What Taylor Swift Taught Me About Privilege

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I’ll admit it. I was a Taylor-Hater. Back in 2010, I distinctly remember sending a friend a feminist critique of the anti-woman, slut-shaming video for the song “You Belong With Me.” I took an active dislike to the woman, finding her music sophomoric and boring. I rolled my eyes when she was brought up, and shrugged my shoulders as the media discussed her “relationship hopping” and tendency to write about her exes. I didn’t care.

In the years since, however, I’ve watched her career from the sidelines and witnessed a developing understanding and maturity rarely seen in such a stark way. By the time 2014’s 1989 was released, Swift had established herself as a person worth considering and a smarter woman than many had taken her for. Her parodies of herself and her public image revealed a woman who had absorbed the critiques, the slut shaming, the disdain for her work, and turned it back out into incisive lyrics and something worth tapping your foot to.

If you pay close attention to popular culture, you start to notice the ways in which purity culture and sexual stereotypes play out. I question myself, sometimes, when I think about why I gave Taylor Swift a second chance – is it because she’s a person and people deserve second chances? Or is it because she’s a white woman who has painstakingly crafted an image of vulnerability and strength? Is my newfound love for her work extending out of unconscious social conditioning around race?

Honestly? Probably yes. The ways in which Swift has managed to win over the media and most of the obstinate Taylor-hating populace has to do with the eternal, extensive redemptions offered to white female artists and to white artists in general. As the media applaud Taylor Swift for embracing and talking about sexuality in “Blank Space” and the clever satire of a sex-obsessed culture, they slam Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” as sexualized and objectifying. But “Anaconda” is every bit as satirical and strong as “Blank Space” is – I’d argue possibly more.

But what I’m saying is also nothing new. Women of color have been saying these same things for years, because women of color are the ones experiencing it. Every bit of even the most banal of discussions is pervaded with what privilege we bring to the table and how we’ve been conditioned by our experience of race and gender. And this, ultimately, is what privilege looks like – being able to have these discussions without consideration of the deeper racial meaning, to decide that I’m a Taylor Swift fan again, to decide to forgive something that’s not actually my place to forgive.

We make tiny little decisions like this every day. We vote with our dollars, with our tweets, with our choices to like or not like something. It’s a lot of pressure if you want to fight back against racist and sexist conditioning – which makes it understandable (not right, but understandable) when some people want to give up and just roll with it.

I struggle, too – we get tired. We want to keep challenging our biases and our assumptions, but some days, too, we just want to sit back on the couch and watch some TV without thinking about things. And then we realize that the ability to do even that is a privilege and we’re right back into the grind. There’s this strange desire within the progressive left to be perfect, to think about and know everything in advance, and to consistently and constantly check privilege. We are living under the ideal without the ideal world to support us. It’s draining.

So what does this mean? Do we give up? Do we stop trying and just call it good? No, not exactly. But it requires that we pick our battles carefully, that we spend what time we can in our own little circles doing what we can. You, in your church, can change things. You’re never going to tackle the whole of the institution on your own, just as I’m not going to get a every white person to see that Nicki Minaj is a freaking brilliant rap artist. But I can encourage those people who are open to it to see her in a new way, just as I was encouraged to look at both Minaj and Taylor Swift in a new light by my relationships with other people.

Nothing changes through sheer force of will. But things do change through building relationship, being open to critique, and through a listening ear. And this, ultimately, needs to be our goal both as Christians and as human beings – to be open to everything, even perspectives that once seemed anathema to our senses. It is the only way we’re really learn how to “shake it off.”