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Emulation not an insult

Letter to the Editor | Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dear Shawnika Giger (“Hip-Hop Night,” March 27),

Over the course of my time at Notre Dame, I have heard many people say incredibly racist things which would certainly not fly at a school that was not 80 percent white Irish-Catholic. It is clear to me that racism is not dead in America, or even at Notre Dame. In a country where black people are incarcerated at rates many multiples of those for whites, where poverty levels are much higher for blacks than for whites and where discrimination in the workplace and the culture at large is still a powerful if less-seen force, only a fool or a liar could say that we have solved the problem of racism. I think we can both agree on this.

That said, we differ on the particular issue you spoke of in “Hip-Hop Night.” I do not think these particular white people seek to perpetuate demeaning racist caricatures of black culture. Believe it or not, black rappers and hip-hop artists have a large amount of cultural cachet – the “cool factor” – even among people who are not black. The white people you see are not mocking black culture; they are emulating it. If there is any humor to be drawn from the scene, it is not from the sight of stereotypical hip-hop or gangster culture; it is from the spectacle of nerdy rich white kids with trust funds spending Mommy and Daddy’s money on imitation street cred – trying as hard as possible to be something they are not and looking desperately uncool while doing so.

But there is a deeper issue at stake than your misinterpretation of white people’s motives for dressing up like people who are cooler than they are. I think that you stand to lose much more than you gain by taking offense at such relatively minor complaints. The more thin-skinned you become and the more eagerly you take offense at incidents such as these, the more reluctant you make all non-black people on this campus to discuss or take part in black culture, for fear of being tarred with the brush of racism. In a way, you make black culture taboo for non-blacks.

By making your culture taboo, you encourage white people to stay away from and be uncomfortable about it, because who knows what innocent remark might be taken as virulently offensive? But having white people skirt these subjects is not a solution to the long-term problems of racism and discrimination. In fact, it makes them worse: when informal discussion or emulation of your culture is made “off-limits” to other groups, it creates a separation between your culture and ours – even a sort of segregation between our cultures. Segregation foments ignorance, which in turn breeds the very misunderstanding, stereotyping and discrimination that your letter targets.

In the long run, taking minor incidents such as these less seriously – even being able to laugh at Whitey’s shoddy imitations of your culture – will go a long way towards fostering the kind of inclusiveness, mutual understanding, and respect that our shared American culture so desperately needs right now. The ability to be at ease with each other’s cultures – even to crack a (good-humored) joke now and then – is integral to our future amity and unity. We can spend our time finger-pointing and recriminating, or we can work together to solve the very real economic and social problems which face all races, minority and majority, in our country today. Let’s move on together.

Brooks Smith


Stanford Hall

March 28