Over the past few months, the discourse surrounding Ariana Grande’s problematic behavior has gotten pretty intense. More and more people online have called her out for blackfishing/latinafishing, referring to how she has darkened her skin to pass as racially ambiguous while still reaping the benefits of her white privilege. This criticism reached a fever pitch when she released “7 rings,” the second single from her upcoming album Thank U, Next, in which she engages in outright cultural appropriation through rapping a verse toward the end of the song. Though more people have called her out on this behavior than ever before, as of midday January 21 she had not responded to this criticism in any meaningful or substantial way. I will not go too much in-depth about the actual critique because Google exists and as a non-black person of color I am not the best person to speak on it, but for a great summary you can read user superultra’s fantastic post about it on this page.
I have to admit: my heart broke a bit when I read the scathing criticism of her on online forums like Popjustice which I may or may not have my own account and have used to procrastinate every task imaginable to humankind. Anyone who reads this blog knows I love Ariana with all my heart. Her music has empowered me in my recovery from abuse and trauma. Her eloquent outspokenness about issues related to feminism and seeking mental health treatment has inspired me in my own activism and how I live my life. Her song “No Tears Left to Cry” helped me heal in my grieving process after the death of my grandmother perhaps more than anything else. Countless friends and acquaintances and mentors and even my former therapist have told me that whenever they hear an Ariana song or any updates about her, they immediately think of me, because I openly obsess over her that freaking much.
My first response to the growing criticism of Ari after the release of “7 rings” outright sucked. I got defensive. I acknowledged that, yes, her tanning allowed her to benefit from looking racially ambiguous while still coming from a privileged background. I also acknowledged that a white woman should just not rap and her rapping in “7 rings” serves as a great misstep. However, my Ari-loving brain tried to come up with excuses for her. Two black women co-wrote the song with her, got credit for it, and she openly promotes their art as well, I thought, before soon coming to terms with how, yes, Ari can work with and promote these women and at the same time appropriate black culture. Though she tans a lot she’s never pretended to be black, she’s always said she’s Italian, I thought, as if the intention aligned in any way with the impact, which it does not, given how so many dark-skinned women of color have equal talent yet have been shut out of the music industry because of colorism and lack of opportunities. When I went on Twitter and read tweets from black women who felt 100% okay with Ari and “7 rings,” I wanted to let myself think, oh ok, so if some people from this community think it’s okay, it can’t be all bad. I had to remind myself that, while these individuals are entitled to their opinion, there are many gay people who support Trump, as well as Asian Americans who have fought against affirmative action. Some people feeling okay about a problematic behavior does not in and of itself make the problematic behavior okay.
I and other Ariana fans can hold two truths at once, even if they may feel contradictory. Yes, Ariana is a talented, wonderful woman who has provided incisive takedowns of the patriarchy and has role modeled self-love, self-awareness, and help-seeking. At the same time, she has benefited from appropriating black and Asian culture and from darkening her skin, which has made her appear racially ambiguous. These two truths do not cancel one another out, and us Ari fans, especially non-black and non-Latinx fans, have to sit with our discomfort while listening to the criticism, instead of getting defensive. We can honor our sadness and disappointment and grief for Ari – the popstar we may have perceived as pretty nonproblematic – while encouraging her to do better and feeling grateful that more people have engaged in conversations about important topics like cultural appropriation and colorism.
Similar to what Popjustice user superultra wrote in the post I linked above, I hope that Ari grows from this. I hope she apologizes in a way that shows a solid understanding of the issue, lays off the tan, and stops rapping. At the same time, as superultra said, white women in the music industry – Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Taylor Swift, etc. – have all engaged in cultural appropriation without any apology. Only time will tell if Ari responds to these criticisms with the immense eloquence and thoughtfulness she has exhibited when addressing social issues before, or if she will hide behind her white privilege and her fans and friends who condone this behavior. Either way, I hope we can all learn from these conversations about celebrities’ problematic behaviors. I hope we can apply this critical lens to our own lives and how we ourselves may engage in problematic behaviors, so that if even if the stars we idolize do not change, we do.
What are your thoughts and feelings about the Ariana situation, cultural appropriation, colorism, etc.? Would love to hear. And what oppressive things are you trying to unlearn? I know awhile ago I used to use AAVE a lot (e.g., yas, slay) and then got called on it and have stopped. Now I’m working on unlearning some classist elitism (e.g., assuming guys on dating apps who went to “prestigious” schools are more attractive when what school you go to often just reflects privilege, like your parents’ wealth). I have a bunch of other things I’m working on too.
The spring semester starts next week so who knows if I’ll be able to keep posting about once a week or every other week, but I hope I can keep writing here in some capacity. Sending everyone love and strength!