Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, ‘Mammy’ and the Best Times to Shut Up About Race

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Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus shown during happier times at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, held at the Staples Center Feb. 8, 2015, in Los Angeles
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus shown during happier times at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, held at the Staples Center Feb. 8, 2015, in Los Angeles
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Miley Cyrus is a marvelous example of moments when white people need to know that it’s perfectly acceptable to shut up and listen when it comes to the subject of race. Or, you know, not comment at all, especially if they’re not even marginally informed about a matter with a potentially racial subtext.

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In an interview with the New York Times last week, the former child star and current attention seeker decided to lend her own commentary to Nicki Minaj’s criticism of the MTV Video Music Awards for snubbing her massively popular visual for “Anaconda” this year in the Video of the Year category. When asked about it, Cyrus began with, “I saw that. I didn’t really get into it. I know there was some beef. I don’t really know.” When asked if she knew what Minaj had said, Cyrus said, “She was saying that everyone was white and blonde that got nominated, I heard? And then Taylor Swift butted in.”

When it was explained that Minaj was alluding to a double standard—Minaj having bested the sales and impact of Cyrus’ own “Wrecking Ball” video, which won in 2014—Cyrus again said, “I didn’t follow it.” If you’re keeping score, Cyrus doesn’t really know, she didn’t really get into it and she didn’t really follow it. And yet she spoke anyway.

“Not that this is jealousy, but jealousy does the opposite of what you want it to—that’s a yoga mantra,” Cyrus explained. “People forget that the choices that they make and how they treat people in life affect you in a really big way.” Repurposing the jargon she picked up from her yoga instructor, Cyrus went on to advise, “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. But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it.”

You know, there are your feelings and then there are statistics. Statistics care not about your damn anecdotes. Just because you feel a given way about a situation doesn’t mean it’s rooted in reality. Namaste that, simpletons.

If these empty, poorly rationalized thoughts were not frustrating enough, Cyrus went on to criticize Minaj for the tone of her rightful complaints. Cyrus essentially scolded Minaj, noting, “You made it about you. Not to sound like a bitch, but that’s like, ‘Eh, I didn’t get my V.M.A.’”

Then came her “advice”: “If you want to make it about race, there’s a way you could do that. But don’t make it just about yourself. Say: ‘This is the reason why I think it’s important to be nominated. There’s girls everywhere with this body type.’”

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The interviewer noted, “I think she did say that,” but Cyrus did not waver, claiming: “What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj, is not too kind. It’s not very polite. I think there’s a way you speak to people with openness and love. You don’t have to start this pop star against pop star war.”

Cyrus’ simplemindedness irks the ever-loving hell out of me. Irked the hell out of Minaj, too. Last night, Minaj used part of the time allotted for her Best Hip-Hop Video win to address Cyrus’ criticism. Startled but still stuck on stupid, Cyrus blamed the media and life went on. Cyrus’ life affords her the luxury of being able to navigate subcultures as easily as she does the dominant one—and to be celebrated. Minaj isn’t as lucky, yet she gets lectured by a spoiled white girl, who casually drops “mammy” in her skit with Snoop Dogg, on how to talk about race “the right way.”

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For starters, the assertion that “Nicki Minaj made it about her” is stupid. Why, yes, Captain Obvious, it was about Nicki Minaj, because it was about her. She then pointed out how certain women—hello, black girls, curvy girls of color and so on—are marginalized. As for “pop star against pop star,” that was Taylor Swift making the issue about Taylor Swift. Swift ultimately apologized for her error.

Now, if you want to talk about pop stars being pitted against other pop stars, take a gander at Cyrus’ cover story in Marie Claire in which she publicly criticized fellow pop star Swift.

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By the way: Cyrus’ conversations about race have been limited primarily to her defending her use of exploiting black female bodies onstage and in her videos. So Minaj doesn’t need advice from Cyrus of all people on how to talk about race.

Dense white people—particularly those who give us reasons to be upset—don’t need to tell black people how to talk about race. Speaking of anger, this idea that one must speak only from “openness and love” is sophomoric in thought and suppressive in its intentions. No one owes someone who does him or her wrong that much courtesy; that person is just fortunate if he or she gets it.

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The most laughable part of this Q&A was Cyrus’ declaration, “I know you can make it seem like, ‘Oh, I just don’t understand because I’m a white pop star.’ I know the statistics. I know what’s going on in the world. But to be honest, I don’t think MTV did that on purpose.” If you know the statistics, then you know that even unintentional references can serve as forms of casual prejudice. The fact that the prejudice is unconscious does not make it any less troubling.

The other humorously ironic note is that without even realizing, Cyrus proved so much of Minaj’s points. Cyrus says she became “the face of twerking,” although twerking has been around for more than 20 years and she’s not even good at it. Minaj can break her record but not get the same award-show recognition. All of this, as Cyrus is given a huge platform to discredit Minaj’s comments on a subject that Cyrus knows nothing about.

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Yes, you are a white pop star, Miley Cyrus, and only your kind can get away with all of this.

Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.

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