Help, I'm Scared! –– Racism in the 21st Century
The United Kingdom’s Home Office released a statement explaining their banning of rapper, Tyler “Tyler, The Creator” Okonma from the country for the next three to five years. The Office cited his music for encouraging violence and inciting terrorism as reasons for the ban. They continued, stating that they did not believe Okonma respected the nation’s “shared values,” and that his presence would be “(un)conducive to the public good.” Regardless of what one might think of Tyler’s art, one must find the Office’s decision extreme. First, due to the fact that his music is his art, if one is to apprise art, one must be cognizant of the distinction between the art and the artist. One is not to interpret an artist’s lyrics as the artist’s admission of agreement with a set of seemingly represented ideals in the lyrics. Such an interpretation is a misreading of the art.
Misinterpreting so-called “violent” rap music represents a misreading of both the art and the artist. The violence portrayed in rap music serves an important function: to represent the violence prevalent in, and endured by, disenfranchised black communities. The ruling class typically interprets rap and hip-hop as “negro-madness” and a mystic, baffling support of violence. One sees as much in the decrying of rap music by Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, and in the aforementioned case with the U.K. Home Office. Such critics do not understand the Black Experience, as it is foreign to their own life experience. When such experiences are alluded to in music, those who can’t relate are appalled, not by the systemic causes of the violence portrayed in the art, but instead with the art and the artist.
As such, critics of rap music misread both rap music and rap artists by slandering them, banning their music, and as in Okonma’s case, banning them from entire nations. Rap music acts as a witness to this phenomenon, as well as other facets of the Black Experience, and it is for this reason why the art must be valued and respected.
The violence portrayed in rap music represents an experience foreign to the ruling class and the majority population, therefore its inclusion is warranted. When an artist like Okonma creates music abundant with references to violence and crime, they do so not because he or she is violent, but to stand as a witness to the experience of an entire culture. Disenfranchised people, such as African-Americans in America, became accustomed to systemic violence. They inherit the negative consequences of centuries of slavery and ghettoization. Meanwhile, those like the members of the Home Office and Bill O’Reilly reap the benefits of slavery. They enjoy comparatively pleasant lives, which would be much less pleasant were they not white and were it not for the luxuries afforded to them via slavery. Both the lives of black rap artists and their white decriers were founded upon black disenfranchisement. The entire modern world was founded upon black disenfranchisement, and “violent” rap music reminds listeners of this reality. We see seemingly inordinate amounts of violence in the predominately African-American genre of rap music. On the contrary, the violence in rap is not out of order, but right where it belongs. The violence portrayed in rap is a staunch reminder of the crimes still being perpetuated upon those of African descent for centuries.
Today, racism functions by balking at any mention or implication of the consequences of black disenfranchisement. Logical and expected expressions of black anger, like Okonma’s music, are reduced to causeless mania and violence. Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University has named this phenomenon “White Fragility.” When whites cannot tolerate even the slightest amount of race-related stress, they respond on the defensive, becoming incensed or “threatened” and shut down the discussion, effectively restoring the traditional white racial equilibrium.
“White Fragility,” or racism, in the 21st century does not oppress by means of slurs and lynch mobs. It suppresses by means of expressions of discomfort — white discomfort — which makes all opposing discomfort senseless and inappropriate. We see this in the “All Lives Matter” campaign, claims of “race-baiting” and in the aforementioned banning of rap artists like Okonma. All of the above actions silence the oppressed: no opinion is valid except that of the white person. We see that racism has by no means gone away, but has simply donned new, fragile garb. Racism no longer waves clubs, nor does it tout pointed hoods. Today it ignores, disapproves and silences.
Radcliffe Bent is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in English and philosophy. His column, "Doubt," runs on alternate Tuesdays.