Discover more from The Language Matters Memo
#004 - Should Taylor Swift be held responsible for her new boyfriend's behaviour and when is it appropriate to make reference to someone's race?
Language Matters Memo, a monthly newsletter from Sadia Siddiqui, focused on fostering more progressive and inclusive language.
Hello and welcome to the May issue of The Language Matters Memo. This month I explore Taylor Swift's rumoured new relationship and whether we should hold her accountable for her new squeeze's controversial comments and behaviours. I also have a guide that tackles the recurring question of when it is and isn't appropriate to mention someone's skin colour.
Before we get into those topics, I have a book recommendation for you.
You must read: Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.
I read a lot, but my most recent reads have mostly been duds, so I'm sharing a gem of a book I read last Summer; Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.
Black Cake is a profoundly moving story that centres on two estranged siblings, Benny and Byron, who must set aside their differences to deal with their mother's recent death, a process that reveals a complex and hidden past.
Eleanor Bennett's final request is that her children sit together and listen to an eight-hour voice recording she's left for them and then share a black cake when "the time is right".
What B and B - as Eleanor would refer to her children - have yet to learn is that the recording is going to upend everything they knew about their lives growing up in Southern California as they discover that Eleanor had lived many lives before she started hers with them.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, and because the chapters are pretty short, it feels like you're racing back and forth with the characters from Eleanor's past to the present day, totally enveloping you in the process.
The storytelling in Black Cake is beautiful. I love vivid descriptions, but there's always a delicate balance between descriptive and unnecessary fluff, and the author strikes that balance so deftly that it's hard to believe this is a debut novel.
Put simply; this is a truly delicious read that everyone should taste.
You can buy Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson here.
Should we be holding Taylor Swift accountable for her rumoured new beau Matt Healy's many problematic transgressions?
First off, I'm not outing myself as a Swifty. I'm not one of those folks looking for Easter eggs in her songs or going down Reddit rabbit holes but four newsletters in, and it's pretty evident that I love popular culture - if I could find a way of weaving Scandoval into these newsletters, I would! In my experience, celeb news is also a helpful tool for examining broader societal and cultural issues, so it's a tactic I often rely on.
Earlier this month, Swift was reported to have broken up with her longtime boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, and weeks later was rumoured to be seeing Matt Healy, the frontman of the band The 1975. Although I was aware of Healy’s problematic tendencies, I wasn’t aware of the extent of that behaviour.
From laughing at fat-phobic jokes to denigrating Black women to using the Black Lives Matter movement to promote his music to appearing to do a Nazi salute onstage while singing "Thank you, Kanye, very cool" as part of The 1975 track "Love It If We Made It", - Healy is problematic AF.
The rumoured association has led to Swift's many fans vocally expressing their frustration at the alleged union. Swift is yet to comment or publicly acknowledge the relationship.
The coverage raised two questions for me - questions I find myself returning to often. Firstly, can we ever separate the individual from their art? Secondly, why does society insist on holding women accountable for their partners' behaviours in a way we would not if the roles were reversed?
Q1. Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?
Cultural and social commentators often tell us that artists and their art are separate entities. When it comes to contemporary art, I think this is a loophole that gives fans an excuse to continue supporting problematic artists.
Creating art, in whatever form, is an intimate act, and artists will often draw on their own life in that creation. Although I'm talking in more general terms here, this is something that musicians such as Swift and Adele are much celebrated for, forming a large part of their appeal.
Removing an artist from what they create decontextualises their art and removes much of its meaning. Surely they are one and the same?
Whilst I acknowledge it's hard for me to derive enjoyment from problematic artists like Matt Healy, Kanye West, Johnny Depp or Chris Brown, I know many others will continue to appreciate their art for what it is.
Before I go any further, it’s important to acknowledge that not all artists are treated equally. While some are held accountable for their actions and lose endorsements, streaming rights etc., many are enabled and carry on regardless. A double standard that is often racial, with commentators coming down noticeably harder on Black and brown artists.
Although these things aren't always that clear-cut, in most cases, an artist's art is how they make an income and consumption of that art will support that artist financially. As an example, musicians will earn a percentage of their income via music streaming services, so as a result, an individual listening to a problematic artist like R Kelly would be directly lining his pockets. That has led many people to suggest that as art cannot be financially removed from the artist, separating art from the artist is also impossible.
On balance, money talks, so if we have the means to make decisions regarding our purchasing behaviour, we should ensure that these decisions align with our moral ethics and standards.
So what does that mean for someone like Matt Healy?
Whilst I don't believe in cancel culture, at its roots, cancel culture is rooted in accountability for those who have been marginalised. Therefore, if you insist on listening to Healy's band The 1975 or Kanye West and Chris Brown, you must also acknowledge the importance of holding them all accountable for their actions.
Just as we cannot differentiate art from the artist, we cannot divorce our consumption from their behaviours; the two go hand in hand.
Q2. Why do we hold women accountable for their partner's actions in a way we do not ask of men?
I'm a card-carrying feminist, and my first reaction when I see women being bashed for their partner's behaviours is to question whether we'd be giving the man such a hard time if the tables were turned. The answer is often no; we hold women to a different and far higher standard.
So is Swift answerable for Healy's behaviour? No, but she is answerable for hers.
Swift has been accused of courting the Alt-Right, primarily because of her reluctance to comment on anything political - a theme that was central to her 2020 Netflix documentary Americana. In the documentary, we see her debating the implications of confirming her support for Phil Bredesen over Marsha Blackburn in the race for senator in Tennessee."I need to be on the right side of history", Swift is heard saying despite the risk it poses to alienating her largely conservative fanbase.
