(The Root) —
"My girls, ages 8 and 10, have been in dance class since they were little. They do a variety of classes but both recently joined a diverse dance troupe that performs hip-hop around the county at various events. They love it, and honestly I don't think they associate it with any particular race or culture.
"The recent discussion around Miley Cyrus' performance gave me pause, though. I'm wondering whether, by letting them choose this particular extracurricular, I'm setting them up to offend African Americans or to be looked at as appropriating black culture. They're not 'twerking' (I don't think), but I'm sure the criticism wouldn't be limited to this one move. I really don't know anything about dance but do aim to raise my girls to be conscious and respectful of and embrace other cultures. I thought having them in hip-hop might be a part of that, but now I'm questioning a lot." —Troubled by Preteen Twerking
Sadly, I can't offer any guarantees about how to ensure that your daughters' performances will always be well-received across the board and across cultures. But I will say this: The very fact that you're even a little bit concerned on their behalf means you're a lot more responsible than Miley Cyrus, whose vapid response to the volumes of criticism of her MTV Video Music Awards performance and its implications was this: "You're thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it. Like, I didn't even think about it 'cause that's just me."
Well, not thinking about what might be motivating your choices and how they affect others in the world is one choice. Good for you for making a different one.
Still, I'm not at all sure that you should be as concerned about hip-hop as an extracurricular activity as Cyrus (and her choreographers, or whoever's in charge of her) were as they were coming up with the infamous performance. You seem to be thinking of it like this: "A young white woman did this dance move and people started talking about racism, so the same thing could happen to my daughters if they perform at the county fair."
I think it's more complicated.
Everything Cyrus did onstage that night, against the backdrop of her earlier declaration that she wanted a "black sound," has, in many of the public discussions about it, been subjected to some extreme shorthand. People are just calling everything that happened on the stage "twerking," I suppose, in part because it's a fun, new (to a lot of people) word that provides great fodder for "scientific" articles and explanation. (Plus, there's the theory that people just like saying it.)
But one word doesn't capture it when we take a closer look at the nature of the reaction in a race-related vein — and it really wasn't even about that particular dance. (And the other debates about sexuality, feminism, blame, age-appropriateness and whether commentators and HBCUs alike should be scoffing at the dance as if it were the worst thing ever are way outside the scope of my response.)
You should read this whole piece, but here are a few excerpts from Jezebel's "Solidarity Is for Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of Her VMA Performance."
Okay … but can we talk about the problematic and racist nature of her performance? Her literal use of people as props? Her association of her newfound sexuality with the traditional codifiers of black female culture, thereby perpetuating the jezebel stereotype that black women are lewd, lascivious, and uncontrollably sexualized?
[H]istorically, black women have had very little agency over their bodies. From being raped by white slave masters to the ever-enduring stereotype that black women can't be raped, black women have been told over and over and over again, that their bodies are not their own. By bringing these "homegirls with the big butts" out onto the stage with her and engaging in a one-sided interaction with her ass, (not even her actual person!) Miley has contributed to that rhetoric.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "My Black Friend Can't Swim: Funny?"