Droppin' knowledge on race: Hip-Hop, white adolescents, and anti-racism education.

Author:Netcoh, Steven
Position:Essay
 
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  1. White Kids and Hip Hop

    Though white adolescents comprise a large percentage of Hip Hop's audience, relatively few academic studies examine why they readily gravitate toward the music and how they engage with the culture. The majority of scholarship on white adolescents and Hip Hop focuses on how these individuals adapt the music and culture to their local settings. Rodriguez (2006) investigates the racial ideologies of politically conscious Hip-Hop fans primarily in Northampton, Massachusetts. Hayes (2004) examines how white Canadian youth in rural Ontario identified with Hip Hop to distinguish themselves from their racially and culturally homogenous home community. Cutler (1999) explores how a white teenager from one of New York City's wealthiest neighborhoods aligned with Hip-Hop by adopting African American vernacular English and stereotypical features of urban street culture such as gang membership and drug use. Each of these studies illustrates the unique ways that white adolescents have incorporated Hip Hop into their lives in disparate local settings.

    One text that provides a more overarching view of white adolescents' engagement with Hip Hop is Kitwana's (2005) Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America. In the book, Kitwana argues Hip Hop has a critical role to play in moving America beyond its old racial politics, which he defines as being "characterized by adherence to stark differences--cultural, personal and political--between Black and white ... cultural territorialism on both sides, and ... uncritical acceptance of stereotypes, also on

    both sides." He believes Hip Hop will bring America toward a new racial politics, which is "marked by nuance, complexity ... and a sort of fluidity between cultures" (pp. xiv-xv). According to Kitwana, Hip Hop creates grounds for youth of diverse racial backgrounds to converge and share their common interest in the music and culture (p. xiv). Within these spaces, youth can collectively "explore" new conceptions of race that transcend understandings of racial boundaries as fixed and biological. Kitwana argues Hip Hop is a "vehicle to educate and bring down the walls of ignorance when it comes to American race relations" (p. 132).

    While Hip Hop may expose whites to diverse racial representations and create spaces for youth of all races to share a common interest in Hip Hop, the notion that the music alone can facilitate significant transformation in white Americans' racial ideologies is rather idealistic. Hip Hop has become a staple of a media culture that promotes consumerism and self-gratification while "devaluing citizenship" (Yousman, 2003, p. 370). Mainstream Hip Hop serves primarily as a spectacle for its audiences and rarely invites critical social or political dialogue (Watts, 1997). Most consumers perceive Hip Hop strictly as a form of entertainment and fail to comprehend or ignore its capacity as an agent for critical discourse on race. Provided the media culture in which Hip Hop is produced and consumed, it is unrealistic to assume the music can independently affect any comprehensive change in white adolescents' racial ideologies and politics.

    The minimal scholarship on Hip Hop and its white audience supports the notion that rap music has been limited in its capacity to mobilize racially just ideologies and politics in white youth (Hayes, 2004; Rodriguez, 2006). One study indicates Hip Hop may in fact hinder racial progress as many whites use stereotypical representations of black males and females in Hip Hop to legitimize discrimination against black Americans in both "personal" and "political behaviors" (Reyna, Brandt, & Viki, 2009, p. 374). Additionally, Hip Hop has been a prominent cultural force for over twenty years, yet there has been little change in white Americans' racial discourse, ideologies, or politics. Since Hip Hop entered the mainstream, color-blindness has been solidified as the dominant racial ideology, and the belief that the United States is a "post-racial" society has been accepted as "common sense" (Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Winant, 2002, p. 33). Hip-Hop has been unable to destabilize these prevalent notions that mask the degree to which racism is institutionalized in American society and prevent the United States from realizing true racial equality.

