“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” – W.E.B. Du Bois – “Souls of Black Folk”
It’s my first year in college, and some friends and I are going to a frat party on Rugby Road.
It’s a big deal in a couple ways. This is the first college frat party I’ve ever attended, but it’s also the first party I’ve been to where the majority of the people weren’t Black. I grew up on the south and west sides of Chicago (the quintessence of segregation in the midst of diversity), so slow jams, jukin’, Twista, Do or Die, hittin the 40s, and footworkin’ were the only things I knew. Polos, Sperrys, and Katy Perry is a foreign language to me.
We get to the lawn of this large fraternity house, where a couple brothers post up on a couch and check student IDs. Don’t know if they will let me in or nah, assuming I don’t necessarily “belong” here in their eyes and mine. But all three of my companions are women, and they assure me that as long as we stay in a group, I’d be fine (Frats usually like a higher women to men ratio). The guy checking IDs lets all of us in, but before we walk into the door, another puts his hand on my chest when I tried to walk pass.
“Are you with them?”
I brush it away defensively, replying “Yeah man” with a laugh. Not that anything was funny, but more of a don’t-ever-touch-me-again chuckle. He replied “Alright man, chill out. Just checking”. We exchanged passive-aggressive comments, and walked in the door.
The house is packed. After we survey the scene, the usual party-goer formalities ensue: hugs and daps to friends, and searching for drinks to get right before dancing the night away. Someone in our group finds out that the beer is in the basement, so we weave through the crowd to start our descent. I don’t drink much at all (and beer is nasty as hell to me), but I go since my friends wanted beer and they’re the only people I know here. As we walk down, a frat guy tells one of his pledges to roll down the stairs. Without delay, the guy’s body goes limp, and rolls down the whole flight, trampling people in his path like the boulder in Indiana Jones. Luckily for me, I was already at the bottom of the stairs. Some people were laughing at him, others were pissed.
The basement was action-packed. People socializing, single and double-cupped, guys checkin’ out the girls, girls checkin’ out the guys, wide-eyed first years with cheesy smiles, and a whole lot of drunk, ridiculously off-beat dancing. It smelled like a combination of beer, butt-cheek, and sweat. And people kept bumping into me, stepping on my shoes, which were already submerged in a centimeter of beer on the floor from people’s party-fouls. This guy and a girl were posted on a pole engaging in a pretty vivid game of tonsil hockey. My friends were dancing in a tight circle, and I was too…kinda, at least enough to fit in, but I was waiting for the “right” song. The playlist was very poppy; tweaked copies with similar words, chords, and Teenage Dream themes. I was waiting for them to play some mainstream rap, so I could start dancing and be less self-aware.
But isn’t that weird? I’m sure if someone is observing me with a socio-political lens, it must look like I’m waiting for my queue to “act Black”, like I’m standing at the station waiting to board the Soul Train. “Lollipop” by Lil’ Wayne drops and everyone goes crazy, including me. I start dancing, having a good time, singing the lyrics with my friends. But like many Black people jamming with non-Black people (especially white people) to songs that have N-bombs in them, my fun was tempered by that “…Are They Gonna Say It?” suspense.
And they did. Not everyone, but enough to notice. Hearing young, suburban white kids singing “Shawty say the nigga that she wit aint shit” was…weird. Of course this isn’t the time or place to have “The N-Word Debate” and I don’t know how I’m suppose to feel. But it does make me uncomfortable.
