One cannot write with any degree of credibility about topics one doesn’t understand or hasn’t properly experienced. A journalist sitting at his desk sipping a chardonnay and wearing a cardigan, cannot depict the horrors of war the way a journalist in the field with bullets whizzing past his head can. You’ll never hear Justin Bieber sing about heroin addiction and Colin Farrell will never write a book about how hard it is to get laid. Therefore, a writer observing the behavior of others and forming conclusions based on his or her own subjective prejudice tends to raise an eyebrow with me. You simply cannot write about racism from the outside.
In her piece for Jezebel, Lindy West writes about “hipster racism”; a seemingly new phenomenon of racist remarks in the guise of wanting to seem edgy or, in most cases, down with – what my 1980s film upbringing would call – the street. This piece focuses on racist statements and actions from those who may not even understand what they’re doing wrong. West uses her keen eye to catch this insidious shadow of insensitivity and as a pattern seeking mammal, if you look hard enough, you will see it too.
I’m not one to bash sensitivity and I’m certainly not interested in trashing West as a writer or a human being. I enjoyed reading her article and I’m sure as bipedal primates go, she’s probably one of the less awful ones. The content of her piece, however, lost me at Zooey Deschanel and got worse from there. I might be biased. I like Zooey Deschanel. Besides having the unique quality of looking like Katy Perry without being Katy Perry, Zooey’s racist tweets are fairly innocuous.
Covers of hip hop songs and the use of the word thug within white middle class suburbia(which is not so much white anymore) is just a by-product of the popularization and the capitalization of hip hop culture. At this point in our history, everyone who wears pants that don’t fit is a thug. Furthermore, “thug” has never really been a term for black criminals. Initially it was simply for mindless toughs who look like they do crime. It was in the late 1990s when I first heard it to describe black criminals. And it was black rappers – some of them criminals – who started using it. Now that hip hop is in the main stream, the word and indeed the artists themselves are subject to just as much ridicule as anything else in popular culture. And bands cover hip hop songs for the same reason that they cover any song: for satire, tribute, or just to put their own spin on it. Sometimes they’re terrible, but sometimes they’re flaming tits awesome.
When I first read West’s article, I thought back to a conversation involving myself and a couple other coworkers. Black Dave(there were two Daves) and I were talking about kickboxing because we both have trained(him way more than me). I told him I heard he was a bad ass and our coworker Tim – who has been friends with Dave since childhood – said “Yeah, Blackie Chan over here,” and we all laughed. Someone listening in might have taken offense, but we can’t very well be bothered to give a shit. Conversations between friends can get pretty foul. Friends make fun of each other. I have one friend with type one diabetes that I once gave a bag of sugar as a birthday gift. At a restaurant when I was running late, that same friend once told the waitress that I was a special needs adult that he helps to take care of. She talked to me like I was 5 years old when I got there. When paint balling, everyone was trying to get our Vietnamese friends on their team because Charlie knows the jungle. All bets are off with good friends, even the occasional racial slur has it’s place. It’s been said before by people better than I, but it really is all about context.
Racial slurs rarely come up in conversations involving civilized people unless we’re discussing the words themselves or making a right proper joke. In writing, slurs come up based on what the writing is about. You can’t write a story about the Crips and not have any of them say “nigga.” And as an aspiring writer and avid first amendment purest, if there was a potential ban of the n-word, I would start up a new blog and every single word in in every piece would be “nigger.” The right to say it and the need to say it are of course, very different animals. As free thinking and considerate adults, we should be able to differentiate. The word in and of itself does not actually offend me but I generally won’t use it around those who might be bothered by it; unless it was useful to whatever point I might be trying to make. Much like Lindy West, I too am annoyed with white people who complain about n-word exclusivity and with privileged white kids slumming it at the ghetto dive bars. The former because it’s impotence driven spinelessness and the latter because I don’t want those little twerps in my bar. On the other hand, it might do privileged white kids a service to see how the other half lives. Watching cocky sheltered kids slowly realize that getting stomped for no real reason is a very real possibility just warms me up inside.
West, like most educated middle class white people, does not understand real racism. I get the whole “plucky liberal out to save the world” bit, but because of her refusal to go slumming like those awful skinny jean donning children she is so irritated by, she can’t speak from any kind of authority on the subject. The problem is that it’s safe. The piece is written mostly for people she complains about, and it’s a good way to get those little PBR swilling dip shits to maybe think about the language they use, but as someone in the trenches, I can’t help but roll my eyes at some of her observations. She is correct in saying that everyone is bad at talking about race and racism. Educated liberals are most interested in solving the problem, but they lack the qualifications to do it. But being educated and liberal is what motivates them to want to help. Hipster racism is not real racism, it’s simply a case of people being ignorant or, far more importantly, not funny enough to pull off their ironic racism schtick. But that’s bound to happen with kids who are still trying to find their voice.
Racism these days is a bit more in the shadows these days, but it’s still obvious. You find it in the pants shitting terror of conservative America when they see a black man become president, sure, but it’s ultimately a by-product of the same problem we’re all dealing with: class warfare and poverty(and often fueled by religion). If you want to know racism, you have to feel it. Work at a restaurant in Minneapolis that caters to the after bar crowd, and then tell me how non-racist you are. Walk past the corner with black dealers slinging dope and get harassed. Bask in the impotence of walking to a predominantly black school knowing that you’re going to get beaten up, you aggressors will tell the principal you called them niggers, and they’ll get away with it. Experience the slums where poor people are encouraged to blame each other for their plot in life; not by the government, but by generations of back and forth contempt. “You got beaten up again, well you should know better than to go near those niggers, son.” At some point, you’ll see some guy with his pants around his knees, smoking a blunt, hollerin’ at shorties, and your ideology will crumble when that faint whisper begins to cross your lips…nig…. That’s a good thing. Let the hate flow through you.
Learn and freely admit your own racism and then we can sit down and talk about race. In order to do that, you need to know how you react to that powerlessness that can turn a lot of us into racists. But once again, we suck at admitting our own prejudices. We also tend to frown upon people who don’t. Juan Williams admitted his own prejudice, and even contrasted it with his writings on civil rights and was fired from NPR for it. The whole thing spawned a huge fiasco about the “liberal media” but the fact is, NPR exercised poor judgement in firing someone for taking the first step in discussing prejudice and racism. Perhaps we all should take an example from Williams and not be so niggardly when it comes to admitting our emotions.