Rethinking Transracialism: Ariana Grande and Racial Ambiguity

Ariana Grande from the 2018 Billboard Woman of the Year Cover Shoot

This article revisits, revises, and expands on the arguments I make in Blackface and Pop Princesses: A Brief Genealogy. Previously, I wrote three brief paragraphs on Ariana Grande, trying to position her donning of black and brown visuality (i.e. blackface/brownface) alongside similar practices of other pop princesses such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Miley Cyrus. However, I no longer think blackface as a phenomenon can quite account for how Grande is manipulating the racial ambiguity of her image. Even though she certainly inherits the history of pop princesses borrowing the cultural signification of blackness/brownness to shed their young and innocent facades and sell their more sexually dangerous personas, Grande also departs from this “tradition” radically. She does not borrow; she becomes black, becomes brown, becomes something not quite black or brown, yet not quite white either. She becomes transracial. 

At stake here is not the matter of people simply being confused about Grande’s racial identity. Confusion is almost always inevitable when it comes to race, because the colonial fantasy of racial purity, and even of race itself, always falls apart as it tries to categorize the unruliness of the body to create a hierarchy of humanity (with whiteness at its apex). What so disturbing, then, is the fact that Grande successfully mobilizes, amplifies, and capitalizes on this (trans)racial confusion, and gets away with crossing into non-whiteness the way Rachel Dolezal cannot. My goals in writing this essay are two-fold: (1) to articulate Ariana Grande’s image transformation not as an act of racial passing, but as a gradual racial transitioning from whiteness into ambiguity (2) to redirect the discourse on transracialism away from the monopoly of Dolezal, who, together with her transracial “identity” of blackness, has been too easily brushed off as a joke, a lie, or at best an individual anomaly.

To rethink transracialism through Grande’s racial ambiguity is to affirm that transracialism is very much here and now – if we love deploying Dolezal as the butt of the transracial joke, it is about time we had to confront the transracial reality heralded by media saturation of Grande (or the Kardashians). Of course, there is nothing inherently “bad” about transracialism – we are all “transracial,” to the extent that we always exceed our pre-given categories of race, which, as a historical product of white domination, remains unstable, constantly demanding reiteration and regulation. However, what is advanced as “transracialism” by Rachel Dolezal, Ariana Grande, and a certain genealogy of (white) feminist philosophers enacts the postracial imagination of whiteness that attempts to transcend race and racism altogether. This form of racial transgression tries to get at the instability of race without accounting for the enduring effects of racism; in fact, I will argue that transracialism colludes with capitalism to profit off the legacy of racism itself.

Nonetheless, one question remains: What is it about Grande that, similar to Dolezal, signals the instability of racial categories, but without producing any spectacularly hostile response toward the threat of transracialism that encroaches onto our essentialist understanding of race? In other words, how does Grande, unlike Dolezal, succeed in transitioning into non-whiteness without much public backlash?


In August 2018, Ariana Grande performed “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” as a tribute at Aretha Franklin’s nationally-televised funeral. Immediately after the performance, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, who was the emcee of the event, quipped, “When I saw Ariana Grande on the program, I thought that was a new something at Taco Bell,” all the while pressing his fingers against Grande’s breast. This brief exchange created an explosion on social media, leading the bishop to issue an apology, “I personally and sincerely apologize to Ariana and to her fans and to the whole Hispanic community.”

There was a lot of reporting around Bishop’s groping and the short black dress that Grande wore, but one significant detail flew under the media’s radar: the bishop misidentifies Grande’s racial identity. In a tweet from 2011, Grande explicitly stated that she is “Italian American, half Sicilian and half Abruzzese,” and in another tweet from 2014, she added that her grandparents “are heavily greek [sic] and part north african [sic].” There is something intentionally indefinite about her own self-identification, and I will later examine, her visual appearance that leads the bishop to link her Italian last name to a Latinx stereotype, Taco Bell, and then to extend his apology to the whole Hispanic community of which Grande is not a part.

In fact, I am not interested in policing what race she belongs to – doing so would only accentuate an essentialist understanding of race. Rather, what draws me into Grande is the manipulation of her public representation using the historical signification of race and the grammar of seeing race to manufacture her desired image. I want to pay attention to her racial transition from whiteness to ambiguity not as a masquerading of her “true” racial identity, but as a calculated shift of personas from an innocuous and unproblematic teen idol to a dangerous woman.

She entered the public’s eye from a young age, starring in the Broadway musical 13 when she was 15 and two years later, rose to fame playing the role of Cat Valentine in Nickelodeon’s highly popular TV series Victorious (2010–2013). In these earlier years, Grande performs an indisputably innocent image of a young white female teenager with red hair and pale skin, even though in retrospect, Grande can be seen to be more tanned in the later seasons of Victorious.

After finishing with the show, Grande released her first two studio albums Yours Truly (2013) and My Everything (2014), slowly carrying her previously clear-cut image of whiteness into a more uncertain brownness/blackness through the consistent use of artificial tanning, make-up, and digital alteration. Her sound also tilts from bubblegum pop toward R&B and hip-hop, two genres pioneered and dominated by black artists. Certainly, Grande inherits a long history of white musicians appropriating and associating themselves with black music, but she also departs from this history in her becoming-black, becoming-brown, becoming-ambiguous through visuality. This racial ambiguity is mobilized in full force with her Dangerous Woman era in order for Grande to embody her more mature and sexier sound, exploiting the hypersexual signification of blackness and brownness to give her image a soft-core pornographic value.

