Keep Calm and Grow Up: Taylor Swift Illustrates How We White Women Keep White Supremacy Intact
I want to write about Taylor Swift, her white feminism and how she doesn’t name it. I want to write about how she doesn’t acknowledge her silent past and why it’s taken her this long to even name that racism and homophobia exist in our country. I want to write about how she sings “I forgot you existed,” and how instead she should be singing about how she forgets her whiteness exists — and how this impacts each choice she makes. I want to write about how annoying it is that she is nearly 30 years old and still screaming at the top of her lungs about not being “The Man” — like, have we not graduated yet? Have we yet to learn from our white forebears who centered the feminist movement on policies that would only slate white women in the same political position as cis, white men to have access to the same manipulative, abusive, hierarchical power?
But we are both problematic white, cis, hetero, and able-bodied women. I come from an upper-middle-class background, and a critique of Taylor Swift is a critique of me. She sings my suburban upbringing, about how the only ills that I had growing up were the pains of unrequited love. A sort of childhood so insular and safe, of lawns mowed and timed sprinklers, a white girlhood that turns into a teendom of trying to convince my crush that “you belong with me,” no other worries except that I don’t want to repeat the same outfit twice in one week and I hope we don’t get caught sneaking out.
Cosmogirl told me all I needed to know about becoming a woman, which swaddled me into a myopic “adulthood.” I don’t have to grow up because if I perform patriarchal expectations of femininity like the good girl I am supposed to be I know society will allow me to feign my innocence, and lean on my pass in the club of whiteness. I never would have been able to articulate this back then, but I felt this kind of unspoken power. White innocence was the unspoken playbook for how to navigate my transition into adulthood.
This kind of indoctrination is hard to articulate, and I can’t fully do it, because to articulate it requires years of working on a deep level of self-awareness that is inherently unattainable. I can’t see my indoctrination into whiteness because being white in a white supremacist nation is like a fish swimming in water. How do you comprehend wetness as a fish? How do you comprehend whiteness as a white person?
In some conversations with various people from strangers online to my neighbors, I have found that there is a general need to protect Taylor Swift from any criticism for her song, “You Need to Calm Down.” Because she is seemingly doing all the “right things” — talking about equality, inviting lots of different people with various skin tones and sexual orientations to be in her music video, I mean, isn’t that the epitome of inclusion? Isn’t that what social justice is all about?
But the video is actually the antithesis of what we need for social change, for equitable outcomes for everyone, particularly Queer, trans, Black femmes. Achieving equity for all is not as simple as telling people that they “need to calm down,” and it’s definitely not going happen by centering our cishet white womanness…though it’s certainly easier.
To create a music video that hyperbolizes the false binary between lower-class, right-winged southerners and upper-class, leftists, is Taylor Swift’s much anticipated and promised “political stance.” This dichotomy of the “north” vs. the “south” has long been used by white women to prove just how “not racist” and “good” we are. This is white feminism, which relies on classist stereotypes to scapegoat our white-woman-complicity in order to ultimately benefit our bottom line, sell albums, to feel important, and to receive ample praise and adoration.
I also don’t blame the folx who got pissed because she drew on tired and harmful stereotypes that are not true. These stereotypes help white supremacy to persist. Just because someone is from a poor, rural, southern background does not mean they are inept, racist, and stuck in the past. There are people of all backgrounds in the South. A thriving LGBTQIA+ exists, which Queer Appalachia and the Electric Dirt Collective work to uplift and amplify. From their about page they write,
“The Electric Dirt Collective is comprised of folks from different racial, socioeconomic, educational, and religious backgrounds. For far too long, depictions of these regions have been white-washed and have made invisible the communities of color that live and struggle alongside us.”
bell hooks writes about living in Appalachia. Our Royalty: Solange and Beyoncé are from Houston, Texas. Solange’s new album “When I Get Home” is a memorial to Blackness and her hometown with drop-ins from feminist writers between songs. “Binz” is the street she used to live on.
This tired trope that Swift uses erases all of the Black folx, indigneous folx, and people of color who live in the South. Even more, Taylor Swift’s “stance” is another lazy and narcissistic public declaration that only keep us white women from truly seeing ourselves and our role in upholding white supremacy. The trope of the South being full of racist white people is too often used by us liberal white folx and white women feminists as an easy out. This is a “that’s not us, so we’re clean” kind of feminism, as the podcast Seeing White discusses in Part 6 of the series. Racism is a collective white people issue. We are collectively complicit and responsible.
Since we are one tier away from being cis, white, men, it’s our job to contend with this and be accountable for the oppressive circumstances we have inherited. The crucial part we play in upending oppression is digging up the white supremacy and racism that lives in us, and “setting ourselves free from being white” as Professor Eddie Glaude shared during an appearance on MSNBC — not conflating being harassed by online trolls with the violence that Queer, Black, femmes and trans folx face on the daily.
Taylor Swift has a history of co-opting Black culture, she often culturally appropriates AAVE, Black fashion aesthetics, and confuses solidarity with centering herself time and time again. Not to mention she appropriated Beychella. That’s a pretty big face-palm she failed to make up for with this new album.
