Taylor Swift & Kanye West: White Women, Tears, and Coded Images

BlogHer Original Post

Okay, so I think we all know about Taylor Swift being interrupted last year at the VMA's right? Right. Kanye West caught all kinds of hell for it, and even for his subsequent apologies. So, then why am I linking to the video from this year's show? You can't convince me that you don't want to talk about the past when you do a performance all about it. Barefoot, standing like a broken doll, and all but crying your way through the whole thing. Ooh, a whole stage show geared to present this image of delicate white femininity while you sing about your innocence being violated. By a scary black man.

Gee, that's not a coded message we've seen before at all. Oh wait, let's talk about the idea of white people feeling violated by black people "not knowing their place" and what that's meant historically to American society. Better yet, let's really dig down into why we're singing about violated innocence like being interrupted on stage is at all equivalent to being physically assaulted. Oh, but then we might have to get into who interrupted her and whether this would be such a big deal if the racial makeup was different.

I'm certain someone will swear she didn't mean to stir up the kind of images that she did. Especially in this "post racial" society. Which, if we were remotely post-racial might hold some water. Not a lot. But some. As we're not actually post anything? Intent (or lack thereof) only carries so much weight before it doesn't matter why you're encouraging the same virulent hate that spewed last year in the immediate aftermath of Kanye's bad manners. Yes, I said bad manners. Because being rude is what he's guilty of and not much else. He's a jackass with issues that he let spill all over her big moment. That sucks. But, that's not a reason to still be playing the victim a year later and using dog whistle racism as a subtext in your performance.

Taylor Swift's paean to being Kanye's "victim" makes me want to roll my eyes at her routine as well as some of the reactions to it. Because if this is what happens when someone is rude to a white woman in public, we really haven't come past race at all. Not even a little bit.

In fact, while we're on the subject of coded language and images, let's talk about the phrase "White Women's Tears" and why it seems to be both problematic and accurate in this situation. There's a case that could be made for inherent misogyny in the way the phrase is used. After all Taylor's feelings were undoubtedly hurt, and she's got a right to express that pain right? Right. So, as a musician she expresses those emotions in the way that best suits her and we shouldn't read more into it than her telling her side of the story.

Except she's not expressing those emotions in a vacuum, and she's well aware of the racial subtext after a year of her fans using racial epithets about Kanye at every turn. She's had a year to debut this song (especially since according to her camp she wrote it in her diary last year) but she held onto it for a publicity stunt on Sunday night. There's some complicated historical and social subtext tangled up in the use of tears this way, and in the reaction to those tears. It's a subtext that makes the phrase "White Woman's Tears" a convenient shorthand for a situation that boils down to a white woman wielding her tears as a weapon against a POC. We're back to intent and the question of whether those tears (genuine or otherwise) and their ability to derail and/or escalate a situation can be separated out from the emotions that may be prompting them.

Personally, I look at the reaction to Kanye's interruption of Taylor Swift, and I think that we have a long way to go before the major concern is the terminology and not the act. But then, I'm not a white woman and my tears don't have any power, so I'm obviously biased by my experiences with the phenomenon. This time the goal of the tears is likely to generate some more sympathy, but we can't ignore the death threats against him that were generated a year ago, or the ones that might have been generated by revisiting the issue.

Edited to Add: So, a further dissection of the lyrics was called for by a few commenters on another blog. And I went digging. Okay, let's assume she's not singing about her violated innocence and the whole song is about Kanye. That's...not an improvement. We've still got her stage show based around White Damsel (love that one by the way), poorly written lyrics (I recognize that this one was a given) that left me and whole lot of other people thinking she was singing about herself with a verse aimed at Kanye, and for an added bonus she's infantilizing a grown man. So we're right back to coded images, complete with a White Man's Burden'esque routine about about childlike black people. Again, in a country with a long history of using such images to justify terrible things. Since I know someone will claim (and probably already has) that any complaining is just proof that Taylor Swift cannot win with "those people," let me point out that mashing up one racist coded image with another isn't exactly new or any less offensive. The truth is she cannot win as long as she's using racism as currency. Once people stop doing that? Everyone wins. 


Karnythia blogs about all the random things that come into her head and hopes that other people get where she's pointing.


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