Black Culture Is Cool, So Why Aren’t Black People?
A theory and analysis on the disconnect between White mainstream America’s obsession with Black Culture yet lack of support and respect for Black people
Being cool is not easy. Staying cool is even harder. A fashion trend can change in a week and a music taste can go out of style just as it began to get popular. The world of cool is a dynamic space where, especially today, it is a constant race to find the next fad, set trends, and stay fresh and relevant. Although the micro aspects of staying hip like the popularity of cool brands, artists, or attitudes are frequently shifting, there has been a macro-trend that predates any cool trend we see today in America. Although it may seem like a sudden change, this trend has been around and active since our country’s inception and is the trend that instituted America’s understanding of cool. This trend is black culture or rather, being obsessed with it.
In the past decade, it would be almost impossible to define what it means to be cool without mentioning the influence of the Black culture we see on TV, the movies, sports, clothes, language, gestures and music. In 2015 it would be difficult to argue that black cool has not become cool as we know it. In our first meeting of Cornell’s seminar on #Swag we made a list of who we considered to be cool in our society. The final list was almost entirely filled with black men and some black women. Michael Jordan, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyonce and a few others were almost immediately added to the blackboard. From this exercise it’s obvious that we all know cool when we see it, and now, more than at any other time in this country’s history, when mainstream America looks for cool we look to black culture. We see white teens, and even white celebrities intensely idolizing trends occurring in Black culture and seemingly desiring to be a part of or actually live the African American experience.
But why has it become so cool for white middle and even upper-class youths to spit rap lyrics, wear sagging jeans, call each other variations of the N-word or for white celebrities to wear their hair to mimic a style typically associated with African American tradition and even rocking grillz?
Although this may seem like a weird fad, as I said earlier, this infatuation with black culture and the essence of cool goes much farther back than todays superstars. Infatuation with a culture is not uncommon, but ever since the first slaves arrived in Jamestown in the 1620's to the suburban “wiggers” having free-styling sessions in their cars, there has been a tradition of disconnect between the obsession with the coolness of black culture and actually caring at all about black people themselves along with the struggles, hardships, and traditions they have and face. The obsession and disconnect has varied over time but today, we like to hear about the pain and struggles of Kendrick, wear the Yeezy’s, walk and talk like ASAP but don’t care about what’s going on with the people they support and represent.
But how did this obsession and “cool” itself arise from a culture of individuals’ who weren’t considered humans and seen as abominations to society for the majority of America’s history? Slave culture is where we find the answer; where the culture is cool, but the people are not. “Synthesis in the context of separation” as John Leland states in his book Hip: The History, does well to outline the the context of of the era, where two incredibly different cultures are separated by an institution that also brings them incredibly close. According to John Leland, before the invention of the cotton gin white owners worked alongside their slaves in an unequal but intimate manner. Despite the intimacy, slaves were under strict control and hardship at all times and thus their culture emerged from struggle. Their vernacular evolved into a cool code where their phrases and language mean more than they say. The sounds and beats of their songs and spirituals were different from what whites were accustomed to. Their lifestyle of living on the cusp, trying to make something out of nothing while living in constant fear and danger was intriguing yet inaccessible for whites that were living alongside them. This phenomenon that whites were so close to this new culture that they were conditioned to stay so far from, not only established the recipe for cool culture in America but also initiated this bizarre, obsession with Black Culture that we see today.
There are actual accounts of slaves that describe the peculiar infatuation that their slave masters had with meddling and controlling their slaves’ everyday lives and affairs. An account from Sarah Fitzpatrick, who was born into slavery in Alabama in 1847 reveals this relationship as she states:
“My Mistus use’ta look at my dress an’ tell me when hit wuz right. Sometime she make me go back an’ put on ‘nother one, tell us what to wear, tell us to go back an’ com’ our heads. Young “Niggers f’om several plan’ations used to git toget’er at ‘er der white f’oks houses an’ have a big time. White fo’ks lact to git ‘round an’ watch ‘em, make ‘em ring up an’ play games an’ things lack dat. You see de Niggers couldn’t write in dem days an’ ef a boy wanted to court a gal he had to git his Marster to read de letter to her an’ write de boy back.” Via
From this we see the beginning of white people’s obsession with black culture. Slave owners are essentially stimulated by tampering with and trying to thrust themselves into a way of life that it is foreign and forbidden yet so close in proximity at the same time. Whites are suddenly attracted to the difference and and danger of interacting with black people and participating in their affairs. So much so that slave owners began wanting to actually participate in the vernacular of their slaves. They were so fascinated with it that “some owners actually beat their slaves for speaking “proper” English” (via) and tried to learn and copy the slave speech. This trend of desiring to be“dangerous” and different by learning and obsessing over the speech of the “abominations of society” was so popular that the Southern accent we know today comes the the inflections of the slang from slave culture on the original British accent as argued by historians.