Like many who become pop sensations, Swift has dialed in on what is trending but does it with a facade of rebellion. Though Taylor Swift is a self-proclaimed feminist she has yet to be accountable to her past wrongs, she fails to acknowledge her position as a cis, white, able-bodied, upper-class woman. To do this would require self-reflection and it’s clear Taylor Swift hasn’t spent much time doing this. She imagines herself as a revolutionary with lots of “haters,” so she can keep churning out hits.
Swift gained a faithful audience by being the (white) “girl next door,” your best friend who was there for you when you got dumped. She speaks to the reality of the only real problem I ever had as a cis, white woman growing up in the suburbs of Missouri: a broken heart. It’s narcissism hidden in victimization. To escape the monotony, the boring, controlled, grass-trimmed neighborhoods, I would concoct dreamy, fantastic, dramatic plot-lines that would rival “Romeo and Juliet.”
The problem is that Taylor Swift is now 29 years old, like me. And she’ll turn 30 in December. I’ll be 30 in October. And yet, I have not seen any growth in Taylor’s choices of themes that arise in her songs in her newest album, “Lover.” It’s the same bubble-gum, airy, foundation-less, cranberry-vodka, bad poetry turned music because Jack Antonoff knows how to make a pop hit from a diary entry. I have pages and pages of diary entries that Taylor Swift and Antonoff could spin into cheap melodies about bad boyfriends and unrequited love.
Taylor Swift paints the pink, cotton-candy daydream of what all of us white women say we want — peace, harmony, and love — and fuck those racist assholes in the south! But when challenged about our inherent racism we draw our tears and anger. We pretend like there is some kind of divide between our behavior and mentality and “those people in the south.” We pretend like they are “somebody [we] don’t know.” Our revolutionary anthem is “snakes and stones never broke my bones,” hearkening back to grade school rhymes and come-backs because we never really, ever grew up. She encourages our infantilization well into our adulthood.
As white women in our late twenties, we are overdue and capable of departing from our attachment to our brand of safety pin white-supremacy. But we like to remain there because it’s comfortable. It’s how we gain access to opportunities, social and monetary capital.
Swift knows that it’s “good” to be supportive of Black lives and LGBTQIA+ rights, but she’s unwillingly to sing about her collusion with white supremacy.
She is not talking about how she co-opted Beychella.
Or how she used Kanye West’s incredibly on-point and valid interruption (because Beyonce did have one of the greatest videos of all time) of her acceptance speech as an opportunity to play up the very old racist trope of scary Black man attacks innocent white woman. This SNL monologue is absolutely stomach-turning. She played into that trope repeatedly to paint herself as an angel absolving Kanye of his “sins.” NY Mag wrote in a feature about her…that her song, “‘Innocent’” clearly provides a turning point in which Swift gets the upper hand by casting herself in a mature, even maternal light.” This is incredibly condescending and paternalistic considering Kanye is a 30-something-year-old, grown adult.
Swift doesn’t think twice about using Black womxn as props in her “Shake it Off” music video. She isn’t talking about how horribly wrong it was to record a video for “Wildest Dreams” set in a romanticized and white-washed “Africa” in the 50s — a “white colonialist fantasy” without any real Africans, and no mention of apartheid. Like all of us white women, Taylor Swift wants to quietly move on to the next thing and sum it up as “haters gonna hate” — co-opting yet another AAVE phrase.
Taylor Swift’s song, “Mean” gets to the core of liberal white womanhood. Because college, fame, and “living in a big old city” gentrifying the neighborhoods are our greatest measures of white supremacist, colonialist success. Of course, throughout her “Mean” music video she is draped in white, frilly dresses, and at one point literally a damsel on a train track.
We point to the meanies —
— But refuse to talk about our long history of being violent — whether in the form of calling the cops on Black people simply living their lives, or sitting in silence in the face of racial injustice.
Taylor sings about “those people” living in the dark ages while she co-opts AAVE when she encourages her caveman counterparts to “take several seats,” and uses the word “shade.” I guess she thinks this is all okay because Todrick Hall co-produced the video to “Calm Down.” Another signature of white womanhood is relying on our Black friends to sign our permission slips. But Black people are not a monolith, and we can’t expect our Black friends to do the labor for us in explaining to us what is racist and not racist. We have to hold ourselves accountable and do the internal work ourselves.
We make the rules of white supremacy, and it’s our responsibility to break them. No easy task for a group of people who’s biggest survival strategy is to consistently play the victim with pouty lips and big eyes, to get out of uncomfortable, stressful situations. We know exactly what we are doing. It’s how we white women have survived as white men’s co-pilots for all of these centuries of systemic and institutional racism.
While we need to contend with Taylor Swift’s consistent participation in harmful tropes, we also need to contend with ourselves. We are all products of the same white supremacist culture that breeds her actions of complicity and co-optation. Are we going to walk the walk, or are we just going to keep talking the talk? Taylor Swift admits in “The Archer,” that she “…never grew up.” But I hope we can stop this trend and finally grow up, so that as white women we are no longer the number one barrier to a truly equitable world.