Will Dancer Daughters End Up Like Miley?

No need to panic and pull the kids out of hip-hop. But do talk with them about cultural appropriation.

Miley Cyrus performs at MTV's 2013 Video Music Awards. (Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images)
Miley Cyrus performs at MTV's 2013 Video Music Awards. (Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images)

Motivations:

By expressing her desire for a black sound, then turning up with this mess, she is playing into the stereotype that this is all black people are. To her, and anyone else whose frame of reference does not extend beyond her, this is what it means to be black …

Notice for instance, that Miley did not say “I want a black sound” and then head for the Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, or remake herself in the image of Janelle Monae and dabble in Afrofuturism. Nope. Instead she headed straight for the “urban” music, because that is, apparently, the entirety of black culture, and it represents all black people everywhere, regardless of individual experience.

There are definitely some distinctions between the performance that inspired this criticism and what it seems your kids will be doing. Just to name a few: They’ll be embracing and mastering a dance form versus imitating it; they’ll be performing with a diverse group versus using black women as props; and their interest in hip-hop is sincere rather than profit-driven, or part of some dramatic image makeover.

That said, there is far from any agreement on who owns what when it comes to culture, when embracing turns to borrowing, when borrowing turns into appropriation and when that becomes flat-out racism. (See this piece in which the author Noah Berlatsky — who I’m pretty sure is a white man — argues that Janis Joplin doesn’t get a pass for talent, and that her embrace of traditionally black musical styles still makes her racist.)

So I wish I could give you a list of boxes to check to ensure that what your daughters do with dance will always go over well. But unfortunately I can’t offer that checklist with any more confidence than I could give black people an easy list of things to do to shrug off systemic racism and improve their lives (and no, I still don’t think that Don Lemon’s five-point plan is a great resource on that topic).

But instead of aiming to shelter your children altogether from something that could theoretically subject them to criticism, how about fortifying them with some insight about what they’re getting into? Could they handle a kid-sized version of the critiques excerpted above? Could you make sure they understand the history of hip-hop beyond the technique? You’ve clearly started to think about this, so why not learn it yourself and encourage them to mull over where they fit into the story of the art form they’ve embraced?

After all, it was widely accepted that parents would have to stop everything and talk to their young daughters after seeing something like Cyrus’ performance. It’s a given that children need guidance when it comes to thinking about values around sexuality and the image they want to project. Why not dedicate the same attention to race and the role you hope they’ll play in a diverse society?

By adding this analysis instead of snatching away the classes, you may allow your daughters to develop a greater appreciation for the dancing they love. Even more important, you’ll have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you’ve raised two people who have more to say when it comes to these ever-evolving and really complicated issues than “I didn’t even think about it.”

The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners: “My Black Friend Can’t Swim: Funny?

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