Dear Taylor Swift: If Your Feminism Ain't Intersectional, It Ain't Sh*t

by Inda Lauryn

When Nicki Minaj went on Twitter to express her dissatisfaction with the VH1 Music Awards' snub of her video for "Anaconda" for a Video of the Year nod, she spoke of a criticism many Black artists have had with mainstream recognition of their work. Her criticism more specifically addressed Black women's struggle to be accepted on their artistic merit and their contributions to pop culture. The criticism, aimed directly at MTV, explained that if she were a different kind of artist, "Anaconda" would have been nominated for VOTY as well as best choreography and stated that videos that celebrate women with very thin bodies get VOTY nominations.

But like a hit dog, Taylor Swift was the one who hollered. Apparently, Swift took umbrage at Minaj's criticism as a shot against her personally. Swift tweeted to Minaj that she had done nothing but love and support her then suggested that Minaj was pitting women against each other. Like the rest of us, the declaration confused Minaj and showed that Swift really wasn't paying attention, making the issue about her and derailing the larger discussion. While Swift later issued a sincere apology for her misunderstanding, the gesture does not change the damage she did in derailing a conversation centered on Black women’s experiences in the music industry and assuming it was about her.

Swift's response gets to the very heart of a problem with mainstream (read: white) feminism. Her response ignores a reality that Black women in the music industry—and other areas of life—must face every day: our work is devalued and our contributions are often ignored. Minaj's statement spoke to a history that has sidelined and hidden Black women's contributions as creators and innovators. Her words were deeper than simple disappointment at not receiving these particular nods. She spoke of structural racism that accepts women like her as objects to be consumed but does not consider them serious artists with any value to their crafts.

Interestingly, Swift's response also speaks to the position white women occupy in the racial heirarchy that marginalizes them by gender but still affords them the privileges of whiteness. White women are used to being centered in gender struggles and many do not see the ways race intersects with gender. They do not understand that women experience gender differently: Black women experience gender in a racialized way but also experience race in a sexualized way. Swift herself has used Black women's bodies as props, particularly in her video for "Shake It Off."

Swift's use of Black women's bodies broaches the larger issue of white feminism that only accepts Black feminism when it is in their service. White feminists do not want to hear of the privilege and power that whiteness affords them. They do not want to hear that white women have not always been innocent bystanders in structural and institutionalized oppression and benefit from it even when not intentionally complicit in it.

It is because of this many Black women hesitate to identify with feminism or are hesitant to build coalitions with white feminists when they do. Instead of acknowledging that white feminism was built upon feminist movements and theories from women of color, white feminists believe they "invite" women of color to "their" movement and do not have to address the ways different women experience gender.

This is the error in Swift's position. Instead of seeing the way that racism intersected with sexism in Minaj's critique, Swift wrongly centered the critique on herself and ironically exposed everything wrong with white mainstream feminism: it is too often complicit in the erasure of intersectional analysis and critique. While Swift is lauded as a feminist, her feminism is not intersectional and therefore bullshit, as Flavia Dzoden would say. Apparently, she takes "the personal is political" to mean that her personal feelings have great political importance for all women and feminists.

Swift's gaffe should serve as a teachable moment to white feminists. It is past time white feminists looked at the shortcomings of mainstream feminism and worked to make it more inclusive and intersectional in a way that does not make "intersectionality" an empty buzzword with no substance. One of the first steps is to listen. When Black women speak, simply listen. We know ourselves and our experiences better than white feminists think they know us. Had Swift actually been listening, she would have known that Minaj was not even addressing white women specifically in that moment but rather a system that makes women commodities with no acknowledgement of their craft.

White feminists should also remember that not every critique of feminism is a personal attack. In fact, critique is not an attack at all. This accusation goes into a stereotypical belief in Black women as inherently angry for no reason. This is a harmful stereotype not only because it is not true but also because it serves to deny Black women a full range of emotions that includes anger. When a Black woman is angry, she is angry for a specific reason.

Furthermore, Black women are complex in mind, body, and experience. Interestingly, Swift's quick response seemed to assume that Minaj had no awareness of what feminism means. Not only is this arrogant, but it is also indicative of Swift's privilege. We have had to learn history from a colonized lens while living in a completely different reality. We can see the shortcomings of white feminism because we do not benefit from it. This makes Minaj much better equipped to speak to an institution that values her even less than it values Swift.

White feminists must also respect that Black women are autonomous human beings capable of running our own lives for our own purposes. There is more than one way to be feminist and Swift's response to Minaj was counterproductive to every one of them. While she accused Minaj of pitting women against each other, she inexplicably pit herself against a woman over whom she has more structural power and made herself a victim when Minaj clapped back. Her action derailed a very important point Minaj wanted to make about the misogynoir in the music industry and disrespected Minaj's feminist standpoint.

White feminists should also understand that not every action a Black woman makes has to be "feminist." We do not owe white feminists anything. In fact, Black women do not even have to identify as feminist. Minaj was definitely not making a statement in the service of a mainstream feminism that she recognizes as part of the problem. Swift herself made white mainstream feminism part of the problem when she spoke up unnecessarily.

As long as white feminists think they speak for all women with no regard to substantial intersectionality, it will be impossible for them to help break down the structural barriers that affect women who do not share their racial privilege. As long as we allow Swift to use the benefits of her whiteness to feign an "attack" to an issue that did not even address her, Black women will continue to harbor a distrust of white mainstream feminism. This is why white feminists need to come collect their folks when they step out of their lane. Our lives are not yours.

Photo: Film Magic / Getty Images / ABC News

Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine, Interfictions, The Toast, XOJane, and Callaloo, as well as had her work featured on blogs such as Black Girl Nerds, Bitch Flicks, and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects, occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press, cohosts a podcast and shares music playlists at MixCloud.

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