The Role of Privilege

The Chattanoogan recently published a piece by Matthew Vos, a professor at Covenant College, entitled Rihanna, the Anti Role model. The piece got a little buzz on the Reformed interwebs, which is how it came to my attention. In the piece, Matthew recounts a moment in his search for a role model for his two daughters, persons of color growing up in a white, upper middle class family. In the course of his search Matthew lands on a quote by Rihanna, from a speech she gave at the “Black Girls Rock” event:

“The minute you learn to love yourself you will not want to be anybody else,” and continued, “Role model is not the title they like to give me… (but) I think I can inspire a lot of young women to be themselves and that is half the battle.”

Matthew apparently takes Rihanna at her word and embarks on a quest to evaluate whether or not she would be a proper role model for his daughters. He evaluates her prior art, and finds it lacking. He evaluates her newest album by looking it up on Amazon, and he is apparently confused by the word “explicit”, which appears next to some of the lyrics. He listens to some of the tracks, which apparently shock him into a brief period of unconsciousness. 

I don’t know Matthew Vos personally, but I run in many of the same circles as he does, and I hail from the same religious and theological traditions as he does. I have no reason to believe he’s anything other than a brilliant, Godly man with a tender conscience. But I don’t buy it; I don’t buy that Matthew is surprised at what he finds in Rihanna’s oeuvre, that he’s unclear on the meaning of “explicit,” and that he’s shocked into unconsciousness upon discovering the content of Rihanna’s lyrics. At best, the entire piece comes across to me as patronizing and obtuse. At worst, it’s a highly problematic exercise of privilege and power.

When Rihanna says, “Role model is not the title they like to give me… ” she pretty much owns that “role model” is a problematic title for her. When she goes on to add, “I think I can inspire a lot of young women to be themselves and that is half the battle,” she claims a relevance that runs oblique to “role model” expectations. That is to say, if Rihanna is relevant and powerful, it isn’t that she asks to be imitated or emulated. Matthew, your daughters can be inspired by people like Rihanna, without becoming like them. What they can do, which Rihanna is telling them to do, is to become themselves, and precisely not to model themselves into a role, whether that’s the the role of a pop star, a thug, or even a ‘properly submissive Christian lady’. 

To be clear, Matthew, I’m not suggesting that your daughters should listen to much at all of pop music, as young as she sounds to be. I’m only claiming that I think your critique missed the mark. Far from being a role model, Rihanna’s statement picks up on a public discourse of empowerment and protest, which permeates not just the music industry, but also professional sports, politics, art… Her statement is an act of subversion, resisting normalization and domestication, which also moves within a network of power relations that thrives on the production and appropriation of subversive voices. 

It’s perfectly OK If you didn’t follow that, or if you disagree with my take on Rihanna. The point is that engaging with these questions about “self actualization,” cultural and political protest and resistance, etc., is complicated and difficult, and it has nothing to do with finding a role model for your daughters. Meanwhile, dismissing Rihanna on the grounds that she’s too lewd, or hopeless, or lacking beauty for your daughters to appreciate her on any level, or on the grounds that you’d be ashamed for your wife or your friends to find her CD on the front seat of your car, all without paying baseline attention to your own position of power as a white middle class male in a position of authority over a young black girl critiquing an outspoken black woman, pushes a kind of anti-intellectual paternalism compounded with benign failure to check privilege, that makes me extremely uncomfortable. 

Meanwhile, there are plenty of “role models” for your daughters of color, who aren’t pop artists making speeches at BET events. For starters, how about Michelle Obama? If you're interested, there are lots of great resources to help you get started.


Amusingly, there is a little recursion, or Catch-22, going on with Rihanna: the role she's modeling is that of someone who invents herself. It's true she's not saying that anyone else should necessarily *model* that role, just inhabit it, but it's rare that someone invents themself and doesn't inspire emulation.

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