A photo posted by Blake Lively (@blakelively) on
When I read that Blake Lively was in a bit of hot water over a lyric reference this week, my first reaction was one of confusion. Blake shared a photo of herself looking pretty curvy for Blake standards (she's pregnant, FYI), taken at the Cannes Film Festival. She captioned it, "L.A. face with an Oakland booty," which you'll all recognise as a lyric from Sir-Mix-A-Lot's most famous song "Baby Got Back." And that's quite literally how I took it, as a fairly meaningless play on a well-known string of words.
Being a journalist, I know the power of the written word should never be underestimated but honestly, the thought of her caption being racist didn't even cross my mind. I barely thought about it beyond the fact that I recognised the words. And yes, before you ask, I am white.
When I read the comments Blake copped on Twitter, I learned a lot, fast. The general gist: with that caption, Blake is appropriating black culture for her own benefit. As one Twitter user described it, she's "using [women of colour's] bodies as a punchline and a commodity."
Within hours of the post going live, Blake was trending on Facebook. There were thousands of comments both attacking and defending her. It was pretty brutal stuff and I was surprised by how angry people's comments were — which served as a stark reminder of how removed I am from American cultural issues like this one. [But then consider the "Formation" controversy from earlier this week, and it's obvious these issues are becoming more prevalent in our own country.]
As a white woman born in South Africa and living in Australia, I have faced a lot of questions about whether I'm racist or not. With my birth country's chequered history, it's easy to understand why the topic comes up — but I very much dislike being lumped with the accusation, when racist is the last thing I consider myself to be. One thing is for sure, I can always become more educated on the topic.
I'm always learning about racism and its many forms, and this instance with Blake is the perfect example. I think I can say I know the fundamental history of people of colour in Africa (thanks to my family's history there), America (thanks to media, movies and self-education) and Australia (thanks to schooling, increased public awareness and the strong, positive Indigenous Australian celebrity profiles of stars like Miranda Tapsell and Deborah Mailman).
While I can claim to know the basics, I have absolutely no idea what it's like to be a person of colour, and to grow up with a painful family history of slavery, vilification and hatred.
I won't pretend I'll ever be able to truly understand the complicated history of people of colour, but I want to try.
Here's the thing: I don't think Blake Lively is racist. I believe she would be horrified and upset at the accusation, because we know enough about her to know she didn't mean anything by her Instagram post. But as we should all know by now, what may seem harmless to some is incredibly hurtful to others. Just like me, Blake will never fully understand what racism feels like.
This situation has reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in New York a few years ago. We were discussing the topic of racism and if we really understand cultural appropriation. She said to me, "We're white. It's not up to us to decide what's racist and what's not." And I had no words because there's really no truer statement. Just like it's not up to a man to decide what's sexist to women and what is not, surely racism isn't something white people get to define.