Op-Ed: Miley Cyrus’s VMAs Performance Was Racist

The views expressed in this piece are that of the individual writer and not necessarily that of Her Campus.

It’s all over the Internet and everybody’s buzzing about it. Miley Cyrus’s jaw-dropping, cringe-worthy performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards on August 25th was lewd, inappropriate and downright vulgar. But the hypersexual performance by the 20-year-old former Disney Channel star was more than just raunchy—it was racist.

Most reactions and responses to Miley’s performance glaze over the racial implications and focus on its awkward and obscene nature. No one can deny that it was uncomfortable to watch Miley dry hump a foam finger and keep her tongue out of her mouth longer than it was in. But her explicit disregard and disrespect for black women and culture was unconscionable.

A majority of her dancing was twerking—twerking on the audience, twerking on Robin Thicke, twerking on black women in teddy bear costumes. My problem with Miley Cyrus twerking isn’t that she is white. No one owns twerking, and everyone is allowed to do it. What bothers me is that she wasn’t like this before. The twerking, “quasi-ghetto” attitude is something she adopted in order to gain popularity, fans and money. This reduces black culture to just a means to an end, rather than a way of life.

The elements of black culture that she chooses to portray, e.g., twerking and the grills she dons in the “We Can’t Stop” music video, are those of what’s commonly known as “ratchet culture.” This is just a small component of black culture, and it’s not always typical of black communities. Her performance thus reduces black culture to just one low part and calls it the whole.

The most disgusting and disturbing part of Miley’s performance was the way she treated her backup dancers. As it was, all of the dancers were black women, meant to match the “home girls… with the big butts” mentioned in the lyrics of “We Can’t Stop.” But the only interaction she engaged in with these women was slapping one dancer’s ass repeatedly while pretending to stick her face in it. This one-sided interaction wasn’t even with the actual person, just one part of her body. I found Miley’s public domination and subjugation of a black woman absolutely humiliating to witness.

Maybe Miley didn’t realize what kind of message she was sending out to women of color, but the message is still out there. She reduced black women into literal sexual props to be used and controlled for the entertainment and amusement of white people. Her performance implies that being sexual is directly correlated to being black; the two are inherently intertwined. Historically, black female sexuality has been a thing of manipulation and exploitation, dating back to when white masters would rape their black slaves. Miley’s performance felt like history repeating itself. The world witnessed a wealthy white woman objectifying a black woman. This is the image that is out there for young women of color. They will see that their own self-worth is contingent upon someone else, their sexualities are at someone else’s disposal and the only valuable thing about them is their bodies.

More than that, Miley’s behavior and attitude about black culture is more than an avid interest or desire to try out a new sound. The lyrics and music video to “We Can’t Stop” propose that Miley has agency and autonomy over herself and what she chooses to do or not do. That’s all fine and good; in fact, feminists probably think that this is great. But when she uses that agency to exploit the integrity and dignity of black women (let alone in front of millions of people), it’s not okay. Her performance suggests that the black culture and lifestyle are just a costume that she has the ability to put on and take off at will. Instead of being chastised for this, she is encouraged—no, praised—for exploiting a historically oppressed race.

What Miley Cyrus did at the VMAs is the definition of cultural appropriation. She very carefully picked and chose which parts of black culture she wanted to play with without having to deal with any of the racial and social implications that black women have to deal with. I understand that Miley may just be trying to make a statement, be bold and make history. But first, she really needs to review and respect the history of the women she’s been abusing.