Regardless of race or class, songs about sex and materialism will always be popular. There aren’t many, if any, people who live in a capitalist society who don’t want money. There’s plenty of mainstream music, including rap, that is meaningfully meaningless. But why does listening to violent or nihilistic or capitalistic or misogynistic rap around white people make me so uncomfortable? Am I a hypocrite, since I listen to my share of “Fuck bitches, get money” jams too? Do I fear that I understand the “real” parts versus the minstrelsy aspects of mainstream rap and they don’t? But wouldn’t that make me complicit in that minstrelsy? Is this what they think Black people embody? Do they know the reason behind a Tupac saying “Thug Life” or Biggie saying “either you slanging crack rocks or you got a wicked jump-shot”? Or do they like it cause it’s angry, “ghetto”, and it rhymes? Do they care about anything besides the beat? If they think they are “hip” to Black people because they listen to rap, why does my presence in other settings make them feel uncomfortable? Am I afraid that when a non-Black person hears the word “Bitch” in a rap song, he or she is thinking of a Black woman? Would I be more ok with it if they were thinking of a woman from their race? Probably. But aren’t I arguing that each race only be misogynistic to theirs, and not mine? If I asked them any of these questions, would I buy any of their answers? How fast would it take me to miss the sincerity and deconstruct their honest ignorance as willful bullshit? Do they even think about any of this things at all…ever?
Or maybe I just need to shut-up. Political rumination about how music and social interactions are a cultural battleground is for the classroom, not the dance floor.
But so many things are political. It seems clear as the sky, even though most would probably say I’m overthinking or just crazy. But I can’t remember a time I didn’t wrestle with double consciousness; the feeling of always looking at yourself through the lens of another; the struggle to find who I am in the midst of who I say I am with who they say I am. It’s being too African for the rest of the world, but not African enough for Africa. It’s constantly being aware of what white people are thinking, and (even more so) what they don’t think about. It’s on one hand, looking at them and being oblivious to what is in their minds, but on the other, feeling like on my dumbest day, I understand them way better than they could ever understand themselves.
This idea seems arrogant and quite delusional, and it is. But in some ways, it’s purely logical. The historically oppressed class have always known the oppressor with a powerful intimacy. Women know men better than men know women because their survival depends on it. A slave knows the character of his master much better than his master. He knows that part of being a genius is knowing when to allow the master to think he’s a buffoon. LGTBQ’s can tell you the effects of homophobia better than a heterosexual. And if you want to know what is the meaning of money, you ask a poor person, not a rich one.
But when I look deeper, I’m not uncomfortable around ALL white people listening to nihilistic, materialistic rap, just a particular kind; the ones Charles Aaron says suffer from Double Unconsciousness:
“Conversely, double unconsciousness means failing to look at oneself through the eyes of others, and living under a delusion of “oneness,” the myth that if you, as an individual, don’t behave in an actively racist fashion, then you’re not shaped by racism. The doubly unconscious refuse to acknowledge how certain institutions (education, housing) constantly watch their backs. They want extra credit for entertaining different points of view. They love black music, talk to a few black friends, and believe they are developing an understanding of black people (when in fact, they are only developing an image of themselves).”
To look at non-Black rap lovers as trespassers is very problematic. Some have been engaging in Hip Hop culture as long as it’s been existing, and the numbers show they are the ones monetarily invested in it (i.e. buying the music and going to concerts). Black music and entertainment in general, has been a tool for white people to defy and redefine their racial “fate”, and refute the more blatant racism of their ancestors. And though it’s a knee-jerk reaction, it’s ultimately wrong to equate a whole music culture to one race and exclude another, especially since you would then have to equate the negative aspects of that culture also, not just the positives. Peace, sexism, uplift, love, sex, violence, drugs, having fun, politics, religion, comedy, tragedy, misogyny, friendship, greed, and materialism aren’t Black ideals, they are American (maybe even Human) ideals.
Part of me wants to yell “You Shall Not Pass!” Gandalf-style when white people ignorant of any Black history jam to rap. But I’d be no better than a childhood friends who told me he was “Blacker than me” because I could recite the lyrics to a Linkin Park song, or the people who doesn’t listen to rap because it’s so equated to blackness. And I have to be aware of my own contradictions. Why don’t I think about all this when I listen to Eminem? There aren’t many rap songs that give me a response as visceral as when I listen to “Superman“. Isn’t that pretty problematic too? Why don’t I condemn Eminem for his misogyny when he puts anthrax on a tampax and slap you till you can’t stand? Does my investigation into that stop short because it reveals something about myself I don’t want to admit?
