What Lane’s Musical Tastes Taught Him About Racism

I have recently noticed something troubling about my musical tastes; I don’t listen to many black artists. In analyzing why, I have discovered something even more troubling. When I listen to an artist and realize they are black, if I then notice anything I read as “blackish” (a rhythm reminiscent of R&B, for example, or the pronunciation of a word), I feel a little embarrassed, as if I have noticed something I wasn’t supposed to. I start looking for reassurances that I have not been somehow racist by noticing this, and I am likely to not seek out that artist again. This happens even when I genuinely enjoyed the music.

Last month, during the Trayvon Martin controversy, I came across this post by Dan Fincke. The article he linked to and attacked was infuriating, and also enlightening to me. I realized, for the first time, that racism today is not generally what I have been raised to think it is. Growing up I learned about racism was “this very bad thing where people are judged by their skin color.” That still exists, but nowadays it is as much about judging culture and then profiling culture by skin color as it is about judging skin color directly.

I grew up with what I considered to be a very multiracial community. My two best friends are half-Japanese and half-Filipino. I actually feel somewhat uncomfortable when I leave Northern Virginia for somewhere overwhelmingly white. Part of my brain will inevitably be asking, “where did all the non-white people go?” I once took the IAT race test. I actually had a slightly easier time associating darker faces with positive words (I suspect that’s because I find dark skin attractive, on the same level as blue eyes or red hair). Still, however multiracial my community was, I have since realized it was anything but multicultural. I grew up surrounded by middle class, Republican, evangelical protestant homeschoolers. There were Asians, but they were generally third or fourth generation at least. There people of non-white Hispanic ancestry, but I don’t remember hearing anyone speak Spanish. There were many people of mixed race, but for the most part their families were culturally Anglicized.

I have noticed a general pattern of people discussing racial stereotypes, admitting that they are stereotypes, and then speculating about cultural causes for these stereotypes. There is a version of this conversation that is a valid, objective observation of how statistics and heuristics combine to create stereotypes. There is another version that is simply trying to justify the holding of the stereotype. “Americans often view Asians as nerds because Asian culture values achievement,” is the former. “Asians are nerds because Asian culture values academic achievement,” is the latter. This type of racism is insidious because the difference between the objectively true statement and the justification of a stereotype is so subtle, in a conversation you can miss which one was actually said. Racists can talk in circles around themselves until they themselves have lost the objectivity to realize that they are being racist.

Despite growing up in a monocultural environment where stereotypes are defended, I am not monocultural in my interests. I listen to music from other cultures, I watch foreign language films, I study other cultures with genuine interests and I try to fight stereotypes in my own mind. So why is black culture the exception? Short version; I think that racism against blacks in American society is just that much worse. The history of black and white communities in America is fundamentally different from other minorities. With the exception of Native Americans, other American minorities have arrived as immigrants, who came here voluntarily. They are typically treated in ways that are, in retrospect, shameful, but white Americans can comfort themselves with the fact that the new arrivals are only here because this is “the land of opportunity.” After a few generations the “unwelcome newcomer” effect wears off, and the grandchildren of the former oppressed minorities can join the ranks of the elite, even complaining about the current crop of immigrants. This is not the case with black history. Right from the earliest colonization, it has been bloody, brutal and inexcusable, and white people are the villains of the piece.

Many white people, I think, want to just be done with it. They want want to see racial injustices against black people evaporate. That hasn’t happened. We had the civil rights movement, and things improved, but four centuries of active, bloody, systematic oppression isn’t going to go away as quickly as we would like. When Americans are confronted with that fact, they have two basic choices. They can admit that there is still work to be done, or they can take advantage of the current trend of “oh, stereotypes are true because that’s what culture is.” They can scapegoat the black community for the economic and social problems that community has to deal with. Some people take one road, some take another.

Growing up, I did hear a good deal of disparaging talk about the black community, all packaged in nice academic language that made it clear that this wasn’t about black PEOPLE being bad, it was about the culture.  Black people who dress and talk and act exactly like white people are fine, but black people who seem to have, *gasp*, been influenced by black culture are not to be trusted. That kind of talk had an effect on me without me realizing it. I enjoy Chinese pop music that incorporates erhus, because its a beautiful instrument and part of the artist’s expression of their background. I also enjoy black music that uses strong beats aesthetically, but I should be similarly enjoying the fact that the artist is expressing themselves and incorporating their heritage into that self-expression. Instead, I feel the same vaguely embarrassed quick-look-away response that you get when someone drops their fork. That is a horrible reaction to have, and the only reason that I don’t feel like a horrible excuse for a human being for having it is because I know it was culturally indoctrinated, and I have every intention of fighting the fuck out of it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to Esperanza Spalding.