The unbearable whiteness of Taylor Swift’s fandom

After Swift's 2018 “political awakening,” things haven't gotten any better for the singer's non-white fans.

Decolonize This!
ByJenna Mahale

Alex Torres first heard Taylor Swift at a middle school dance in Antioch, Illinois. “I instantly fell in love,” Torres says about “Teardrops on My Guitar” and “Our Song,” a pair of confessional country singles from Swift’s 2006 self-titled debut. “I thought they were so good.”

These early hits are emblematic of the artist’s instant appeal. The 17-year-old musician sang of gutting heartbreak and giddy first love with equal authority, describing school-age scenarios that are both ultra-specific and universally relatable, like watching your perfect but oblivious crush breeze past you in the hallway. In “Our Song,” Swift captured the frantic energy of a fledgling teen relationship in the late 2000s: hushed phone calls, illicit night-time rendezvous, joyrides in the front of a newly-licensed car. How could you not fall for her music?

Growing up in Antioch, a small Midwestern town, Torres’ status as queer and half-Mexican was relatively protected in large part due to his being able to pass as white. During his middle school years, country music was en vogue, and the music libraries of his predominantly white classmates were populated by stars of the 2006-2008 era, like Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Kellie Pickler, and Carrie Underwood. “We sang “Love Story” in choir,” he says, “It was almost inevitable that you would either like Taylor Swift or learn to deal with it.”

As a teenage country music sensation in the mid-aughts, Swift embraced the “America’s sweetheart” persona she would come to reject entirely more than a decade later. The singer put large stock in Christian family values, emphasizing her relationship with her mother and her family’s wholesome, honest work as Christmas tree farmers in Pennsylvania. The singer was just 12 years old when she sang the national anthem for a public audience at a sports game. And while Swift never wore a promise ring, her views on sexual purity were very clear. “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried” she sang on “Fifteen,” a 2008 single that doubled as a cautionary tale against sexual precociousness.

In many ways, this era of Taylor Swift’s music and fanbase belonged almost exclusively to what could be called “white culture” — a nebulous but necessary lens that can help us understand how far, or not far enough, Swiftie fandom has come over the last five years. It’s left the non-white Swiftie in a kind of community limbo, part of a diverse and growing global fandom whose beginnings are firmly rooted in whiteness.

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Taylor Swift’s white country fans have stood by her since the very beginning. It was their country and their culture that had originally shaped her, making her into the global success she has become today. For much of her early fame, Swift and her team were wary of rocking the boat. “I feel like at 22, it’s my right to vote but it’s not my right to tell other people what to do,” Swift told David Letterman in 2012. It was an apolitical choice that led to the star’s notable silence during the 2016 election that would lead to the rise of Donald Trump’s Republican Party — a choice that would lead alt-right message boards to call her their “Aryan goddess” and gave Breitbart an opening in 2017 to tweet out stories alongside lyrics to her songs.

While Swift is not originally from Nashville — she hails from an even whiter borough in Pennsylvania — she and her family moved to the city in 2004 to help a 14-year-old Swift pursue a career in country music. Tennessee’s 2018 midterm Senate election appears to serve as the catalyst for the star’s political awakening, as revealed in Lana Wilson’s 2020 documentary Miss Americana. In one scene, Swift argues fervently with her creative team for her political coming out in support of gay rights and the Violence Against Women Act. The team demurs about Swift airing her views publicly, warning that an overt stance could “halve the number of people that come to [her] next tour.” (The backlash famously weathered by The Dixie Chicks is clearly a cautionary tale for the pop star.)

As someone who describes her “entire moral code” as a “need to be thought of as good,” Swift's limitations on what she could and couldn’t say publicly began to chafe with the singer’s own of her experiences of sexual assault within her industry. One carefully considered Instagram post later, Taylor Swift broke her political silence on October 7, 2018, stating her support for LGBTQ rights and decrying systemic racism.

For Myles McNutt, an associate professor of communication and theater arts at Old Dominion University, who has written an academic paper on Swift’s particular brand of feminism, the trajectory of Swift’s politics is understandable. “It's hard to suggest that celebrities must fully understand how to embrace and engage in practices [of political expression]. But there's no question that, in the absence of explicit political statements, racists and white supremacists could claim Taylor Swift as their own because she was doing nothing to suggest that their values would not intersect,” McNutt tells Mic over Zoom. “Now she has since changed that,” he continues, “I think we need to respect the nature of that journey.”

The non-white Swiftie is left in a kind of community limbo, part of a diverse and growing global fandom whose beginnings are firmly rooted in whiteness.

For non-white fans of Swift’s music, this journey hasn’t been comfortable. The typical Taylor Swift fan is unquestionably a straight, cis, white girl — the type of Swiftie that the predominantly white fandom is still most accepting of. This demographic has sometimes put Swifties of color in a position to defend themselves. As one Black fan explained to Rolling Stone in 2020, “being a fan of Taylor Swift has sometimes put me into an uncomfortable position where I have to question my Blackness.”

Alex Torres, now 26 and living in San Francisco, has come a long way from his childhood in Antioch, and the thought of attending a Taylor Swift concert today — or spending any time around the type of Swiftie he grew up with — makes him actively uncomfortable.

“I wouldn’t call it direct racism,” he says, “but I definitely feel like I experienced a lot of microaggressions in middle school and high school.” Torres recalls his die-hard Swiftie classmates expressing confusion at his dedication to the country star. “I would never really want to be around the really conservative people who are into Taylor Swift, especially from the early country days."

