Miley Cyrus Wasn’t ‘Whitesplaining’ to Nicki Minaj

Miley Cyrus found herself the target of Nicki Minaj’s ire at the VMAs, but was the vitriol truly deserved?

Danny Moloshok/Reuters

Moments after publicly patching up a feud with Taylor Swift at last night’s VMA’s, Nicki Minaj started a new one as she closed her acceptance speech for Best Hip-Hop Video with a dig at Miley Cyrus, “this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”

Cyrus, who was hosting the show, looked flustered but didn’t engage Minaj’s harangue: She briefly suggested her words were manipulated and congratulated Minaj, who could be seen mouthing, “Don’t play with me, bitch.”

Several days before the show, Cyrus was critical of Minaj in an interview with The New York Times when asked about the “controversy” surrounding Minaj’s Twitter rant—and subsequent feud with Swift—after “Anaconda” was snubbed for a Video of the Year nomination. (Minaj implied that she was snubbed because she was a black female artist, which seems improbable when one considers the nominations accrued by Beyoncé, Rihanna, and many other black female artists.)

However, some critics argue that the VMAs do have a race problem: As Fader detailed in a set of damning statistics and facts, only 8 out of 31 Video of the Year winners have been black; the award for Best Pop Video has never been won by a black artist.

Cyrus said she didn’t respect Minaj’s statement because of the “anger that came with it. And it’s not anger like ‘Guys, I’m frustrated about some things that are a bigger issue.’… If you want to make it about race, there’s a way to do that. But don’t make it just about yourself…You don’t have to start this pop star against pop star war.”

Critics decried Cyrus for “whitesplaining” racism in the music industry to Minaj.

“Maybe Nicki Minaj had a point, Miley,” Stereo Williams wrote in The Daily Beast. “Maybe if you were honest about your own appropriation and privilege, as opposed to denouncing her ‘tone,’ you would’ve got it.”

That’s the rub in this latest feud: Ever since Cyrus’s twerking performance at the 2013 VMAs, the pop star has repeatedly been attacked for appropriating hip-hop and black culture. (So too has Taylor Swift for her “Shake It Off” music video; Iggy Azalea for being a white rapper who mimics the “identifiably black spitting style of the American South.”). That appropriating ideas from hip-hop culture has brought Cyrus huge success makes her comments about Minaj all the more tone deaf, critics argue.

In recent years, criticism of cultural appropriation has become rampant in the media and on social media, where artists or cultural critics call out other artists, and others quickly jump on the pile-on.

Even last night, Taylor Swift herself earned a wave of critical heat around her video for her latest music video, “Wildest Dreams.”

The Huffington Post was horrified by images of Swift in a safari-like setting in Africa. The video “channels white colonialism,” the writer claimed, adding that “Wildest Dreams” far surpassed offensive cultural appropriation to the extent of “actually just embodying the political exploitation of a region and its people.”

Really? All that from a music video featuring a pop star surrounded by lions and other wild animals?

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When Katy Perry adopted tropes from Asian cultures during a 2013 performance, she was attacked for perpetuating stereotypes.

Earlier that year, pop singer and actress Selena Gomez was rebuked for wearing a bindi on her forehead during a Bollywood-inspired performance at MTV’s Movie Awards.

Jezebel argued that “American pop being inspired by Bollywood is totally okay,” but drew the line at “appropriating religious symbols for the sake of performance.

Indeed, artists who incorporate ideas from another culture are invariably accused of either perpetuating stereotypes or exploiting that culture for their own personal gain.

But lately these accusations seem increasingly unfounded and silly. Artists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds borrow, mimic, and reinvent ideas from other cultures every day.

They are not adopting degrading cultural caricatures or donning blackface in their work and performances, though critics of cultural appropriation would have you think otherwise.

They argue that cultural appropriation is offensive and morally wrong, even when the act of appropriating is a celebratory one.

As Cathy Young wrote recently in The Washington Post, this “fine parsing of what crosses the line from appreciation into appropriation suggests a religion with elaborate purity tests…Appropriation is not a crime. It’s a way to breathe new life into culture.”

Jezebel drew the line at “appropriating religious symbols for the sake of performance,” but would they draw the same line if a Bollywood star wore a large cross around her neck in a performance inspired by Madonna in the ’80s?

Would Catholics be supported by the mainstream media if they cried appropriation?

Nicki Minaj herself drew ire on social media when she wore a headdress in a photograph announcing her tour.

How could Minaj, who has been known to denounce white musicians for appropriating black culture, be such a hypocrite?

Well, she simply couldn’t be, at least according to Stylelite, which concluded that it “probably isn’t cultural appropriation” because the singer was born in Trinidad and Tobago and “it’s a likely possibility she’s wearing a Caribbean carnival headdress.”

Minaj has never lost a cultural appropriation debate, so cultural appropriation critics were delighted to see Cyrus called out at the VMAs and be “dragggggged by her fake white girl dreads [by Nicki Minaj].”

Cyrus was condemned as “completely lacking in self-awareness” following her interview with The Times, but criticizing someone who is a different race is not “whitesplaining.”

Cyrus’s analysis of Minaj’s tweets may have been a reductive, but the bottom line was that she didn’t think Minaj’s race was the reason she was snubbed for Video of the Year.

And given that Minaj ended up taking home another award (for Best Hip-Hop Video) as a black female artist, Cyrus’s argument seems entirely reasonable.