Cartoon by Julien Balbontin, The Varsity
“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.” –Peggy McIntosh

I walk in to one of the super hip, trendy coffee spots in Venice Beach California, and I am instantly mad at all these people.

Every single trendy, hip, artsy, techy person in there, I am mad at. 90% white. The first thing that strikes me is the stupendously heinous swamp-like arrangement they have for taking orders, but that’s not what gets me. What gets me is that they are bumping east coast underground hip hop, Black Star and Gangstarr, Nas, Eric B. & Rakim, and there is not a single black person in the place.

I realize saying this I am in dangerous cross-cultural territory. I fit right into this coffee shop. And I love this music. I raised myself on it. Hip hop is foundational in my day to day soundtracks. I love the music they are playing. And yet the blatancy of cultural dissonance is freaking me out. There is no one in here who looks like the people who made this music.

Now, you could be saying…

“Yes, but what if they were playing Peruvian flute music or Tibetan throat singing, or music from some other part of the world and there were none of those people in the coffee shop?”

I thought of this. See, I had to stop and examine why I felt so judgmental about this scene. Why do I feel that in my day to day, I have a real relationship with this music that now seems cheaply co-opted by the scene I find myself standing in. I am surrounded by people that mostly look like me… white, dressed in athleisure hip-clothes, artsy vibe, high-end laptops littered on the counters, and we all like good, very expensive coffee and can obviously afford it. The scene depicts a culture vastly different than the music lyrics conjure up.

The fact is, this massive level of wanna-be melting-pot mentality and intercultural blending has become so accepted in this country, without ever coming to terms with the racism, slavery and genocide that founded this nation. It’s not a new thought. But the repeat irony is so thick you can’t even slice it with a knife.

Seeing Things As We Are, Not As They Are

You know the saying, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Seems ever appropriate here.

As a culture, we continually fail to acknowledge on a national scale, the genocide of millions of Africans on this soil. That we haven’t taken responsibility as a society for the sordid and continuing aftershocks of 400 years of slavery is still a major glitch in the matrix. In short, we’ve never come to terms. It has been swept under a carpet and patched up with tolerance amendments to an indoctrinated American mind set. Reparations for African-Americans is not and never has been, a reality in this country. I feel like many of us know this, but there are those even now who would argue that our government has gone above and beyond the call of duty to “standardize” or at best mediate race relations. To that I say: WHAT A FREAKING JOKE FOLKS.

What we’ve done is create a culture of assimiliationism. This is why the scene I find before me in the coffee shop feels so disturbing on the surface. In a smooth move reverse assimiliation, we appropriate culture and “make it our own” in order to feel less dissonant with the underlying issues striving to be addressed. I think a lot of us rely on the “melting pot” mindset in order to justify this layer of our society, but as race relations continue to become more inflamed in less and less publically acknowledged ways, this justification loses any of its well-intentioned charm.

No one living is immune to some shade of the generations of resentment, hatred and bigotry. It makes me wonder, if there was just ONE government-mandated, bi-partisan initiated, culturally permeating, socially resonating acknowledgement by this country, one fucking public apology. Not by a person, or a town, or a lobby group… but by the whole United States of America, commissioned by our Head Commander, straight from the Oval Office….would this moment I find myself in feel different… personally, culturally, socially? And not just because of my subjective experience but that the actual climate of cross-cultural understanding would have some better built bridges holding it together? I question whether our social fabric between races could truly be different.

The polarity and painful ironies of appropriation is symptomatic. As a white person who grew up with the inherent privilege that goes along with being white while having access to “urban” culture –as the generic frame of hip-hop, rap and African-American mainstream culture is frequently named, I grew up feeling like it was part of my Generation X zeitgeist. I had the experience of it being superimposed into what I was growing up in, without being able to see outside of my experience at the time. Black culture was being taken by mainstream white America and turned into a “thing”. A fashion, a trend, a look, an adopted way of speaking, -without any respect, knowledge, or education on where this culture arose from.

How Far Do Apologies Go?

In 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the steps to federally recognize the ills and heinous acts done to the indigenous peoples of Canada, on behalf of all of Canada. He issued a formal apology, extending a genuine movement towards healing and reconciliation of wrongful acts. It doesn’t make the baggage magically go away… but it does affect the overall collective awareness through this fundamental acknowledgement. And many people felt a collective energy of relief, of joy, of transparency and unity. Something being spoken about officially that for so long has been officially ignored. It is the parent saying… “Hey, I know I did wrong, I want to make this better”.

This is where the U.S. government has failed to be a socially unifying authority in making sure that all of its citizens feel safe. Equal opportunity cannot be a reality in a setting where the traditional normative culture dictates every aspect of societal norms. Every other culture living under the ruling culture is expected to fit in. But these pokes at equal opportunity, like meritocracy, don’t actually make a difference when the underlying society already places a skin-color at a disadvantage. There is a social example that needs to be set by the authority force of a country, in order to lead its people justly, and with integrity.

The Difference

The difference for me is awareness. Awareness primes us for action.

It’s about the millions and millions of moments happening every day when we experience the friction of cultural interface. Invisible but glaring differences between a group of white boys and a group of black boys walking through the same neighborhood. The difference between a white woman and a black woman applying for the same job. The treatment of a black driver being pulled over versus a white driver being pulled over. These are major social narratives surrounding these moments at all times.

We grapple with the surreal non-existence of equality and social justice in most mainstream settings. But even more difficult is having to grapple with our own thoughts and consciousness around racism; -our default programming, the blind spots of our own awarenesses. So this is where I find myself. Standing in this coffee shop and looking through the lens of a social narrative that I’m craving to make more sense of. The difficulty in writing a piece like this lies only in the fact that there are plenty of people who will see no irony in this scenario and in fact feel entitled to the scenario as “their right to listen to whatever they want”. Which is missing the point entirely. Reverse racism does not exist. If we are afraid to look at the implications that a pseudo-melting pot nation has on establishing racism as an accepted article of society, then there really is no frontier that is going to bring us closer to the justice and understanding that so many of us strive for.