A fandom that was once experienced on a more personal and private level in the 2000s became more public in the 2010s as discussions moved online to Reddit forums, Tumblr pages, and Twitter feeds. As abusive behavior became normalized in stan culture, specifically as a means of proving one’s dedication, bullying techniques like spamming began to make their way into the Swiftie community.

The conservative sect of Swift’s fan base hasn’t evaporated in the time since the artist has clarified her politics. In March, a group of fans bombarded the Twitter and Instagram profiles of actress Antonia Gentry with harassment and racist abuse. Gentry was the incidental mouthpiece of a lazy, dated joke about Swift’s “body count” of boyfriends on the Netflix dramedy Ginny & Georgia and she became a target for fans’ misplaced rage.

The carnage notably originated in a statement Swift had made on Twitter herself, excoriating the show for airing the scene. On an outrage-optimized platform like Twitter, Swift’s viral post was dynamite. Her unwillingness to engage with the consequences of this, especially the racial dynamics at play, felt alienating and disappointing for non-white fans. It was just another case of Swift’s obliviousness about her actions and non-actions, like when she told Rolling Stone in 2019 that she had no idea she was an alt-right icon because she “didn’t have the internet on her phone.”

“A fandom is not a collective enterprise. A fandom is an individual enterprise that takes the form of a collective.”

Zoya Raza-Sheikh, a 24-year-old British Pakistani fan of Swift, finds that the extreme online behavior she’s witnessed as a Swiftie has alienated her from the fandom, particularly as someone who identifies as pansexual. For her part, Swift has been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ causes since her political “coming out.” “Rights are being stripped from basically everyone who isn’t a straight white cisgender male,” she told Vogue in 2019. “I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of.” Unfortunately, this message hasn’t reached some of her most fervent fans.

In July 2020, Swift released her 8th studio album, Folklore. Arguments about the record spilled over into Swiftie Tumblr, where Raza-Sheikh had frequently participated in LGBTQ-only fan discussions on the platform. When “pro-Kaylor” (referring to Taylor's rumored relationship with her longtime friend Karlie Kloss) or “playfully LGBTQ” takes on Folklore songs like ‘Betty’ moved into more mainstream discussions on the platform, Zoya says, an especially virulent strain of Swiftie homophobia made itself known. She recalls stans using transphobic slurs and being “intensely critical” about these takes. “They were like, ‘No, you're not allowed to feel this way. You're ruining the image of Taylor.’”

Shortly after, vicious threats were made to out LGBTQ users. Though many Tumblr users participated in discussions about the 2020 album on the platform anonymously, “people were comfortable talking about themselves in what was presumably a safe space,” explains Raza-Sheikh. “Then this was weaponized against them. I saw one example where a user was literally begging, saying, 'Please, my family [doesn't] know.'” As reported by The Feed at the time, many of the users being threatened were underage, some living in countries where there are incredibly dangerous consequences to revealing your non-conformist sexuality.

Swift views her Tumblr community as a ”comfort zone” with an “inside joke, friend vibe,” as she explains in a 2019 Billboard interview, preferring the platform to “overwhelming” spaces like Twitter. Given how notably active and vigilant Swift and her team has been on the platform — her profile would often interact with Tumblr users by reposting or ‘liking’ their content about her, and her team known to cherry-pick fans for exclusive events through the community — Raza-Sheikh found herself surprised at the lack of intervention from the star and her team. “It’s really shaped my opinion of her as an artist,” she says.

The trouble with fandoms is two-fold, according to McNutt. Their dynamics are reflective of society, “but the issue is that, in fandom, all emotions are heightened.” The Swiftie fandom, in particular, is also “affectively connected” to its idol, says McNutt, as per Swift’s open, down-to-earth brand. In her music, and even in her album release cycles, “she creates these paratexts that invest people more in her personal relationships and their dynamics,” allowing fans a mode of intimacy with her life through her use of narrative.

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Whether celebrities have a responsibility for the online behavior of their fans has been thoroughly debated in the last decade. Swift has arguably set a good example for her fans, coming out against bullying (albeit primarily in the context of her own abuse) in statements as well as in her music, like 2010’s “Mean” and 2019’s “You Need To Calm Down.” To me, this is reasonable, but it doesn’t make things any better for those on the receiving end of online abuse — a group that is disproportionately made up of people of color and sexually and gender-diverse individuals.

“We love the idea of a fandom coming together and being more inclusive,” McNutt says. “But a fandom is not a collective enterprise. A fandom is inherently an individual enterprise that takes the form of a collective.”

Ultimately, the value a fandom brings to an individual’s life is dependent on a number of factors, including a tolerance threshold for cultural ignorance. White fans are undeniably protective over Swift and her place in the insular American culture she emerged from. It’s why they may be surprised to discover she has non-white listeners, or get defensive when anyone suggests that she or her music might possibly be a little bit gay.

The result is that non-white, non-straight Swifties must reassert their existence and identity again and again within the community, participating in selfie challenges like #BlackSwiftieSunday or creating exclusively BIPOC or LGBTQ-only group chats and forums. But an increasingly common outcome seems to be simply coming to terms with the limitations of fandom. “I’m realizing that I don't think I can find my community in the way that I want to,” Torres says, admittedly trying to turn his relationship with Taylor Swift into something “more intellectual” through discussions and written analysis with academic friends. Does he long for a more traditional fan experience? Perhaps. “But that's not the end of the world.”