I don’t consider pop artists to be role models, because, really, that’s not their job. Their job is to create music or act or…whatever it is Kim Kardashian does, and rarely do we care what they think about social justice issues.
So color me surprised when this summer I realized that Nicki Minaj’s social media skirmish was actually doing an awesome job of illustrating an issue most people don’t even really think about: intersectionality.
Before we get started to the juicy celebrity drama, let’s get some definitions out of the way. Quite simply, intersectionality is the study of how different forms of discrimination intersect. And a feminist is a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Easy, right?
The thing about that, though, is that that’s where most people stop: let’s make the sexes equal. But, you see, that ignores another problem – the fact that even within the same sex or gender, there isn’t necessarily equality. And while I can see the temptation to compartmentalize and decide that racism and sexism are two totally different animals that have to be dealt with separately, for those of us who end up being subject to both, it’s more than a little annoying to be told we have to wait.
Let’s take a look at how intersectionality plays in the following scenario. Imagine a man and a woman are partners at a law firm. Both tend to be tough and may be critical of the associates’ work, but the man is seen as being a leader while the woman may be seen as being a you-know-what. Okay — there’s our first layer of discrimination: sexism. Now let’s look at what happens when the partners at the firm are two women: one white and one black. When frustrated, the black woman falls victim to the “angry black woman” stereotype, the same one Shonda Rhimes, the queen of TV dramas, has been subjected to in this frankly racist characterization of the characters she writes for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, the stereotype that never considers that hey, maybe black women have something to be angry about. There’s our second level of discrimination: racism. Intersectionality is what happens to the black woman, being crushed under both levels.
I know, I know, you want to know how Nicki Minaj fits into this. We’ll look at it in three steps.
Step One: Nicki ends up in a bit of a tête-a-tête with Taylor Swift this past summer when Nicki’s music video for “Anaconda” is passed over for a VMA for Video of the Year. She puts out a series of Tweets that point out that artists of color impact pop culture just as much as white
artists, but don’t get recognized for it. Taylor takes offense to one specific Tweet (probably because her video for “Bad Blood” was nominated for Video of the Year), and goes on the defensive, accusing Nicki of pitting women artists of color against white women artists. Eventually, Taylor figures out that Nicki wasn’t calling her out (not specifically, anyway) and apologizes for making a big deal out of it.
Step Two: Enter Miley Cyrus, who takes this whole thing from a low simmering flame to an gas fire. In an interview with the New York Times about her being selected to be the host for the MTV Music Awards, Miley comments on how she doesn’t approve of Nicki’s Tweets by essentially making the “angry black woman” argument. Here’s her quote:
Step Three: On the night of the MTV Music Awards (which again, Miley was hosting), Nicki wins an award and proceeds to call out Miley in one of the most karmically satisfying displays I have seen in a while. After thanking her fans, Nicki has something to say “to the ***** who had a lot to say about her in the press the other day.”
Whether you like Nicki’s music or not, whether you like her or not, you have to admit that she has a point. And it’s not just black musical artists like Nicki.
The Indian suffragettes on the front lines of the fight for women’s voting rights were completely ignored in Focus Films’ “artistic” take on the suffragette movement. The movie Stonewall did a similar whitewashing of the Stonewall Riots, which were started primarily by transgender women and drag queens, by inserting a fictional white character as the protagonist.
And then there’s that popular “women make 22 cents less on the dollar than men for equal work” statistic. Actually, that’s a statistic regarding white women.
Black women make 36 cents less and Hispanic or Latina women make 47 cents less.
In a nutshell, feminists of color often receive less accolade for their accomplishments than white feminists, and when they attempt to demonstrate their rightful outrage at the discrepancy, their arguments are dismissed, and often by other white feminists who only want to advocate for “race neutral” issues.
So what is the point of all of this – besides demonstrating my knowledge of pop culture?
I think that it’s a disservice to ourselves to think that we have to halt progress on one “ism” to move for change on another. Discrimination does not exist in a vacuum, and as we try to correct it, we have to realize that different forms of it intersect. To properly address the more systemic problems in our society, feminist ideals have to acknowledge and respect the fact that intersectionality exists so that two feminists’ experiences may differ dramatically.
To borrow a phrase from Harry Potter’s Kingsley Shacklebolt, you may not agree with her on other things, but when it comes to intersectionality, you have to admit that Nicki Minaj has got style.