By now, the world has heard at length about the gaffes of two very famous white women this week. Taylor Swift was exposed on Snapchat by Kim Kardashian and Kanye West for lying about approving Kanye’s lyrics in his song “Famous.” Melania Trump, the wife of the Republican nominee for president, apparently lifted part of her Republican National Convention Speech from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. These two instances are part of a larger history of white women and public victimhood in the United States.
What is interesting about both of these cases? For me, it is the underlying thought that black women, in either of these situations, would not be able to claim victimhood or be defendable in the same manner as Swift or Trump.
Many are exhausted of Taylor Swift’s public persona and the continual accolades she receives from the music industry while better (read: black) artists are consistently ignored for groundbreaking work. Yet, when Kanye interrupted Taylor’s moment in 2009 at the Video Music Awards, many (though we may have agreed with Kanye that “Single Ladies” was one of the best videos of all time), took her side, pitying the young artist who was interrupted by a drunk and belligerent Kanye.
Since then, however, Swift has continued to benefit from the narrative of innocence, no doubt due to her white womanhood. When Kanye’s “Famous” song came out and Swift promptly denounced him in her 2016 Grammy speech for Album of the Year (seriously), the old narrative was revived: crazy, belligerent black Kanye once again making fun of innocent and sweet Taylor Swift.
Yet, comrade Kim Kardashian West had enough last weekend when she decided that nothing was better than retribution. Taylor was exposed as a lie, a damned lie, for all the world to see.
While I primarily enjoy this moment for its pettiness, an important historical shadow is cast over Taylor’s public lie about Kanye. Historically, white women would lie about black men publicly and it often resulted in their deaths.The same sort of protection of female virtue was not (and still is not) extended to black women, who suffered sexual abuse and harassment from men (black and white) with little to no intervention from the law.
Kanye’s public reputation is already pretty much kaput, but this evidence demonstrates the power that Taylor Swift has over people’s perception of him and the fact that Kanye knows this to be true. Do you think, for a moment, that he ever considered calling Amber Rose to consult with his lyrics about her in his songs about her? Of course not. That is because as a black woman, open about her life and sexuality, Amber will not receive the same public sympathy and outpouring as Taylor Swift when Kanye sullies her name.
As I bring up this history of white female victimhood, it is important to clarify that I am not suggesting that Kanye’s lyrics were positive or uplifting in any manner, or that Taylor was obliged to approve them. Rather, I call for this same protection, this same reverence afforded to Swift, to be available to women of color, to black women.
At the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump plagiarized an entire paragraph of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech. Perhaps this was because she was light on specific examples of the positive values that Donald Trump possesses. In any case, had Michelle Obama done anything remotely similar, her public reputation would have been tarnished beyond repair.
In fact, if Michelle was anything but a double Ivy League graduate (Princeton and Harvard), it is likely she would have been deemed unacceptable as First Lady of the United States. As a black woman, people constantly complain about Michelle’s body type and question loyalty to the United State. People claim that she takes advantage of the office of the first lady when she has not abused her privileges in any way different than her predecessor, Laura Bush, who travelled extensively as first lady. The American people expect more (and simultaneously, less) from Michelle Obama because she is a black woman.
White woman victimhood, historically, is dangerous for black men and black women. The exposure of these two women’s dishonesty this week is primarily funny, but the protection and privilege they’ve been afforded is no laughing matter. While I would never call for women to no longer be protected, I do call for the extension of that protection to black women and other women of color.
Photo Credits: Melania: ABC 7 video still, Taylor: Robert Hanashiro, USA Today