Some Things Actually Are For White People But That’s Okay
I once got into a Twitter battle with a young lady who swore that collard greens were ‘black’ food. Her reasoning was, “now you know it is mostly black people who eat it so therefore it is black people’s food.” In essence, it is impossible for a food to be racialized as foods are indigenous to geographic localities not people. I am not basic so I won’t make those types of empty claims. In a similar vein, after my post on the Beatles, I received some negative feedback about my use of the term ‘white people music.’ I am not backing down from my claims that the Beatles are quintessential white people music, but I will clarify the three main criteria I use to make such generalizations as well as my reasoning for critiquing various public media in the first place.
For the record, I have always taken issue with the idea that innocuous or inanimate entities can be deemed ‘white,’ or ‘black,’ or ‘insert racial group here.’ Many people believe anything can be slotted into a racial category. I do not.
Take mathematics – which I personally have been told I was ‘white’ for liking. Math occurs naturally in the environment. Mathematics existed before humans and will continue to exist long after we are gone. It doesn’t belong to any one race nor is any social group the arbiter of its existence. Yet music and movies are certainly ours to categorize accordingly.
Unlike food and math, consumer media like movies, music, and novels don’t just grow from the ground. They aren’t sentient. Like all art forms, they come from people.
It is actually pretty easy to spot a ‘white people movie’ for example. The basic criteria are: a) If it is written by white people, b) it stars white people in most of the lead roles, and c) it is marketed toward white people, chances are it’s a white people movie. This is even clearer if the movie features token minorities who embody every stereotypical ‘other’ racial group in American society. Think Gone With the Wind (1939) or The Help (2011). Some black folks love these iconic films – there are even a few black people in each of them -but you can guarantee they weren’t made for or marketed to black audiences seeking authentic representations of themselves.
These are not hard and fast rules. Some movies are performed by black people but produced by and marketed to whites. The same can be said about music (which is obvious since the largest consumers of rap music are whites). There is always room for conversation when only two of three criteria are met. For simplicity though, these are the mental steps I fall back on subconsciously when figuring out what products I deem worthy of my patronage.
After talking with folks upset by my blanketed labeling of the Beatles, I realized that many black folks, and other non-whites, are closeted Beatles lovers. Some have been teased about it so they felt my article was another attack on their musical proclivities. Others were even offended at me calling the work ‘white people music’ in the first place. They almost felt the need to prove to me that black people could listen to the Beatles if they wanted to. Sadly, they all completely missed the point.
Shaming black people who enjoy the Beatles wasn’t the point of the article. Whether we choose to consume movies or media produced and performed by, and marketed to white people – or any other people for that matter – is a personal choice. That doesn’t change who made it, who performed it, and who the intended audience was. For example, when Elvis Presley (the original Iggy Azalea) mimicked Jackie Wilson, it didn’t mean Presley was working to win over black audiences. It meant he was appropriating the dances and performance styles of black people to appeal to his own white audience. Could black audiences still play his stuff? Certainly. I have no doubt they did. But, he just wasn’t doing it for them.
The same goes for the Beatles. Those British boys weren’t hobnobbing on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” Even if they had it wouldn’t change their core business model. While they appreciated Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, their sound was primarily appealing to whites. This is a rudimentary argument, of course. I am not attempting to produce a music theory dissertation here. I only seek to clarify a point which many missed in my previous post.
This isn’t just an art conversation. It is about white consumerism. Just look at a hair care aisle at your local Target. You are likely to see many products specifically engineered, tested by, and marketed to white people. I can use them but those products really aren’t for me. I find my products in the ‘ethnic’ section. Get my drift?
This conversation seems trite but it actually reaches much deeper than music interests. The reticence to identify a white male singing group as white points to the core of white supremacy. How? Well, if a dark-skinned singing group emerged in South Africa who were all South African – even if they sang songs in English, performed them around the world and marketed themselves to all people – we would call them a ‘foreign’ or South African band. If their music went viral worldwide we would still deem them South African first and most non-South African people in America would barely notice they existed at all. If they were lucky, they might be appropriated by whites like the fake “Harlem Shake” or “Gangnam Style.” But, if those South African singers were of the Caucasian persuasion, they might – like the Beatles – be able to transcend their foreign-ness to be welcomed into the ‘Whiteness Tent of Privilege‘, making them ‘mainstream’ and generally palatable to mass white audiences.
This is because we are conditioned to ‘other’ any racial or social groups who don’t fit comfortably into the mainstream mold. It’s is why qualifiers like ‘urban’ and ‘inner-city’ exist. White culture is the product of white superiority and dominance. When products, movies, media and the like are considered ‘American’ or ‘current’ or ‘mainstream,’ without a qualifier like ‘white,’ it implies that their definitions of how those things should look, taste, feel, and exist are the benchmark. I rebuke this notion.
I have always been told about ‘black’ music and movies. My music has always been othered. We have heard of “Bollywood” and “Black Hollywood.” I personally believe whites can (and should) be othered too. Calling out white music execs who objectify black women to appeal to white audiences is integral in overcoming the black pseudo-culture they have created. Identifying white musicians’ work as erasure of black singers’ vocal progressions is imperative in moving past the continued suppression of black voices in the recording industry. And, yes, calling certain media ‘white’ challenges the ideal that white people set the tone for all of us. We are all different and that’s okay. The pearl clutching at the thought that calling someone or something ‘white’ is a pathological tool of oppression that I am simply not here for.
To be clear, listening to or consuming white public media doesn’t make one white. I still enjoy a good Red Hot Chili Peppers song every once in a while. As far as I know I am still black. But, if I choose not to patronize white films or musical works, I should not be shamed into conformity. Those actions against my personal interests are wrong, not my desire to veer away from the intoxicating fabric of dominant culture.
I choose not to blindly conform. Maybe if I actually enjoyed Beatles music I would feel differently. Alas, I do not. If you do, good on you. That’s the beauty of personal freedom. We all have it. I leverage mine in a way that suits me. And, I always question how others might try to influence those choices.
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