entire lifetime of experience, of course, but you’re at least trying to listen, and that’s a really big start. Because in just making an effort to even sort of understand, we start to learn to listen. And in listening, we learn something new. We learn to examine ourselves differently. We learn to examine the world differently. We look at our neighbors, and can suddenly understand how their perspective is so different than our own. We build empathy. We begin to talk. How can we expect to have discussions, to have legitimate progress, when those who engage candidly with the world are met only with rebuffs and dismissals?
So tweet on, Nicki Minaj. We should all try to listen to a voice like yours: fresh, bold, unapologetic, and unwavering. America needs more of you right now. Keep challenging us to examine ourselves, and keep asking Miley what’s good.
Erin Moyer is the senior editor. Her email is email@example.com.