Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blackface and Kanye: Too Comfortable with Hate

Transcending race. Being colorblind. These are all terms that I seem to hear often and after reading David Sirota's "Back to Our Future", I understand these are fairly new concepts introduced in the 1980's. That's why last month was so interesting to me.

Two things happened that showed the problem with this idea. The annual issue with folks dressing up in blackface and Kanye West adding the Confederate flag to his fashion at his shows. First the blackface.

The problem with blackface is that we have a couple of generations removed from the "racist past" who think it's cool to do it without realizing the consequences. They actually bristle at you when you dare tell them it's wrong and offensive instead of apologize and realize the error of their ways.

But today's youth has a unique situation. White kids grow up with a Black president, Black rappers being the biggest pop stars on the planet and White pop stars using Black influences (which isn't new). They're in a society where pop culture is more diverse than ever yet their understanding of individual cultures is limited.

They aren't being taught racism of the past as much as they see everything and think they can do it too. They are the children who were taught you can do anything and get what you want. So I don't blame the children as much as I blame those who taught them otherwise.

To be fair, these are how most kids are these days but when it comes to handling race, I see so much arrogance intertwined with ignorance that it's appalling. That's why the rise in blackface every October bothers me because it seems like the problem gets worse.

That's why I have a problem with Kanye West embracing the Confederate flag in fashion. We're in a society that's lacks critical thinking and with young fans thinking stuff is "cool", they'll wear Kanye's clothing and not think twice of the problem with it.

Yes, symbols change their meaning over time. So let me tell you that I don't just think the Rebel flag symbolizes slavery and terrorism. It's a symbol of treason. A reminder of when 11 states seceded from the Union to form their own government.

I get Southern pride. My mom's family is from Texas and my dad's family is from Louisiana. My sister lived in Atlanta and I have several family members there. I love to embody the best of the South in terms of hospitality, cooking and culture. But as much as it's a different world there, that flag symbolizes when folks went too far to try and create one to preserve their way of life.

If Kanye wanted to be more powerful, he'd take the Rebel flag and burn it on stage to make a statement about people being united instead of divided by hate. He'd do it while playing "New Slaves" or "Black Skinhead" and speak on the racism he's facing in the fashion industry, which he's done before. But that's just my idea.

Maybe that's why I think America has become cowards in discussing race. 90's/00's babies have grown up in a world that tried to tell them racism is in the past. They grew up hearing hip-hop on Top 40 radio and although TV/movies aren't totally diverse, it's more than it was when I grew up. As a result, they've become colorblind without understanding the various cultures around them. It's emblematic of us as adults whenever something happens in a racial dynamic - i.e. Trayvon Martin - and people try to tell you that race isn't a factor and shame you for seeing beneath the surface.

I get wanting to move beyond race and using it as a crutch. I get wanting to take hateful symbols and subvert them (which is ironic cause I doubt anybody will publicly try that with a swastika). When done right, both are great tools but when done wrong, they led to too many misunderstandings and instead of teaching people to forget the past, we make them dumber in the present and future. It's escapism more than growth.

That's when several UCLA students made a video about the lack of Black male students on campus, it struck me. Not because I've known about this since 2006 or pondered why I was rejected in 2002, but because this is what happens when we try to transcend race. We watch as equality doesn't happen. We watch as being colorblind leads to deeper problems.

Last week, my youth group saw some clips of "Birth of a Nation" to help illustrate the history behind blackface. They left more aware and understanding why blackface made them angry as well as ponder how current images are maybe helping contribute to stereotypes.

That's why I ask if robbing the power of symbols is a great idea long-term. In the short-term, it's reactionary and used as powerful. But long-term, you have people who forget the history and treat it like a plaything or shock value without the depth to understand how to subvert it. I see it often when I check my newspaper's Twitter feed and see White kids say nigga like it's another word.

That's what I find dangerous and irresponsible about Kanye's actions. In an era where White kids are playing with blackface and brownface, saying nigga without a care and society encouraging colorblindness, wearing the Rebel flag is a hollow statement that symbolizes the current climate instead of trying to subvert it. By trying to transcend race and hate, we also face the reality of ignoring to comprehend it.

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