In the third and most commercially successful single off the album, Side to Side, Grande essentially sings about being fucked all night all day to the point where she now cannot walk straight and has to walk side to side. To further amplify the vividness of what causes this side-to-side motion, she enlists the fabulously explicit rapper Nicki Minaj, who raps about “rid[ing] dick bicycle” and hence inspires the gym concept of the music video. In the one scene where Grande and Minaj appear together, they are positioned on top of the steps in a steamy sauna room, surrounded by sweaty muscular half-naked men enacting robotic poses to the rhythm of the song. As Minaj raps along to the music, Grande performs slow and sexually suggestive gestures, crossing her legs, spreading them wide open, circling her hips, playing with her hair, touching her body. The two women also bare a lot of flesh with their costumes: Grande wears a tight pink leotard exposing parts of her netted bras, while Minaj dons a lacy red lingerie set. Side by side under the blue/purple neon lighting, their skin tones perfectly match, drawing Grande’s ambiguous racial visuality, and in turn her excessive sexuality, closer to that of a black woman.

One can say that, in this instance, Grande passes as a black/brown woman. However, I want to echo historian Matthew Guterl’s sentiment when he argues that the language of passing is not fully equipped to theorize about the phenomenon of transracialism (his immediate subject of study is Dolezal, but his view can be easily extended upon Grande). The notion of passing does not only assume the certainty of race in order to identify the act of subterfuge, but it is also historically rooted in the “straightforward escapist rationale, from disempowerment to privilege, from black to white – and little else.”[1] That is to say, the history of racial passing, which at once is always the history of class passing, [2] cannot precisely account for how capital is gained in the transition from white to black, or white to ambiguity. This particular form of transition is made possible only in the current economy of “diversity,” where non-whiteness can be registered as value for Grande to add to her cool and “dangerous woman” facade, as raw materials that Dolezal can extract for her MFA education in Howard University (a historically black college) and later for her activist work at the NAACP.

In many ways, both Grande’s racial flexibility and Dolezal’s racial cross-identification signal an unknowability of race, and the possible manipulation of this uncertainty for profit. Nonetheless, what so terrifying about Dolezal, but not Grande, is that the former’s transition from white to black threatens to turn our understanding of race upside down, in which anyone can be anything according to will and racial boundaries no longer have much meaning (even though the hierarchy of race and the racial ordering of the world pretty much stays intact). On the hand, Grande’s racial indeterminacy does not require us to radically reimagine how we see and conceptualize race, but rather gestures toward the fantasy of a confusing mixed-race future: “Generation E.A.” (Ethnically Ambiguous) is almost here. Per Guterl, racial ambiguity is not unknowable because of genetic mixture, as much as it is categorized as unknowable and stabilized by a prescribed way of looking at racial confusion, of producing pleasure out of the lack of definition of the generation E.A.’s body – the body that are always passing for everything and nothing: “The more we look, the more we see something, but the less we understand it.”[3] And the less we understand it, the more exciting it is, so exciting that we would not be concerned that someone like Grande is transitioning into racial ambiguity. In the end, why would it matter that Grande is transitioning into ambiguity, if the category of ambiguity itself is already seen as always passing for something and nothing at once?

The task at hand is not to stop transracialism and protect the integrity of racial categories, whatever that means and however that manifests. Unfortunately, this seems to be the trajectory where the conversation on Grande is heading already, especially after the release of Grande’s recent single 7 rings, in which she full-on raps over a trap beat. By doing so, she crosses from ambiguity into blackness, and at that moment, her whiteness paradoxically needs to be made explicit and be reiterated so that the boundaries of race stays intact. The term that gets thrown around a lot is cultural appropriation, which partially describes what Grande is doing, but it predicates on the fixity of racial boundaries that does not get at Grande’s racial transgression. In other words, it is too simple to claim that Grande as a white woman is appropriating black culture – white and black are not two polar opposites purely distinct from each other so that one can take from the other. Quite frankly, that is not how the violence of cultural colonization/exchange works. Our first step is that we have to acknowledge the porousness of race without ignoring the very real historical effects of racial categorization as a colonial project, whose goal is to articulate the domination of whiteness. The problem with transracialism, then, is the capitalization on this porousness without accounting for the history of racism. It is not that transracial figures lie about their race, because the project of racial categorization is already a lie.


[1] Matthew Guterl, “Racial Fakery and the Next Postracial: Reconciliation in the Age of Dolezal,” in Racial Reconciliation and the Healing of a Nation: Beyond Law and Rights, edited by Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 45.

[2] Matthew Guterl, Seeing Race in Modern America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 166-180.

[3] Guterl, Seeing Race in Modern America, 192.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Transracialism: Ariana Grande and Racial Ambiguity

  1. Hey Anh, I’m so glad you expanded on this topic! “Blackface & Pop Princesses” made a big impact on me to think more critically about how music is culturally appropriated and produced.
    “7 rings” is a great case example of how Ariana is using black culture (style, music, dance) and people (as I noticed, the primary focus in her extras) to capitalize on her racial ambiguity. What really gets me is the callout from Princess Nokia’s “Mine” (2016), which is a song literally about celebrating people of colours’ hair to the defence of white people always messing with or judging it. It’s just ironic that Grande appropriated that and effectively whitewashes the politics surrounding hair in black & POC communities. Sure, the flow is similar to many songs – as many other black artists have commented on such as Soulja Boy & 2Chainz, but stylistic similarities are an inevitable cost of her navigating her way into the black produced and dominated genres of RnB & Hip Hop. It’s just sad that so many people don’t see the problem that Ariana is creating by physically and stylistically appropriating (taking advantage of) culture that is not hers, which Princess Nokia’s “Mine” directly attempts to address in the backlash POC face for purchasing hair.

    Like

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