As slavery ended we begin to see the start of American mainstream culture having a black face. The media used minstrel shows in the late 1800's as a way to feed Northerners’ fascination with black culture using stereotypical black archetypes. Although the shows were criticized for maintaining the inferiority of African American’s by portraying them as mentally inferior, the shows did invite whites to participate in and alluring forbidden world.
Watching minstrel shows must have made white people feel pretty cool at the time. Interacting with a black person in this time period was incredibly frowned upon while black culture itself was glorified in these minstrels for its care free laid back attitude. Whites got to feel different and hip as they could abandon their own stereotypes and vicariously live this new forbidden culture and attitude. Some of the performers became so infatuated with the culture they were portraying with a black face, that they actually had less confidence in their white faces. It was said by his fellow performers that the famous minstrel actor Al Jolson was “terribly nervous about enacting the comic role, but a blackface monologuist [sic] on the same bill suggested to Al that wearing burnt cork would make him feel he was someone else. Al tried it, and the resulting persona was exciting, spontaneous, joyous. The dull, self-conscious kid was on his way to becoming an electrifying presence.” (Via)
This confidence that that arises from appropriating a different and “cool” culture or lifestyle, (black culture in this case) is something that we see a lot today in the media and in performers and celebrities. White people who are under the media’s eye today and help establish pop culture, just like these minstrel performers, all seem to rely on appropriating elements of black culture to create a confident, hip, different, and “living on the edge” type-persona . For example
you have Justin Bieber transitioning from a bowl-cut-rocking suburban boy to a tattooed club rat who sags his pants lower than most rappers, or Iggy Azalea using a fake “black” accent in her performances. These white celebrities’ reliance on using stereotypical aspects of black culture as a way to be relevant, (particularly aspects that involve danger and living on the edge), results in a disconnect between the obsession and respect and appreciation of black people.
One area of society where this disconnect is highly visible is the female body image and style trends. Recently when white celebrities have features or style choices associated with black people they are seen as beautiful or trendsetters while black people on the other hand are seen as less beautiful or are ignored when sporting their natural appearance. For example, as Mic noted, when Kylie Jenner wore dreads, Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic called them “edgy” as if she were setting a trend. But when judging biracial actress Zendaya Coleman’s dread locks, she said they made her look as though she smelled of “weed” or “patchouli oil."
Vogue magazine was bashed earlier this year when they said that Iggy Azalea was pioneering a “big booty” trend. And the Kylie Jenner challenge? Big lips on a white girl suddenly becomes a style trend and an internet sensation when in the same year a Viola Davis a black actress was described as “less classically beautiful” in a New York Times movie review for most likely having large lips and a larger nose than “normal”. The respect for black people is just not there, and the disconnect of obsession versus actually caring grows larger when famous white people appropriate aspects of black culture.
Another place where see a disconnect is white America’s obsession with the tough or “thug” life style of blacks as well as their struggles and hardships we see and hear in rap and on TV but actually shrugging off their problems in real life. One would think that because hip hop has become so mainstream especially in white culture (movies, TV, etc) and that whites would acknowledge how close they’ve become with the black community and be aware of the issues that they face. I would agree that people are aware of the issues and difficult lifestyle many blacks are living but they are more obsessed with the novelty and difference of the lifestyle and issues. In gangsta rap or trap music, the media takes advantage of the white attraction to this novelty, and treats the culture/lifestyle as a piece of entertainment while not really caring about the actual people in the culture. An example of this is Vice Media’s “Noisey” series in which the lifestyle of the Atlanta trap scene is captured on video.
The controversy of this video was that Migos, –music group filmed in the episode–were arrested for drug and firearm possession not long after this video hit Youtube. It was presumed that the police were tipped off from these videos as Vice did not hold back from filming everything including close up shots of guns and drugs as well as further inquiry about the specifications of the illegal assets.