My fear and concern is that many non-Black people, especially white people, don’t want to know, and maybe don’t care about Black people or their experiences. For many of them, rap is not just their first reference point to Black culture, it’s their only reference point. I hear it in every “I don’t see race” comment, in every non-response when slavery is brought up in any context, in every “But I have Black friends!”. It’s like Hip Hop walks in the room and introduces me to white people way before I get there and without my consent. Finding a non-black person in college I can have a deep conversation about Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Fela Kuti, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Amiri Baraka, or Angela Davis seems as improbable as trying to catch rare Pokemon with a Magikarp. Sometimes the only apparent bridge between us is Hip Hop. In some ways, that’s beautiful, and we need to figure out how we can take it and run with it. But it can also be a very destructive thing if the most visible commonality I and most of people at the party have is that we both can recite verses about Lil’ Wayne diving in the pussy.
Maybe this frustration is actually jealousy. They have the privilege of juxtaposing themselves with the “coolness” attached to “Blackness” without experiencing the racism Black people do. They can dance to Black musicians without knowing the historical context that creates their art. They get the obscenities without the reality; the spoils without the war. They get to write articles about how Kanye’s “New Slaves” is genius, but feel justified when explaining why a Black person who demands that there ain’t a DAMN thing like slavery other than slavery is being too sensitive. They never had to reconcile or think about negative representation, just consume the “unmitigated black rage prepackaged for your cathartic or voyeuristic convenience” Joan Morgan was talking about in “The Nigga You Hate To Love”. They never have to struggle with double consciousness.
A white guy from the suburbs of Orange County or on a farm in Virginia yelling “Fuck The Police” is unlikely to be saying the same thing as a Black boy in the heart of Compton or Chicago, even if the words match. Rebelling against your parents is not the same thing as rebelling against an oppressive racist and classist power structure. Driving While Young ain’t Driving While Black, and I doubt there is a such thing as Driving While White. Getting told to “keep it moving” because you are loitering is not the same as being stopped and frisked. So when does empathy become false appropriation?
Or is that unrealistic, in the sense that empathy is only possible through re-appropriation?
To be fair, I often have to remind myself that Blackness is not monolithic. There’s plenty of white people who are J-Dilla fanatics, who know more about Black art than I do, who don’t listen to only commercial rap, just as there are plenty of Black people who only get music from the radio, and don’t understand that when I speak about race, skin color is the last thing I’m talking about, not the first. As Paul Gilroy says, “solidarity doesn’t take care of itself, we have to do things to produce that solidarity”. I too often fall victim to the assumption that every Black person understands where I’m coming from. It’s not smart to assume a Black person from northern Virginia or a first generation immigrant from Ghana shares my experience of being from the south side of Chicago JUST because they have melanin. And even as hard as it is for me to admit it, there are ways in which I like or dislike things for the exact same reason as white people do.
But more than that, maybe it doesn’t matter if the reasons are different. Intellectualism aside, we are all in here singing “She licked me like a Lollipop” together.
We leave the party, and my friends want to go to another frat house, but I just want to go home. As I walked back to my dorm, I’m really apprehensive about going to “ The Corner”, where all the bars and late night food spots are. A group of white guys are walking the other way, taking up the whole sidewalk, but I’m not about to walk all the way in the street to move out the way for them. As I tried to weave through at the last second, one of them and I bump shoulders. He says “Watch it, home boy”. I turn around, saying “Yo, don’t fuckin’ call me home boy”.
The guy just keeps walking, maybe he didn’t hear me or just ignored me. I’m glad he didn’t though. Who knows what it could have escalated to. For me, it would’ve been a lose-lose situation. Worst-case scenario, I get jumped. Better-case scenario, I get my ass whooped one on one. Better-case, we trade licks before people break it up. Best-case scenario, I box his ass up. All-case scenario: my Black ass is in jail, whether it was my fault or not. And I can hear it now: bystanders telling the police “I don’t know what happened! We were just walking to the bar and this Black guy just walked up to him and hit him! It was out of nowhere! Why would he do that?”. Shrugging off the aborted “random act of violence”, I put in my headphones and walk home.
