Taylor Swift is, once again, facing backlash for a racially insensitive music video. I get that it might be hard to see the insensitivity in ‘Wildest Dreams’. It does seem harmless enough, merely a pop star’s fantasy. And even if you do think it’s a bit off that on this African savannah there is not one single black person, you could put it down to an attempt at historical accuracy. All the real racism was left in the 1950s, after all, when they didn’t hire black people on film sets. Swift and her director were simply trying to be true to the theme.
However, neither of these arguments evince an understanding that the video was not produced in a vacuum. If this was a “post-racial” world where all stories were given equal value and histories were not erased, there’d be fewer problems with the video. Unfortunately, we don’t live in this ideal world.
The main issue is the way that the video romanticises the colonial era. It hides the true horror of colonisation, focusing on a love story rather than, if we’re being historically accurate, the mistreatment and exploitation of Africans in which those love-birds would have been engaged or complicit.
This is a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s been done a number of times before (see ‘The English Patient’, ‘Out of Africa’, etc.), which actually makes the video even less forgivable. Swift has made herself part of a history where the truth of colonialism has been all but erased in dominant cultural discourse.
Consider how strange it is that a lot of people will know the plot of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and other fictional stories set in colonial Africa, but will know nothing about the actual genocides committed by Europeans across the continent during that same period. These fictional love stories are so frustrating because they are valued more than the whole truth, and the truth in its entirety is important because the legacy of the violence of colonialism lives to this day.
As pointed out on NPR, “[s]cholars have argued that poor economic performance, weak property rights and tribal tensions across the continent can be traced to colonial strategies.” If we keep allowing the darker side of colonialism to be drowned out by fictional white people, it will continue to be the case that only scholars are aware of the consequences of colonialism.
It’s also worth pointing out how entitled it is that a Westerner’s idealised version of Africa contains no Africans. More than that, it’s insulting. Especially in the context of a world where Westerners rarely seek to respect or even understand Africans. We’re so much more than the war-torn poverty porn that’s fed to non-Africans. We’re fuelling our own cultural, economic, and technological boom and writing our own stories. But not only are these stories not prioritised (and therefore not heard), if Africans aren’t deemed necessary to a story set by others on their own continent, they’re simply erased.
I quite like Taylor Swift. But her racial politics need work, and she needs to stop hiring teams that think up problematic ideas, or fail to notice when Taylor’s ideas pose a problem. It’s great that she donated to the African Parks Foundation of America. It’s not a justification for the video, though; she hasn’t paid for the right to engage in harmful colonial fantasies.
Ignorance, which is clearly the problem here, is understandable, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t criticise it for causing or perpetuating harm. Ultimately, this isn’t just about Taylor Swift. It’s about getting people to see how abhorrent it is to whitewash a continent that was attacked and exploited by white people. This backlash, when critically engaged with, will introduce to some the history of Westerners glamorising colonialism, using it as the backdrop to dull, romantic encounters. It will help create a precedent showing that we’re no longer living in a time when casual racism in mainstream media will be dismissed or ignored. It can only be a good thing.