Sounds About White: It’s Time to Talk About Ariana Grande

Ariana Grande is white. Why, then, are so many confused about her race?

Grande as Cat circa 2011.

Grande as Cat circa 2011.

Grande got her start on the Nickelodeon show Victorious, playing a bubbly, fair-skinned redhead named Cat. Since ditching the Cat persona, many things have changed about the way Grande portrays herself, including a significantly darker skin tone in music videos like “breathin” and “thank u, next.” Along with a darker skin tone, Grande has also acquired new rhetoric, occasionally adopting a “blaccent:” an artificial accent imitating Ebonics or African American Vernacular English (AAVE). There are many examples of racially questionable behaviors that Grande has exhibited, like her appropriative and unfortunate Japanese tattoo, her blaccent in an interview that went viral last October, or a comment she made at an award show, when she said “thank you so much for coming to my Quinceañera.”

Grande’s music video for her recently released “7 Rings” exhibited many problematic elements. In the video, Grande appears in a pink trap house. Last year, 2 Chainz – a Black rapper – created the famous Pink Trap House in Atlanta which was used by the local community as a free HIV testing site. Others have pointed out that Grande’s flow is shockingly similar to that of Soulja Boy – a Black rapper – in “Pretty Boy Swag.” In “7 Rings,” Grande sings “you like my hair, gee thanks, just bought it.” In 2017, Princess Nokia – an Afro-Latina rapper – released "Mine," a song about Black women and their hair, where she raps "it's mine, I bought it." The similarities between the flows and lyrics of the two songs are enough to raise eyebrows, but the specific lyrics are also problematic. Hair itself is a racialized topic, but hair that one buys, like weaves and extensions, is particularly racialized. Grande can use the line “you like my hair, gee thanks, just bought it” as part of a wildly successful song without ever dealing with the harassment that many Black women face over their hair. Many of these aspects of the song, individually, would be problematic coincidences, or perhaps even an unfortunate mistake. However, taken together, they create an alarming pattern and mold a certain lens through which Grande can viewed and critiqued.

Ariana Grande’s appropriation of AAVE, inclusion of culturally Black or nonwhite references like weaves and Quinceañeras in her rhetoric, darkening of her skin tone, and ripping of flows from primarily Black artists is not a secret. These actions are an attempt – conscious or not – to distance herself from whiteness (when convenient) and build cultural capital through cultural appropriation. While Black people are ridiculed for sounding unintelligent and policed for their hair, Grande makes literal millions off of appropriating the same features in songs like “7 Rings.”

Grande holding an audio tape with heavily tanned skin in the “thank u, next” music video

Grande holding an audio tape with heavily tanned skin in the “thank u, next” music video

In her new music video “Break Up with Your Girlfriend I’m Bored,” Grande appropriates otherness as capital once again, heavily implying a lesbian relationship. This specific behavior – exotifying queerness and using it for shock value when the person involved is not actually queer – is known as “queerbaiting.” The implication from her video which ends with an image of her nearly kissing a woman, particularly given the lines “Break up with your girlfriend… 'cause I'm bored / You can hit it in the mornin’… like it's yours,” is that lesbian relationships are entertainment for bored straight women. Grande is exploiting queer women's sexualities for clicks and views while actual queer women are physically and verbally assaulted for being identifiably queer in public. Race and sexuality are certainly not the same but they function in the same way to Grande: a means to making more money.  

Grande hugging herself and looking up in the “breathin" music video

Grande hugging herself and looking up in the “breathin" music video

Grande is not alone in her appropriation – famous white artists have been profiting off of nonwhite cultures and identities for decades, while always having the option to shed their ethnically ambiguous personas when they prove no longer useful. In this way, culture and race become accessories for white artists like Grande who never have to grapple with the reality of systemic racial marginalization. Cultural appropriation not only reifies the notion of otherness in relation to Eurocentric cultural norms but it commodifies the other as well. In bell hooks’s 1992 essay “Eating the other,” she writes, “ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” Otherness is used as an accessory, a sideshow to the main attraction: whiteness. And when otherness outlives its profitability, it’s gone.

Further, by using other cultures as accessories, Grande obfuscates the cultural importance and history of the traits she is appropriating. Hair is a deeply politicized and culturally significant aspect of many Black women’s identities. Quinceañeras are also culturally important traditions for many Latina women. For Grande, they are only important insofar as they can make her money. By continuing this cultural appropriation, Grande is not just complicit in the power structures of white supremacy and heteronormativity, she actively enforces them. Grande’s career is built off of the exploitation and commodification of marginalized identities. As Princess Nokia commented in a since-deleted Twitter and Instagram post, “sounds about white.”