“Dear white people… top of the list of unacceptable costumes: Me.”
The premise of Netflix’s recently released college dramedy-satire, Dear White People, revolves around an ill-advised Halloween party pitched by the staff of a fictional Ivy League college’s culture magazine, Pastiche, where attendees don an assortment of “urban-themed” costumes, many of which include Blackface. The show is a satirical take on “race relations” in America, with jokes about “wokeness” interwoven with genuine commentary on the often fraught interactions between people of different ethnicities — especially with regards to culture and appropriation.
And while the show is clever, tightly plotted, and slickly written, even its writers never could have foreseen how apropos it would be in real time, paralleling current events in entertainment, with not just one, but two different personalities in hot water for appropriating Black culture in the same week of its release. “Dear white people…” often sounds like the lead-in to a slander-laden tirade against Caucasian folks, but in the case of pop culture personalities like Miley Cyrus and YesJulz, there are greater lessons to be learned and taught… which is the whole point of the show in the first place.
“… And the Jay Z song was on…”
Until “Party In The USA” stormed radio in 2009, Miley Cyrus was just the latest “America’s sweetheart” model to roll off the Disney Pop Princess Factory assembly line, fresh off a successful second season of tween alter-ego comedy Hannah Montana. The show’s premise: A teen pop music star switches between dual identities — from regular teen Miley Stewart to eponymous megastar Hannah Montana — in order to enjoy the benefits of both normal life and ridiculous fame. If this doesn’t sound familiar, it will. After the release of her EP, The Time Of Our Lives, she went all-in on a “hip-hop-inspired” image and sound for her fourth LP, Bangerz, executive produced by Mike Will Made It. She debuted a new look that included an undercut, faded out hairline and custom, basketball-jersey dresses, and twerked across stage to tunes that now featured rappers like Future and French Montana. However, recently, in a promotional interview for her new album with Billboard magazine, she revealed that she no longer listens to rap music thanks to differences in “political” views.
Meanwhile, just last night, during what is affectionately known to its participants as “Third Shift Twitter” (i.e. the overnight run, when things get really saucy and the jokes reach a level of bawdiness normally reserved for late night booty calls and liquored-up Uber rides home from shutting down the bar), social media personality/event host/”director of vibes”/accused culture vulture Julieanna Goddard, aka YesJulz, sent and promptly deleted a controversial tweet featuring a slogan tee that featured the dreaded “n-word,” with the caption “So… am I allowed to wear this shirt to the festival tomorrow or nah (sic)” It should be noted that this isn’t the first time Julz has found herself in hot water; she has often been accused of being a “culture vulture,” or someone who routinely engages in the practice of cultural appropriation for personal gain. She hosts parties that prominently feature hip-hop personalities and musicians, but remains suspiciously silent with regards to the social adversities faced by the primary purveyors and connoisseurs of hip-hop culture. This is a fact made even more ironic by the tagline of her “creative marketing agency”: “…bridging the gap between cool and conscious.”
— Monique Judge (@thejournalista) May 5, 2017
The reason Dear White People seems to so eerily reflect life is this is a story we’ve all heard before: White kids dabbling in Blackness ‘til it gets too hot, and jumping back out of the fire.
In the show there’s a scene, where Kurt, son of the school’s president and original mastermind behind the Blackface party, comes under scrutiny from Black activist/agitator, Reggie, and tries to defend the lawn jockey figure that caricatures Black features used as decoration at the party. He tells an incredulous Reggie an apocryphal story about the statues being used as waymarkers on the Underground Railroad; when asked the providence of the alleged slave narrative, Kurt replies that he found the story on Wikipedia. His understanding of the culture comes from a poorly-curated article that only superficially touches on the folk tale, and he didn’t even read the whole thing (I know, I’ve read it. It specifically mentions the dubious nature of the myth, and notes that there is no primary source amongst the copious collections of historical records of the time). Yet he uses the story to deflect his aggrieved classmate’s irritation, telling him, “you don’t even know why you’re mad.” Black readers just rolled their eyes so hard, some of them probably had to lie down; we’ve heard this before.
Consider that when Miley was asked (repeatedly) just which Jay Z song was on, she admitted openly she did not really listen to much rap music at the time. No surprise there; the genre she’d mostly operated in prior to “Party” was country music. However, judging from her remarks justifying her distancing herself from rap, it becomes clear she still never really did much more than dip a toe in; how else to explain the sweeping declaration that, “It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c*ck’ — I am so not that.’”? With all the breadth and depth of rap music available for her to listen to, from Run the Jewels, to Heemz, to Macklemore, and reaching all the way back to the Beastie Boys, how is it that the only rap she “listened” to sounds like the dialogue to a bad porno?
