Three-year-old Steven Johnson holds an enlarged banner of Skittles candy, as he joins a “Justice for Trayvon Martin hoodie rally” on Tuesday, March 27, 2012. in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The New York Times ran an opinion piece this weekend titled “Explaining Twerking to Your Parents.” In it, writer Teddy Wayne chronicles the moment at which white people might have to explain twerking to their parents. The result is disastrous. Wayne’s piece remains one of the most read and e-mailed well past the weekend on which it was published in the paper and posted online. It’s offensive on the surface—but it’s also harmful, in that it shifts attention away from the conversation that parents have with their black kids about racial profiling, vigilantism and death.
Following Trayvon Martin’s killing by neighborhood watch vigilante George Zimmerman, mainstream news media began publishing articles about “the talk.” While previously, the talk often meant a conversation about sex and adolescence, this talk is much more complicated. It’s one in which parents explain to their black children that they will be racially profiled; one that’s had in order to sometimes save black lives. As part of a national conversation about race, major newspapers, including The New York Times, wrote about the talk. Many white writers expressed that it was hard to imagine even having to explain to a child that their skin color automatically makes them suspect, and as such, a candidate for early death.
Wayne has now taken what was a growing conversation about the life—and death—of black teenagers, and poached it to become what he calls “the big ‘twerk talk.’” The actual contents of Wayne’s talk are perhaps hilarious for some white readers, despite the article’s clearly racist tone. Early on, Wayne writes:
Explain that twerking is a dance move typically associated with lower-income African-American women that involves the rapid gyration of the hips in a fashion that prominently exhibits the elasticity of the gluteal musculature.
Aside from what sounds like a clinical diagnosis of a practice he clearly doesn’t bear the authority to explain, Wayne relegates twerking to impoverished black women—making invisible the actual lives of black women by perpetuating detestable stereotypes. Because Wayne’s twerk talk is one that’s likely based on white parents who want to understand Miley Cyrus’s cannibalizing Video Music Awards performance, Wayne goes on to construe that Cyrus should get a pass for exploiting black culture (albeit for no good reason). In a couple of short paragraphs, Wayne not only ridicules black women, who survive despite the apparatus of systemic racism that continues to deprive equal access to education, housing and wealth, but also establishes that Cyrus’s brazen “cynical act of cultural appropriation” is perfectly warranted.
Wayne’s decision to take a developing conversation about race and reduce it to what he calls the twerk talk is troubling precisely because of the ongoing need for an intergenerational dialogue between white children and their parents that centers on racial bias and institutional racism. Just a few weeks after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of an unarmed black teenager whom he described as a “real suspicious guy,” Wayne resolves to repeat racist tropes himself, and willfully disregards cultural appropriation without reason. The newspaper of record, meanwhile, does the dutiful work of publishing it for a massive audience.
It’s bad enough that Wayne writes racist garbage about people he plainly does not understand—but the added intrusion is his ability to help quash what was becoming a national conversation about race while doing so.
The race-baiting of America is missing the point.