Taylor Swift’s Racial Blind Spot
R&B singer The Weeknd recently opened up about how Swift petted him—like a pet—when they met. But Swift’s odd racial behavior goes back further than that.
According to the “Can’t Feel My Face” singer, Swift opened with a compliment, calling one of his early hits “The Morning” one of her “favorite songs ever!” But Swift’s incredibly sweet and sincere ability to make a Google search was quickly undermined by that fact that she then proceeded to stroke The Weeknd’s hair. Naturally, the R&B artist wasn’t exactly on board with being mistaken for Olivia Benson (the Taylor Swift cat, not the fictional sex crimes detective): “I think she was just drawn to it—she must have been a little gone off a few drinks. And of course I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, can you stop?’ I mean, it felt good!...But when she started petting my hair, that’s when I was like, ‘I definitely need a drink.’”
As hilarious as it is to imagine the perpetually polished, belly button-less Swift as a drunk mess with a childlike sense of wonder/unshakable desire to introduce herself to The Weeknd—we’ve all been there—this incident definitely triggers the Taylor Swift microaggression alarm bell. Swift herself corroborated the story in an earlier radio interview, explaining, “I woke up to an email from the Weeknd, and he was like you told me how beautiful I was for like 15 minutes straight and started to pet my hair,” to which BBC host Nick Grimshaw responded, “This sounds like quite the evening. You petted The Weeknd. Like an animal.”
Let’s take a second to unpack what we talk about when we talk about petting The Weeknd “like an animal.” After all, non-consensually touching black people’s hair is basically a white national pastime, like owning a Toyota Prius or talking about indie music/Whole Foods/The Daily Show/David Sedaris. This textbook move is offensive on multiple levels. First of all, it reinforces notions of difference and exoticism; implying that someone’s hair is fascinating enough to be examined, asked after, or touched mirrors Western standards of beauty that render any non-white physique as strange, other, and less than. Secondly, it gets into all sorts of thorny issues of consent and personal space. Everyone should be in control of how their body is touched, interacted with, or perceived, and this rule of thumb takes on an added significance when race comes into play. It’s scary to think that Taylor Swift’s careless framing of this story as a hilarious anecdote could be read by her white fans as a free pass for their own obtuse tactile explorations.
When it comes to this distinctly strange story, it’s clear that Tay Tay didn’t think she was objectifying, fetishizing, or infringing on The Weeknd’s personal space/boundaries in any way. This is obvious on account of Swift’s history of flippant ignorance when it comes to anything remotely race-related. The most evocative example of Taylor’s blind spot was her VMAs feud with Nicki Minaj, in which the white singer singlehandedly embodied white feminist solipsism in 140 characters or less. Swift’s Twitter misstep, in which she ignored Minaj’s complaints about racism against black women in the music industry and instead called Nicki out for not supporting women, didn’t exactly fly with Minaj fans. Instead of validating a black female artist’s experience, Swift made it all about her.
Not content with her status as a fairly problematic white girl, Taylor took her whitewashing to the next level with her “Wildest Dreams” video, which featured Swift and an all-white cast reenacting a fantasy of a glam 1950’s-style romance film. In Africa. Because nothing says “racial erasure” like Taylor Swift, a ball gown, some giraffes, and absolutely no black people. When the post-premiere backlash started pouring in, music video director Joseph Kahn fired back on Twitter: “Asians can’t be racist. White or black, we don’t care, all dogs taste the same to us.” Help?!
Adding insult to injury (with a healthy side of straight-up ignorance), Taylor has made a recent push to re-center her public image around her group of girlfriends, who are almost exclusively—you guessed it! —white. As a side note, they’re also conventionally beautiful and thin; a majority of her inner circles consists of live and active supermodels. In a clear response to criticisms of Swift’s white crew, the scarily efficient songstress immediately made finding a black friend her new #squadgoal. During her 1989 tour, Swift improved upon her habit of showing off her beautiful white model friends by enlisting Serena Williams, Uzo Aduba, Mary J. Blige, Chris Rock, Fetty Wap, and other famous black people with whom Swift has very little in common to join her onstage. Attempts at “diversity,” racial and otherwise, can be uncomfortably transparent in a variety of situations—but few are as awkward as this Taylor Swift cover of “Trap Queen.” Sorry Taylor, but everyone still thinks your squad is pretty exclusively white. Uzo Aduba can fix most things, but this just isn’t one of them.
Per Chuck Klosterman's extremely insightful/vaguely terrifying GQ profile of Taylor Swift, the superstar absolutely hates being described as “calculating.” Still, she clearly values her ability to read the cultural climate, and her related gift for custom-tailoring her own sound and image. According to Swift, “You can be accidentally successful for three or four years. Accidents happen. But careers take hard work.” While Swift's professional trajectory has been nothing less than legendary, her blatant control-freak tendencies and self-marketing savvy are at odds with her racial blind spot. For someone who has exhibited such a talent for manipulating every aspect of her personal and professional life, what does it mean that Swift can’t seem to bring herself to take these criticisms seriously? Why can’t one single member of Taylor Swift’s PR team monitor her Twitter for blatant white privilege, or just teach the singer what a microaggression means? At least for The Weeknd’s sake.