It’s OK to be angry about racial inequality

Listen up.
Listen up.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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Nicki Minaj doesn’t care if you like her tone.

In the midst of the incoherent, psychedelic drag queen parade that was MTV’s Video Music Awards last night, the rap queen extraordinaire confronted host Miley Cyrus in what was arguably the most interesting—and controversial—moment of the night.

It was the latest salvo in a battle royale that has been raging for weeks over the role of “manners” in matters of debate and discourse. More specifically, Minaj was commenting on the increasingly prevalent trend of (mostly white) feminists using labels like “angry” and “disrespectful” to describe anyone who criticizes their often privileged point of view. Such defensiveness is immature, tinged with racial stereotypes—and ultimately bad for feminism.

For context, this most recent squabble dates back to tweets Minaj sent in July airing her frustration over a perceived lack of racial diversity in the VMA nominations. In particular, the “Anaconda” star argued that white artists who appropriate heavily from black culture seem more likely to win awards over their black peers, regardless of talent. This of course is tied to the corollary issue of modern beauty standards, which still arguably preference skinny over curves, whiteness over colored skin.

In an interview with The New York Times on Aug. 27, Cyrus took issue with Minaj’s tweets, singling out the singer’s tone specifically. “I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it,” Cyrus told The Times. “If you want to make it about race, there’s a way you could do that,” Cyrus told the Times. “But don’t make it just about yourself. Say: ‘This is the reason why I think it’s important to be nominated. There’s girls everywhere with this body type.”

What Cyrus is doing here is nothing short of tone-policing. The term, mainly used by feminists and other minority groups, can be used as a tool to deflect attention from the actual message by complaining about message’s delivery. By dismissing Minaj’s concerns as “angry,” Cyrus perpetuates (perhaps inadvertently) the stereotype of the angry black woman while simultaneously arguing that only calm people deserve her respect. This is ridiculous, on every level. Radical cultural change is rarely achieved through ”hugging it out.” 

If Minaj’s criticisms are valid, why should she have to play nice in order for them to be validated? More generally, why should people of color have to voice their concerns in ways white people find respectable?

Indeed,  if anyone should understand this it should be Cyrus. Women—especially women of color—have long been criticized for speaking out of turn. Forced to cater to the majority’s whims and mores, women like Minaj find themselves caught. Speak too quietly and nobody listens—speak forcefully and risk being labeled “angry,” even from supposed allies. For those allies to turn around like Cyrus did and accuse women of color of somehow reacting badly adds massive insult to injury.

Clearly, Minaj is tired of being quiet (not that meekness is her style anyway). And her decision to respond to Cyrus in a hard confrontational tone is an important one.

In her delivery, Minaj communicated that she may never be respectable enough for Cyrus. But neither should she have to be. The aims of feminists and racial equality advocates will always be viewed as disruptive by those who have the most to benefit from the status quo. This includes feminist du jour Taylor Swift and even Cyrus herself. The issues Minaj brought up were systemic, but racism does not begin and end at the VMAs. If Cyrus can’t handle these types of broader discussions she should simply stay out of them.

To quote Minaj last night: “Miley, what’s good?”