Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
I happen to be in Washington, D.C. on this historic day, and the energy was palpable as I walked to work this morning, the city preparing to honor one of our world’s greatest civil rights heroes. Here in D.C. and all over the country, the question of the week seems to be, “Has MLK’s Dream been achieved, 50 years later?”
At the same moment, the Internet is abuzz with a topic just as controversial, though far less inspiring, namely, “What was up with Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards?”
And it occurred to me that these two hot topics are intimately related. As many writers have already reported eloquently, Miley’s twerk-tastic performance this past weekend resembled a modern-day Minstrel show, a “denigration” of black women, or as Anne Theriault describes in more detail, ‘cultural appropriation':
“She, a wealthy white woman, is taking elements from black culture in order to achieve a specific image. Her status as a member of a traditionally oppressive race and class means that she is able to pick and choose what parts of black culture she wants to embrace without having to deal with the racism and racialization that black women live with every day.”
As much as I am reluctant to give Miley any extra moment in the spotlight, I think her performance in many ways sheds light on the complexities of this week’s pressing MLK question: are Americans yet in a place where we are judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character?
In short, and all Miley aside, no. Sure, America has made progress in desegregating schools, legalizing interracial marriage, and winning concrete legislative battles that ensure racism cannot be institutionalized. But when blacks make up 13% of the population, and nearly 40% of people in prison are black and nearly 50% of people with HIV/AIDS are black, one begins to see the complexity of continued struggles to attain equal opportunities at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Don’t even get me started on Trayvon).
And then there’s Miley, whose behavior indicates further that racism is not eliminated, just evolved. Evolved into a backwards kind of exploitation, in which another race might be ‘revered’, but not respected, in which a superficial demonstration of ‘acceptance’ of certain facets of another culture are in fact a self-centered effort to appear trendy or cool, without any regard for the humanity or dignity of the exoticized ‘other’. For the readers and contributors to this site who dedicate their lives to international relations, community service, and diplomacy as a means of development, these are behaviors we see happening all over the world, often committed by people with positive intentions who have no idea of their own short-sightedness.
Thankfully, I believe most people of my generation are not Miley. Most are part of social circles in which character matters more than race. In which we frequently borrow from each other’s music, fashion, art, because we truly find beauty and inspiration and connection through culture. In which we demonstrate the ethos of respect that, as MLK hoped for, starts to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” where we try “to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together.”
Would you agree, that a majority of ‘everyday’ Millennial Americans are living MLK’s dream in their daily lives? Or am I only exposed to a stellar sub-section of the general public? Because if someone with as much airtime as Miley (and someone with the enormous media power of MTV) designs and distributes such a disrespectful platform for race relations, then we ‘everyday’ people have got a lot more work to do to make MLK’s vision go mainstream.
I’ll close by noting that last year, Miley celebrated MLK Day by endorsing a Youth Service campaign. I highlight her ‘goodwill’ because it shows clearly that purporting general notions of ‘helping others’ are most often meaningless. Actual social change has more to do with the way we treat each other, in everyday contexts, especially those who are different than us, and especially when we are influencers within our families and communities and audiences.
It’s in our hands, everyday, to live the life of brotherhood and sisterhood MLK envisioned. “Now is the time” he repeats throughout his speech. Now is your time.