Likewise, Julz’ job seems to largely consist of appearing at parties that play a lot of trap rap and “hosting,” which seems to mean standing around in provocative clothing on stage and generally giving off the appearance of having a lot of fun. A perusal of her Instagram holds no surprises; photos with rappers (nearly always of the “ratchet” variety), mirror selfies, vacation pics, promotional flyers — your garden variety “influencer” starter pack. What you won’t find on her Instagram or her Twitter: a single mention of Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Standing Rock, Flint, MI, the AHCA, or social justice of any kind (go ahead, search her name alongside any of the above terms — I’ll wait here). There was, however, plentiful shade directed toward any critic of hers — usually predicated on straw “Black women” who were only hating because “Black guys love (her).”
Any issue that disproportionately affects Black folks or other people of color is systematically scrubbed. It’s not that she doesn’t talk about it; it’s that the tweets are usually inflammatory, ignorant, apathetic, or just plain wrong, and when called out on them, she quickly deletes and goes on with her day, often with a half-hearted apology that reads more like annoyance that all these dang “Twitter activists” are bringing so many “bad vibes.” Left behind as archaeological evidence are pages upon pages of reactions to the tweets in question, including the most recent with the photo of the t-shirt that simply says “Niggas lie a lot.” That’s not consciousness, that’s outright appropriation, and the worst kind; the kind that erases or outright ignores the originator so long as there’s profit to be gained from the culture’s use, and discomfort from engaging with its creators.
Sorry if I offended anyone, that was and never is my intention.
— Julz (@YesJulz) May 5, 2017
There’s a saying for these types of behavior: It’s called throwing a rock and hiding your hand. The offender feigns innocence and ignorance with their hands firmly stuffed as deep as they’ll go in both pockets as if to say “couldn’t be me that broke the window; how could I throw anything with my hands so deep inside these pockets?” The irony is the fact they choose to hide belies that sentiment; they know exactly what they did and why it was wrong in the first place. The point is, though, that it becomes all too easy too point out the hypocrisy of “trying on” Blackness or “exotic” cultures like a suit which gets discarded the instant it feels uncomfortable.
No, the real problem is these folks have a shallow and meaningless understanding of rap and hip-hop, and more importantly, of what Blackness truly is. It’s like watching the trailer for a movie months before it even comes out and writing a review of the film based solely on the hazy recollection of an assortment of out-of-context highlights when it releases. There can be no understanding of the film’s intent, of its craftsmanship, of what goes into it, or what can be learned from it, if the writer never lives with the film, experiences it, sinks into the cushions of a theater seat in a packed auditorium with a bucket of popcorn and one of those beach-pail-sized cups of soda. It’s lazy and it does a disservice to the art, its creator, and to the partaker, who never really gets to know what they’re missing out on by dismissing the entirely of the movie out of hand. So it is with any culture, sub- or otherwise, that the participant only views from a distance; you can’t lick the icing off a seven-layer cake and tell anyone what those other six layers taste like.
Blackness is more than hair, lips, noses, clothes, slang, music, attitude, walk, locale, origin, destination, or a single set of interests. The same can and should be said for any Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, or otherwise marginalized culture in mainstream America. These cultures are often created as a reaction to, defense from, and/or in spite of the mainstream’s marginalization of those cultures and groups. That the middle-of-the-road, white bread consumer of arts and entertainment in America can only tolerate filtered, watered-down, neutered versions of them is a function. Hip-hop, in all its angst and ire, is an indictment of a society that gives its public servants license to execute unarmed children in the streets, and issue edicts that cut off clean water from its citizens.
Rap celebrates material success because to this very day, the financial institutions and government seek to bar the Black kids who grow up to be rappers and their families and friends from the tools and education to achieve it outside of rap, for the sole purpose of spitting in those institutions’ eyes and motivating others to do the same. Participating because it looks cool without understanding any of that doesn’t just invalidate some of the transformative power of the art, it prevents the beneficial transformation of the participant into a better, more complete, more aware, more sensitive, socially-responsible person.
There are no bars, locks, or keys on any culture including hip-hop, save for the bars spat by MCs seeking opportunities outside of sports or the “pharmaceuticals” industry, the streets they put on lock, and the keys they claim to move while Zaytoven bangs away on his. White kids are allowed to listen to hip-hop in the same way they are allowed to watch Friday, or frequent the Greystone Manor in Hollywood, or cop retro Jordans for posterity and street credibility.
But if you’re going to engage, engage. When it’s time to show up for the march, we better see you there holding a cold can of Pepsi (I kid, please don’t bring Pepsi unless you’ve got enough for everybody). When Flint, Michigan is going on 1,115 days without clean water, nobody is saying you can’t play trap music at the party you throw to raise money and awareness. Just don’t do it in Blackface, and for the love of Tupac, Biggie, and Malcolm X: please, please, please don’t wear a shirt that says “nigga” on it. You’re better than that.