Whilst I don't think women are responsible for their spouses' behaviours, Swift isn't a civilian like you and me; she's a role model for millions of people and with that comes immense responsibility and, more significantly, power.
When you're operating at Swift's level, your romantic relationships are the equivalent of a brand deal, and this one is beginning to look like quite the endorsement.
It's important to note that Healy's transgressions are not one-offs, and he has not expressed regret for them; instead, he's doubled down on his position. Whilst the issue is Healy's, when it comes down to it, we are the company we keep and given Swift's standing, she needs to be more mindful of hers.
I hope in the coming weeks, she heeds her own words and chooses to be on the “right side of history”, using that immensely powerful voice to speak out when people seek to marginalise others - as Healy has many times - especially given this is someone reported to be in her innermost circle.
Words matter, but so do our actions, and they need to match; otherwise, tweets and posts calling for equality are very quickly rendered meaningless BS.
'If I'm not supposed to say 'I don't see colour' - what's wrong with mentioning someone's skin colour?'
This topic often crops up in the comments section of Language Matters, so I wanted to explore it further.
"If we're being encouraged to refrain from statements such as "I don't see colour" and instead to practice 'colour consciousness', then why do people object to references to their race?"
The short answer depends on the context of the conversation. Let's break this down in more detail.
What's wrong with saying, "I don't see colour"?
I've been receiving this comment more times than I care to remember, and it's nearly always positioned as a compliment. It always leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable and, until relatively recently, unable to express why it's such a problematic thing to say.
Somewhere along the line, the idea of not seeing colour has been conflated with the idea of being a 'nice-non-racist' person. In reality, the colour of someone's skin is one of the first things our minds register. The belief that 'racism isn't natural but is taught' is a crude simplification. Studies show children not only recognise race from a young age, but they also develop racial biases by ages three to five. They do this because they observe the life around them, the roles people play in society, their jobs, and so on.
Racist systems exist whether we choose to see them or not. Claiming to 'not see colour' because it's more comfortable that way allows racial inequalities to fester. It also teaches children, in particular, that what they observe is the natural order of things versus the result of systematic societal disparities and racism. Therefore, if we acknowledge these inequalities, we can tackle and eradicate them.
I don't know about you, but I'm yet to discover a historical or societal issue that’s been resolved by ignoring and not talking about it.
By claiming not to see someone's colour, you're stripping them of an important part of their identity and asking them to dissociate from this to be accepted. It's the equivalent of saying, 'You're not like the rest of them'.
So when can we reference race?
Yes, when it's relevant to the discussion. You must first ask yourself why it's relevant. To illustrate this, let's explore some of the highly problematic ways race is referenced.
❌ He's not even that [insert a racialised background].
What you're really saying: This person does not fit the perceived notions of being Black/Asian/[insert racial/ethnic background]. It's highly problematic because it's fuelled by racial tropes and stereotypes. It's most often said when someone of a racialised background has an interest/presents themselves in a way that the speaker does not associate with that race. It's incredibly reductive and problematic. An example of this was when the Labour MP, Rupa Haq, referred to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, as "superficially black", adding that "if you hear him on the Today programme [a BBC Radio 4 show], you wouldn't know he's Black". Secondly, it was a highly problematic and sad reminder that you don't have to be white to uphold notions of white supremacy and practice anti-Blackness. My second exhibit is Suella Braverman, but I'll save Mrs Braverman and her conduct for another day.
❌ We have new neighbours, they are Asian, but they seem nice enough.
What you are really saying: When we use race like this, the inference is that they are the exception to how (in this example) Asian people should be viewed. It suggests that there is a behaviour that's inherently linked to someone's race or ethnicity and that would prohibit them from being 'nice' neighbours. The correct thing to say is, "We have new neighbours; they seem nice".
Race has nothing to do with the discussion; if it does, then we need to examine why.
❌ Peter's dating someone new, and she's Black.
What you're really saying: The most noteworthy thing about Peter's girlfriend is her skin colour. In this instance, the speaker must ask themselves why they highlighted this. What are they trying to convey by highlighting her race in this way? When we construct sentences in their manner, it is usually code to share something we know deep down that we should not be thinking or saying because it's racist/classist/homophobic etc.
Here is a slightly less forward example for you:
❌ "Why are they going on about it being the first Asian Mayor? Who cares!"
What you're really saying: I'm uncomfortable talking about people's race, and I'd prefer to ignore this unless it suits my purposes. We celebrate appointments and successes like this because they are not the norm, and until they are, they need to be marked and highlighted.
When is it right to reference someone's race?
✅ If you're identifying someone: "Simon works in IT; he's tall, Black with a bald head".
In conclusion, it's okay to mention someone's race, but you must consider why you want to reference their race. Questions to ask yourself:
Does it add any value to the conversation?
Am I trying to convey something that I know I shouldn't be referencing? Is it a shorthand to describe my negative perception of [insert race] people?
Would I say this if the person was white?
I also wanted to touch on the instances where racialised individuals may make references to their race/ethnicity, for example, a statement like 'In my view as a [Black/Asian] man...'. These statements are totally acceptable as, in this context, they provide a viewpoint based on their life experience. If this type of reference to race makes you uncomfortable, then you need to do some work to understand why that is. It's usually evidence of negative perceptions of what it means to be that race, which is something you would need to address.
I hope that clarifies the question about when you should/should not mention someone's race and provides some food for thought on the perceptions and language you may need to work on.
That's it for May! Next month I'll be covering ways in which racialised individuals can hold up racist systems. A topic that, given my South-Asian heritage, I'm not especially relishing, but I need to tackle here.
Take care, and if you've enjoyed reading this issue, please share it with a friend and help this little newsletter grow.