The fact they are so willing to put these young black males on camera with potentially illegal firearms reveals that clicks, views, and ad dollars are more important than the actual lives of these young men who by massive popularity and fame are forced to carry automatic weapons where ever they
go. The issue with these videos is that Vice is so focused on showing things that would make white people shake in their boots. This video seems to be directed at a white audience as if it were simply a shocking museum exhibit of black culture. There isn’t much respect towards these guys’ upbringing and their stuff they go through day to day. Similar to actors in minstrel shows, Vice reporters must feel pretty “cool” being able to step into a very intense side of black culture and feel none of its consequences.
Aside from from disconnect between obsession of rap culture and actual rappers lives, another disconnect lies between white peoples obsession with being part of black peoples’ struggles and pain while showing minimal to no support when they are in a position to help. An example of white peoples infatuation with black struggle, especially with the stress that comes with their relationship with law enforcement, is the massive fan base of the TV program, The Wire. The Wire let people into the incredibly difficult lives of blacks in Baltimore, which is what created its huge fan base. The content is raw and the acting believable which helps throw the audience head first into the world of realistic African American struggles in an urban environment where they actually reveal to an accurate degree how everything in the urban environment is out to get black people. The viewers are mesmerized by how hard and different life is in Baltimore for black people as well as the humanity of so called “criminals” like drug dealers. No matter how much they may feel for the black characters in the Wire white viewers seem to be more interested in the culture of blacks rather than the people themselves as displayed by the lack of support for the Baltimore riots. White viewers could be glued to their screens in fascination and horror when they witness the tensions between Baltimore blacks and corrupt police, but when they witness blacks destroying squad cars on live Television they don’t understand the logic behind it. The outrage in the white community is minimal. Before trying to understand the concepts behind the Black Lives Matter Movement, white people ask the questions “What about black-on-black crime?” or “Why destroy your own community?” while still listening and enjoying songs about the very struggles they choose to ignore. This lack of understanding for the struggles of blacks in Baltimore is illustrated well in the video below.
We can see act of simply ignoring the struggles in Baltimore’s politics. Instead of trying to dig deeper into the problems of why blacks are being disenfranchised and how fix the community, the mayor of Baltimore used 30 million dollars that were originally supposed to go into improving school systems into a 60-bed jail to house Baltimore teenagers charged as adults. These sort of occurrences will continue as long as white people continue to be overly focused on, and worship black culture rather than care about their struggles. White privilege is a powerful force, that makes it difficult for white people to go out of their way to care about very intense issues that make them question themselves.
So why does this disconnect happen what does it mean? I interviewed my parents to get a better idea. My mother and father are both quite liberal and I asked them what were some of the reasons they thought many people from their generation tend to disconnect from the black problems and don’t empathize with the people. My mother talked about how people don’t want to talk about issues because it makes them uneasy and re-think everything they were taught and know about their country. “It makes people feel uneasy” was what she said. It is understandable when people are told to take responsibility for their actions or are asked to reflect people feel guilt and anger. She also said that a lot of people have other problems to deal with and life is hard as it is even for white people and thus don’t want to have another persons pain on their mind. My dad on the other hand was very honest and said, although he is a very liberal guy, that he feels pangs of racism go through his head during certain situations. If there was a black man in a hood walking behind him late at night he would feel the urge to cross the street. He also talked about how its hard to empathize sometimes when you see some rappers showing off their Ferraris and calling girls hoes and bitches in their music videos. I would agree that it would be difficult, especially for the older generations care about black people when they see this. Another aspect I believe decreases empathy is when you see these wealthy black celebrities beefing with each other, such as Floyd Mayweather and 50-Cent, and not getting involved in the issues and struggles of their own race.
So what needs to change so that we as a society can move forward and take the first steps in mending this disconnect? We need to start talking about the disconnect to begin with and that starts with the youth. When people are silent on these issues, they are actively choosing to be. Silence is a privilege and an action. We need to get past this awkward stage of not wanting to talk about how our racial relations are not as progressive as we think they are. Also I think the media needs to do a better job of showing other aspects of black culture besides the ones that make us want to live a dangerous lifestyle. The issue is that “cool” will always be what is different, dangerous, new, and inaccessible and the media preys on us off that basis and looks to black culture to find it.