When I got back to Kent, many of my hall-mates are chillin’ in their rooms, trading stories about the fun night they had. One guy is telling his buddies about this hot girl he sealed the deal with after getting her drunk. He caveats it by mentioning he was drinking too. As I search for the key to my room, I’m thinking about how it seems like I’m the only one in the world who thinks getting girls drunk to have sex is a socially acceptable form of coercion. Is it rape? There’s too massive of a grey area for me to say yes or no. But even if it she is ready and “willing” and technicalities forbid calling it “rape”, isn’t it still wrong, especially if it was premeditated on the guy’s end and not the girl’s? It doesn’t have to be rape for you to still be a creep. Drunken consent seems like a really odd formality to let men be scumbags; a checkmate we can smash on the board to refute any allegations of women’s victimization, then laugh away in the horizon, screaming “I’m Rick James, Bitch!”.
But that’s a peculiar, unpopular, and maybe “UnManly” conception though, especially in college, where people are just trying to get a good GPA, party, and Color Me Badd.
In this world ironic world, morality is often just a majority rules numbers game. We discuss racism when it’s very blatant (see Donald Sterling), and we can all take shots on a free punching bag. But when slavery is mentioned in just about any public context…*crickets*. We don’t care about ableism, because the majority of us aren’t handicap. We don’t think it’s idiotic to wear traditional Native American headdresses to Halloween parties, because there is presumably no Native American in the building. Islamophobia is justified every single day, because most Americans are “Christians” (at least in belief, not behavior). Our relationship to classism is probably the most complicated, since some rich think the poor are lazy, the poor resent the rich for being oblivious to their unearned privileges, but temper their critiques, since after all, we all want to be rich one day. Ironically, the thing that seems to be moving the fastest towards elimination is homophobia, even though most of us are heterosexual.
But even in a world where there are slightly more women than men, sexism seems different. Sexism is the least questioned in general, because male domination seems to be the “natural order of things”. All too often in cases of sexual violence, people’s first thought is “What was she wearing?”. Behind that inquiry lurks a vicious monster; it says men cannot control themselves. It says loud and clearly “Women, I’m a Predator. Don’t Be Prey”. Sexism seems like the common denominator, something we all hold hands on. These were the thoughts running in my head as I opened the door.
After a quick shower, I looked through blogs to download some new music. As I lay down on my bed, I can’t go to sleep. As usual for me, there’s too much on my mind. It’s hard being the socially conscious Black male introvert. I tend to “overthink” things, and stay busy connecting dots, while everyone else is having fun; searching for the meaning of all this while everyone else is living. I just can’t help it though. Even the most mundane things are political to me. I don’t just see people, places, and things, I see history. James Baldwin compelled to doubt my history, to examine it, and to try to create it.
But enough thinking for the night. I turn on my iPod, and listen to my Kanye West and Kid Cudi playlist until I fall asleep.
We Out Here,
The Socially Conscious Awkward Black Guy Introvert Who Sees Politics In Everything
*Writing this was hard. While I offered my own perspective and observations, I had to admit my own hypocrisies and contradictions. But hopefully, I wrote this in the spirit of Audre Lorde, being able to talk about difference without being divided. But also with the James Baldwin in me. His thoughts on racial tension is “it’s not a racial problem. It’s a problem of whether or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it”.
While I agree with him, I would nuance it. Real “post-raciality” is the world looking in the same mirror, at the same time, and being able to the beauty of what we see while stomaching what we don’t want to see. I hope you gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, historical, political, philosophical, and psychological forces behind seemingly banal social interactions. But if not, maybe this is just me hoping you learn more about me.