    Given Hip Hop's limits in mobilizing racially just ideologies and politics in its white listener population, I draw on critical media studies scholarship to argue that secondary and post-secondary schools provide useful spaces for white adolescents to deconstruct Hip Hop's representations of and discourses on race and participate in meaningful dialogue about race as an embedded feature of America's social institutions. Though most Hip Hop is produced for a media culture that is market and consumption driven, it can serve as an arena to challenge the foundations of America's racial order when its representations, discourses, and ideologies of race are made subjects of explicit and critical investigation. Secondary and post-secondary classrooms provide spaces to maximize Hip Hop's democratic potential by examining, among other subjects, Rick Ross's constructions of authenticity, Lupe Fiasco's anti-racism discourse, Nas's challenges of color-blindness, and Eminem's rearticulation of whiteness.

  2. Race, Racial Ideology, and Whiteness

    Before examining Hip Hop's racial representations, discourses, and ideologies, it is instructive to outline the theories of race from which this study works. Although race is commonly understood as a biological characteristic, there is little dispute among social scientists that it is a socially constructed entity. Humans created race as a means to organize and structure the social world, and thus it has no grounding in nature or biology. As Bonilla-Silva (2006) contends, "notions of racial difference are human creations rather than eternal, essential categories" (p. 8). All racial classifications are flawed as they incorrectly assume homogeneity across a range of "nationalities, geographical origins, languages, dialects, and cultural traditions" (Keating, 1995, p. 911). Broad racial categories cannot possibly account for the diversity contained within them, which thus highlights their arbitrary nature.

    Because race is socially constructed, it is impermanent, unfixed, and subject to change. Omi and Winant (1993) assert the meaning of race is "defined and contested throughout society, in both collective action and personal practice. In the process, racial categories themselves are formed, transformed, destroyed, and reformed" (p. 61). Racial categories have been updated and revised throughout history to encompass different groups of people. For much of the nineteenth century, "White," "Negro," and "Indian" were the only recognized racial categories in the United States (Keating, 1995, p. 911). In California, Mexican immigrants were classified as "white," which afforded them all the rights and privileges of white Americans while Chinese immigrants were labeled "Indian" and thus "denied the political rights accorded to whites" (Omi & Winant, 1993, p. 82). Since their categorization as "white" and "Indian," both Chinese and Mexican Americans have been reclassified into various racial groups such as "Orientals," "Asians," "Persons of Spanish Mother Tongue," and "Hispanics" (Keating, 1995, p. 911). This process of continual racial reclassification underscores the subjective nature of race.

    Though race is fluid and unfixed, it produces real effects in the social world. Bonilla-Silva (2006) uses the term "racial structure" to describe how race has historically provided privileges to those with white skin and restricted the distribution of economic, political, and social capital to those with darker skin (p. 9). This inequality persists today as a variety of statistics suggest some racial groups face institutional disadvantages in America's racialized social structure. A report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that as of December 2010, black males were imprisoned at a rate "nearly 7 times higher than white non-Hispanic males" (Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2011). Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the unemployment rate for black Americans has consistently remained around double the jobless rate for white Americans during the past thirty years ("Unemployment Rates," 2010). Cited are just a few statistics that suggest racial inequality is embedded in America's social structure and that race functions as a mechanism to order the social world.

    While race is an integral feature of social structures, it is also experienced at the micro social level. As Omi and Winant (2008) note, "Race always operates at the crossroads of identity and social structure" (p. 1565). All representations of race inevitably "invoke social structures, power relations, lived experiences of identity and difference" (Omi & Winant, 2008, p. 1570). Racial signification is thus inseparable from the larger racialized structure that shapes individuals' social experiences. When people interpret representations of race, they immediately draw on "preconceived notions" created within and perpetuated by the racialized social structure. White people who signify "blackness" in their speech, dress, or body movements are understood to be acting "against their race." These individuals might face discrimination or social stigmatization because they do not conform to their racial scripts. As such, all racial representation is understood and experienced within an established racial order (Omi & Winant, 1993, p. 59).

    Individuals and groups develop racial ideologies to interpret and explain their varied experiences with race. Bonilla-Silva (2006) defines racial ideology as "the racially based frameworks used by actors to explain and justify (dominant race) or challenge (subordinate race or races) the racial status...

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